Revolving cast of contributors is a great sign for Belichick’s defense

These past few weeks offer hope the Patriots’ coaches can put together an effective game plan, and that they’ve got the players to execute it.

Jamie Collins strips the football from the arms of Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In a jubilant postgame locker room late Sunday afternoon, a proud Bill Belichick stood in the middle of his team and passed out a pair of game balls to help punctuate his team’s 24-6 pounding of the Panthers. One went to J.C. Jackson, naturally, after the cornerback overcame a midweek bout with strep throat to make a couple of interceptions, one of which he took 88 yards to the end zone. That marked the first pro touchdown of his career, but the picks were his fourth and fifth of the season.

The other game ball went to Jamie Collins — the linebacker who’d played just seven snaps a week earlier. Who in those snaps against the Chargers hadn’t done anything to necessitate adding his name to the scoresheet.


But whose warranting of a gameball is indicative of why the recent performance of the Patriots’ defense is so encouraging.

Collins, honestly, hadn’t done much of anything since returning to New England for a third stint. He had a timely sack against Houston last month, but before Sunday he hadn’t played more than 25 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in any single contest. His workload had topped out at 17 plays in the overtime game against Dallas, and he’d totaled all of five tackles across four games. 

Sunday in Charlotte, though, he popped — and in the process Collins took his turn as a playmaker for a unit that appears to be evolving into a multifaceted, versatile, and deep defense that’s keyed by the diversity and talent necessary to stunt the greatest strength of opposing offenses. 

In other words, it has started to look like a defense built in the classic Belichickian mold.

The contributions of a player like Collins constitute such a promising indicator because depth has always been a hallmark of the coach’s best defenses. And because Collins wasn’t the only one who added his name to the growing list of difference makers during the weekend’s trip to Carolina.


Christian Barmore did, too, saving a touchdown with one of his two batted passes and consistently pressuring Sam Darnold up the gut. Tackle Davon Godchaux, corner Jalen Mills, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy might’ve all played their best games of the season against the Panthers, as well.

A week earlier, it was Adrian Phillips starring in Jackson’s role, turning one of his two interceptions into a pick-six, and on each of the two Sundays before that it was fellow safety Kyle Dugger who nabbed himself an INT. Meanwhile, the likes of Myles Bryant (who’s played more than 60 percent of the snaps the past three weeks) and Ja’Whaun Bentley (who had 13 tackles and a forced fumble against the Cowboys) have continually established themselves as capable of making a steady, reliable impact in the course of New England winning four of five. 

Collectively, those contributors have elevated in the moment to provide a nice complement to the club’s two true defensive stars — those being Jackson, who has more interceptions than anyone since he entered the league in 2018, and linebacker Matt Judon, who already has nine sacks. With eight games to go, he’s only four away from registering more sacks in a single season than any Patriot ever has, save for hall of famer Andre Tippett.


In the playmaking sense, Jackson and Judon have seemingly usurped the unit’s two stars of yesteryear, Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty. And that’s a good thing, even as the linebacker (61 percent of snaps) and safety (team-high 92 percent) remain on the field for the majority of defensive plays.

While Hightower and McCourty bring leadership and maybe even a coach’s-level understanding of the Patriots’ plans, the defense on the whole needs to get younger. Entering Week 10, eight Pats have been on the field for more than 60 percent of the defensive snaps. Five of them are 29 or older.

Dugger (25) and Jackson (26) are the only defenders younger than the team-wide average age of 27.4 who’ve played 60 percent of the snaps, so it’s important to the program’s development that assets like Barmore (22), Bryant (23), Josh Uche (23), Bentley (25), and Godchaux (27) continue to earn reps over some of the older and entrenched, and establish their credentials as central pieces. 

Development isn’t just a long-term goal, either, not when considering that the Pats have played their way back into the playoff picture. Growth and improvement signify a critical next step in the short term, also, given the way Belichick’s best defenses have traditionally flexed the ability to get better as the year gets longer. His title teams are shining examples: the 2001 squad allowed more than 17 points just once in 12 games after Halloween; the 2003 club pitched three shutouts after Nov. 16; a year later, in 2004, the Pats surrendered seven points or less five times in a nine-game span leading into the AFC championship. 


Then, in the seasons comprising the second trio of titles, in an age of unprecedented scoring league-wide, the Patriots allowed 17 points or less in 13 of the 15 regular-season games played after December 1. 

Already, New England ranks fourth in scoring defense, and ninth in yardage yielded. The Pats have more interceptions than any other team, which is part of the reason they’ve posted a plus-five turnover differential during their active three-game winning streak.

And they’ll need to keep it up, because about halfway through this season it certainly looks like a strong defense will be the key to competing in the AFC playoffs, at least as long as teams like the Titans, Bills, and Ravens figure to be favorites. 

It remains to be seen where the Pats fit into that conversation about contenders, and whether their defensive performance is truly for real. This confidence boost they’re riding really started by dominating the lowly Jets, then getting the best of Justin Herbert and Darnold — two quarterbacks they’ve successfully gameplanned against in the past. All of that must be acknowledged.

But, then again, that’s partially the point. These past few weeks have offered hope that the Patriots’ coaches can put together an effective gameplan, and that they’ve got the players to execute it. One week it could be Phillips who makes it work, the next it could be Jackson. This past week it might’ve been Collins and Barmore, next week it could be Hightower and Lawrence Guy. There’s a budding feeling that there’s enough in place to ensure that each week there’ll be a next man up, ready to do his job.


How Belichickian indeed.


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