FOXBORO, Mass. — It’s Jimmy Garoppolo’s time to shine while Tom Brady serves a four-game suspension. But it’s also a chance for the New England Patriots’ defense to make a name for itself again.
For the Patriots to have success and come out of Brady’s suspension with a winning record, the impetus is on the team’s defense, more than Garoppolo, to get it done. New England has all the piece to be considered among the best defenses in the NFL, and it’ll get to prove that Sunday night against a high-powered Arizona Cardinals offense.
“All three levels have to play great, obviously,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said Wednesday. “I feel like we’ve obviously jelled great since OTAs and training camp. I feel like we’ve grown a lot as a defense.”
Hightower and fellow linebacker Jamie Collins are what make the Patriots’ defense tick. Hightower is a steady presence who fills gaps and prevents big plays in the run game, while Collins shoots gaps and flies around the field. Hightower is slightly more productive than Collins as a pass rusher, while Collins has the athleticism to stick with tight ends in coverage. Hightower rarely lets a running back get past him in coverage, however, and both can play on or off the line and inside or outside linebacker.
Collins is the bigger name because of his speed and big-play ability, but Hightower is the more consistent player at this point in their young careers.
They aren’t the only defenders on the Patriots’ defense who are — or should be — considered among the best in the NFL at their position. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung might be the best safety tandem in the league, and if they’re not, throwing in Duron Harmon certainly makes them the best trio. Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan and pass rusher Jabaal Sheard are expected to earn big contracts as free agents next season. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown was a first-round pick in 2015 who should take a big leap, and the Patriots are deep in the front seven with Alan Branch, Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Shea McClellin, Anthony Johnson and Barkevious Mingo expected to take on specialized roles.
The Patriots also have great depth in the secondary with Harmon, Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones and newcomer Eric Rowe expected to take nickel and dime snaps depending on matchups.
“They’re very athletic,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday. “A solid secondary group. Interchangeable parts as far as inside and outside linebackers, which can get very confusing at times, and they do a very good job of it. They’re stout up front. I think when you look back in history, and I’ve gone against them a number of times, you’re going to get pressure.”
Perhaps the defense’s greatest strength is their ability to confuse. Hightower, Collins, Mingo, McClellin and Rob Ninkovich, who’s suspended for the first four games, all have experience at defensive end and linebacker with the ability to drop back in coverage and rush the passer. Sheard and Long can rush from the edge and inside, and they can drop back into coverage. Flowers can get after the passer from inside or outside.
“It’s great, being able to go out there and do different things, give different looks,” Hightower said. “It’s more fun for us to get out there and do different things, because we can all rush and cover. So, it gives us the opportunity for all of us to do that, and it gives offenses a lot of trouble.”
The Patriots traded Chandler Jones, one of the NFL’s top pass rushers, to Arizona this offseason, but their defense might equally benefit and suffer from his loss. Jones was a great edge rusher, but he offered little versatility. Their ability to be unpredictable only increases without Jones.
Regardless of who’s on the field for the Patriots, the opposing quarterback won’t necessarily know what is being thrown at him.
“You know there’s going to be a number of different jersey numbers dropping in coverage, rushing the passer, whatever it may be,” Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said Wednesday. “Stick by your rules, stick by your technique. Just read, react, get to the sideline, talk about it and maybe even prepare not to see the same look again.”
Sounds complex. And opposing quarterbacks will have a frustrating season.
Thumbnail photos via Bob DeChiara, Jim Dedmon/USA Today Sports Images