FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ defense has been thoroughly dominant this season despite their marquee offseason addition playing a relatively minor role.
Michael Bennett was viewed as an obvious replacement for Trey Flowers when the Patriots acquired him from the Philadelphia Eagles in March, but rather than installing him as a starter along the defensive line, New England instead has utilized the 33-year-old as a situational pass rusher.
Through five games, Bennett has been on the field for just 37.9 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps, way down from his marks of 70.0 percent with the Philadelphia Eagles last season and 84.8 percent with the Seattle Seahawks in 2017. He played a season-low 15 snaps during Sunday’s 33-7 win over the Washington Redskins.
Speaking ahead of Thursday night’s matchup with the New York Giants, Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged Bennett has needed to adjust to a new role this season — one the veteran D-end referred to as “the zero role” in an interview with Patriots Wire’s Henry McKenna last week.
“Michael’s a smart player,” Belichick said Tuesday morning. “He’s got a lot of experience. He’s been in different systems, so he’s kind of adapting to our system, but we’ve also talked to him about some of the things that he’s done. He obviously has a lot of experience and a lot of input, not just against individual players, but also schematically.
“So he’s been good. He’s really tried hard and worked hard to embrace what we’ve asked him to do, which is quite different from what he’s done in Seattle and Philly and even in Tampa.”
Even with his opportunities limited, Bennett has played well for the Patriots. He’s tied for third on the team in sacks (2 1/2), tackles for loss (three) and quarterback hits (four) and tied for fourth in total pressures (nine) despite ranking eighth among front-seven defenders in playing time. Against Washington, Bennett shared a sack with linebacker Dont’a Hightower and also drew a holding penalty.
The sheer amount of depth at all three levels of New England’s defense has resulted in a more even distribution of snap counts. In 2018, 17 Patriots defenders played at least 20 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, with three playing 90-plus percent: cornerback Stephon Gilmore (97.2 percent), safety Devin McCourty (96.3 percent) and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (90.7 percent).
So far this season, 20 players have played at least 20 percent of defensive snaps, and another, defensive end Deatrich Wise, has played 19.2 percent. Only one has played more than 90 percent, and even he’s just barely hit that mark (McCourty, 90.9 percent).
“We’ve played a lot of players,” Belichick said. “So I’m not sure whose snap count’s up. I don’t know. Maybe you guys can tell me that. We rotate a lot. I mean, we’ve played 20 players on defense the last four or five weeks. So naturally, when you start splitting it up between 20 guys, that’s what you’re going to get.
“Show me how many teams play 20 players on defense. I don’t know. There’s not too many.”
Thumbnail photo via Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports Images