FOXBORO, Mass. — Yes, the New England Patriots struggled mightily on offense in 2020, and yes, those woes certainly contributed to their uncharacteristically mediocre 7-9 record.
But perhaps even more alarming were New England’s problems on defense — run defense, to be specific.
After ranking eighth in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ rush defense DVOA (which measures a unit’s overall efficiency) in 2019, the Patriots plummeted to 32nd — dead last — in that category last season. They toiled near the bottom in traditional metrics, too, slotting in at 20th in yards allowed per carry and 26th in rushing yards allowed per game.
Those were unusually poor marks for a Bill Belichick defense. The Patriots had ranked in the top 10 in rush defense DVOA in four of the previous eight seasons and had ranked lower than 13th just twice in that span.
It’s no surprise, then, that stopping the run has been a clear point of emphasis as the team prepares for its 2021 campaign.
“It’s paramount this year to get back to where we used to be,” defensive end Deatrich Wise said after Tuesday’s training camp practice, the Patriots’ first in full pads.
The reasons for New England’s leaky run D last season were primarily personnel-based.
After 2019 standout Danny Shelton left in free agency, the Patriots signed Beau Allen to replace him. But Allen suffered an early camp injury that proved to be season-ending, leaving the roster devoid of a true nose tackle.
The Patriots, who also lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency and Dont’a Hightower to a COVID-19 opt-out, patched their D-line holes with a largely ineffective combination of Byron Cowart, Nick Thurman, Carl Davis, Akeem Spence and Isaiah Mack. Cowart started 14 games, played more than 400 defensive snaps and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 100th-highest-graded interior defender (out of 126 qualifiers). The defense also lacked its previous stoutness on the edges.
The San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins all rushed for more than 185 yards against the 2020 Pats. The Niners put up 197 with their top three running backs out injured. A Miami team led by Salvon Ahmed and Matt Brieda put up 250.
“I’m sure you can imagine we had some not-so-pleasant meetings last year after some of those games,” veteran safety Devin McCourty said. “Obviously, it’s been a big emphasis. (Tuesday was) the first day where we’ll actually see what it will look like. You saw (Tuesday) we have to keep getting better at that. It’s one thing to walk through and step through some fits. But we’re going up against a good offensive line and some good running backs. That’s something we have to work on each day.”
The work of repairing the Patriots’ front seven began just minutes into NFL free agency. The team’s first signing was former Dolphins defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, who ranked among the league’s top run stuffers in 2019 before missing most of last season with an injury.
Shortly thereafter, they added Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matt Judon, a talented pass rusher and edge-setter. Next came deals for Henry Anderson and Montravius Adams — who both posted strong run defense numbers in recent years — and a draft-night trade-up for Alabama’s Christian Barmore, widely considered this year’s No. 1 D-tackle prospect.
Lawrence Guy also re-signed, as did Wise and Davis, and Hightower returned from his opt-out, further solidifying a group that, on paper, looks far more formidable than the patchwork units New England fielded a year ago. Godchaux, Judon and Barmore all have flashed early in their first Patriots training camp.
McCourty, though, stressed that simply adding talent won’t automatically cure what ailed this defense a year ago.
“We can’t come in here and be like, ‘Oh man, we have Hightower back. We got Judon here,’ ” he said. “That means absolutely nothing. ‘We got Godchaux.’ We’ve got to build and figure out where guys are going to be and how we’re going to build in certain situations. That started (Tuesday), but it’s something we have to build upon.”
Keeping their key pieces on the field will be an important part of that effort. Anderson, a versatile veteran who can play multiple D-line positions, left Monday’s practice with an injury and wasn’t present Tuesday. Barmore dominated in 1-on-1 drills Tuesday but did not finish practice after having his ankles/feet examined by team trainers.
Tuesday’s practice was heavily run-focused, with Patriots quarterbacks attempting passes on just 13 of the team’s 50-plus snaps in competitive 11-on-11 drills.