Through five games, the New England Patriots still are trying to figure out who they are.
At 2-3 and one game out of a Wild Card spot, they’re neither good nor bad — they’re middling. Their offense, with so many new players, ranks near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories but has improved virtually every week. By contrast, the defense ranks near the top in most categories but alternates between playing well against Tom Brady and poorly against Davis Mills. The Patriots have the best head coach in the NFL, but thus far have played sloppy, undisciplined football. They’re not soft, but they also aren’t exactly playing smash-mouth football. They’re not brutally slow, but they also don’t field many burners. The roster feature plenty of experience but, in football years, is pretty old.
That’s a long way of saying this team currently has no identity. For better or for worse, most Patriots teams by this point have revealed one.
So, what could, or should, their identity become? All eyes are on the defense.
Including re-signings, the Patriots dished out nearly $80 million in guaranteed money to defensive players during the offseason. That’s a lot of dough, and it was spent with a purpose in mind.
Needing speed and playmaking at linebacker, New England brought in Matt Judon. With last season’s run defense woes fresh in mind, Bill Belichick added linemen Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson and re-signed Lawrence Guy. Ever a proponent of positional versatility, Belichick signed Mills, a swiss-army knife defensive back not necessarily known for being a great outside cornerback.
Thus far, nothing really has gone according to plan.
The run defense ranged between awful and passable the first four weeks before stepping up Sunday against the lowly Houston Texans. Anderson is done for the season due to a torn pectoral.
Judon, with 6 1/2 of New England’s 11 sacks, has been the only consistent playmaker among the linebackers. Mills didn’t play Sunday, and the subsequent struggles of the secondary underscored the inherent risks of the Stephon Gilmore trade.
The pass-rush, outside of Judon, largely hasn’t been a factor. The Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars are tied for the fewest fumbles forced in the NFL with zero.
But there’s hope.
Godchaux and Guy have looked much better in recent weeks, as has Deatrich Wise Jr. Fourth-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley has shown flashes of playmaking ability and Dont’a Hightower is coming off his best game of the season. Josh Uche has the ability to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks and recently re-acquired Jamie Collins might provide something. The secondary, as it proved against the Bucs, is good enough if it stays healthy.
New England’s offense has the potential to be an above-average unit, and recent returns are encouraging. But it might take a while for all the new pieces to fully mesh and Mac Jones, for all his toughness and clear talent, still is a work-in-progress rookie.
So, if New England wants to go on a run and eventually be in control of its own destiny, the defense must lead the way. It has the talent to do just that and, in Judon, might develop the kind of attitude that will allow it to be the emotional heartbeat of this Patriots team.
Sunday’s game against Dak Prescott and the high-powered Dallas Cowboys offense presents a difficult test. However, it also provides New England’s defense with an opportunity to establish itself as the face of the Patriots, capable of carrying a promising offense still working things out.
If Belichick were being honest, he probably would identify that as the preferred identity of his team.