The pivotal sequence of last Thursday’s New England Patriots-Atlanta Falcons matchup came late in the third quarter.
Pushed to their own 16-yard line, the Patriots’ defense stonewalled the Falcons on third-and-inches, then again on fourth-and-1, forcing a turnover on downs. A touchdown on that drive would have cut the Patriots’ lead to six. Instead, they tacked on an additional 12 points and closed out the game with four consecutive interceptions to cruise to a 25-0 win.
One player had a hand in both of those short-yardage stops: reserve defensive tackle Carl Davis.
On the first, Davis bench-pressed center Matt Hennessey into the backfield, clearing a lane for linebacker Dont’a Hightower to knife through and drop ball-carrier Keith Smith. On the second, he again manhandled Hennessey, then bear-hugged running back Qadree Ollison as safety Adrian Phillips shot in to deliver the finishing blow.
That those plays came courtesy of the lowest man on New England’s D-line depth chart — a 29-year-old journeyman who played for five different teams in his first six seasons — illustrates just how much that unit has improved since last season.
Davis arrived in New England last October, missed significant time with concussions (three appearances in 12 weeks) and re-signed with little fanfare in March. Now, after winning a competitive roster battle with a strong training camp, he’s emerged as an important supporting character in the NFL’s top-ranked defense, impressing coaches and teammates alike.
“Going back to last year, when you look at the tape, every time Carl had an opportunity to play for us, he did really well,” defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington said Monday. “That was part of our decision in bringing him back, and we’re glad we did bring him back. And then going forward to this year, he had a great offseason, good OTAs, good summer, good training camp, and then he’s able to go in there and play good football, especially in those critical situational plays.
“You look at our fourth-and-1 stops, our third-and-1 stops, our goal-line stops — he’s at the point of attack of a lot of those stops. We’re glad to have him. He’s a load on the inside, for sure, and you can’t just single-block him. If you single-block him, good for us. He should be able to make the play.”
Davis has played just 26.5% of defensive snaps this season, far fewer than fellow D-linemen Christian Barmore (58.3%), Deatrich Wise (56.2%) Davon Godchaux (54.8%) and Lawrence Guy (45.2%). But he serves an important role as the No. 2 nose tackle behind Godchaux, allowing the Patriots to both spell the latter and shift him to different spots along the defensive front.
Lately, especially in short-yardage situations and against teams with strong rushing attacks, the Patriots have taken to deploying Davis, Godchaux and Guy on the field together in their base defense.
“You want your best players on the field, and however you can get them on the field, that’s what we’ll try to do,” Covington said. “Davon Godchaux is one of our best players. Carl is considered one of our best players. And when Carl’s playing really good at the nose tackle, that allows us to play Davon in different spots and move guys around. …
“We can have a good rotation and allow those guys to stay fresh, allow those guys to play fast, physical and not worry about being tired or staying in the game so we can really play at a high level for four quarters or 60 minutes plus.”
Added Godchaux: “I love that teams can’t really just scheme on me being at the (nose) all the time. … It just kind of gives me a little more versatility with the team.”
Head coach Bill Belichick said having both Godchaux and Davis has been “huge” for New England’s D, which, after some early growing pains, now leads the NFL in points allowed per game (16.1) and ranks in the top 10 in nearly every statistical category.
Godchaux, the first signing of New England’s free agent spending binge, also had one of his best games of the season against Atlanta, registering a sack, two quarterback hits and two tackles for loss while tying his career high with four pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
“They really do a good job,” Belichick said, “and to have more than one of them so that you can have somewhat of a rotation, keep them fresh, and attack the middle of the offensive line, whether it’s run or pass from the guard to the guard-center gap to the center in different ways, it can be very disruptive.
“You have to block them on every play. It’s not like a corner or an outside linebacker, somebody you can run away from or work the other side on. Those guys in the middle of the formation, the defensive tackles, the middle linebackers, they’ve got to deal with them on every play. The depth and the ability to have more than one guy do that has been huge. They’ve all done a good job.”