In mid-December, the New England Patriots owned the No. 1 seed in the AFC and arguably the NFL’s top defense. Then, they collapsed.
New England proceeded to lose four of its last five games following its Week 14 bye, including a 47-17 Buffalo Bills spanking in the wild-card round. During that span, the Patriots’ formidable defense disintegrated, suddenly struggling to force turnovers (one over their final four losses), rush the passer (two sacks, seven quarterback hits) and stop the run (177 yards allowed per game with just seven tackles for loss).
What happened? What went wrong? Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon offered his take during an appearance Wednesday on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Felger & Mazz.”
In Judon’s opinion, Patriots defenders began freelancing during the team’s late-season nosedive, trying too hard to make plays rather than following their assigned roles.
“I don’t know, honestly,” he said, speaking from Super Bowl LVI Radio Row. “We kind of just played some good teams, and we weren’t playing our best ball. And you can’t do that at the end of the season. It’s really no excuse. I wish I could be like, ‘Well, this person got hurt,’ but it wasn’t that. It wasn’t that.
“It was just we weren’t playing good football, and I think after like two games, then everybody tried to start making a play. Like, ‘I’m going to be the player that do this. I’m going to be the player that do that,’ instead of just playing within the defensive scheme and stuff like that. And I kind of think that’s kind of what happened.”
Judon’s play also deteriorated down the stretch. He tied the Bill Belichick single-season franchise record for sacks (12 1/2) in Week 13 but failed to register a single sack over the Patriots’ final five games, managing just one QB hit and one TFL.
Asked whether he was dealing with an injury, Judon said he’s “fully healthy.”
“I’m football injured, but nothing that I need surgery on,” he added. “Nothing that I’ve got to hold back on. It’s just a long season, so you have nicks and nags here. But I don’t have any injury.”
Judon acknowledged New England’s later opponents took steps to limit his effectiveness — like chipping him with tight ends and running backs — but said he should have been able to overcome those obstacles.
“I think it was a little bit of that, but I’ve just got to find ways around it,” he said. “I don’t have no excuses for nothing. If I’m out there, I’m supposed to make plays. That’s what I’m paid to do. That’s who I am. I should have made more plays coming down the stretch. So I have to get back in the lab. I’ve got to be more in shape because knowing that, all right, I’m going to get chipped, I’m going to have an extra guy I’ve got to get around — any of that. I’ve just got to be ready.”
Judon said he feels “very comfortable” in the Patriots’ defensive scheme, which requires greater discipline from its edge rushers than some other systems.
“Middle of the season, we were rolling, and when everybody’s doing it, it works,” he said. “It works. So you’ve just got to stick within the system, and I think we can do that. We’ve shown that we can do that, and we proved that we can do that. We’ve just got to stick to it.”
The Patriots’ lack of an official defensive coordinator has come under scrutiny since the season ended last month, with critics saying New England’s setup of Steve Belichick calling plays and Jerod Mayo leading defensive meetings creates uncertainty and a lack of accountability. But Judon downplayed that storyline.
“We have a system, we have a scheme, and it wasn’t a breakdown in that,” he said. “It was just execution, honestly. You go back and look at the film and look at the big plays we were giving up. If this guy was just in this gap or this guy did this, a lot of those plays shouldn’t have happened. It’s as easy as that. The defensive coordinator, whoever was calling the calls, they were calling the right stuff. We’ve just got to execute it, and we’ve got to execute it on every snap.
“We’d be getting off the field and we’d have good series or we’d look good time to time, but then when we don’t, it looks terrible.”
Mayo, who also made the Radio Row rounds Wednesday, pushed back on the notion that the Patriots’ defense was “soft” this season but said they’ll look to add speed, explosiveness and play-making ability on that side of the ball as they prepare for 2022. He also expects continued improvement from New England’s 2021 free agent class, which includes Judon.
“We have a bunch of good players,” Mayo said on The Sports Hub’s “Zolak & Bertrand,” “a bunch of free agents from last year who now know what to expect and really looking for them to make that Year 1 to Year 2 jump, being in the system. Pretty exciting times looking forward.”
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