FOXBORO, Mass. — For the first three-quarters of his debut season in New England, Matthew Judon was the Patriots’ best defender and one of the NFL’s most disruptive pass rushers.
Then, around mid-December, he vanished.
After recording a franchise-record-tying 12 1/2 sacks over the Patriots’ first 13 games, Judon was held to no sacks, one quarterback hit and one tackle for loss over the final five weeks as a mix of injuries, fatigue and increased defensive attention took their toll. With the 2021 Patriots lacking secondary pass-rushing depth behind Judon and Christian Barmore, their defense cratered, and they dropped four of their final five games, including a first-round playoff rout in Buffalo.
Six games into the 2022 campaign, Judon is off to another Pro Bowl-caliber start. He enters Monday’s primetime matchup with the Chicago Bears tied for fourth in the NFL in sacks (six) and tied for sixth in QB hits (12). And the Patriots seem to be taking steps to prevent another late-season swoon.
Judon has been on the field for 74% of New England’s defensive snaps thus far. That’s about a 7% decrease from his season-long snap rate in 2021 and a 9% dip from the workload he saw through the first six games of last season. The Patriots also have removed special teams duties from his plate. At this time last season, he’d played 46 snaps in the kicking game. This year? Just eight, and none since Week 2.
Earlier this month, the 30-year-old said staying healthy and well-conditioned were the keys to him maintaining his top-tier production over a full season. But he downplayed his lighter load when asked about it last week, saying it’s simply a product of his teammates’ strong performance.
“I didn’t even know this, man,” Judon said. “I honestly think it’s just more that other guys are playing well. If you look at Josh Uche before he (missed last week’s game due to injury), and if you look at (Anfernee Jennings) — he wasn’t even here last year with us. And (Deatrich) Wise. I think it’s just those guys playing well. We’re just able to rotate and keep everybody fresh. So it’s not that I’m playing less; they’re just playing more because they’re playing well, and they deserve to be out there. When they make plays, I make plays, too, and our defense makes plays. I’m an extension of them, and they’re an extension of me.”
Jennings, who spent all of last season on injured reserve, played a season-high 58.6% of defensive snaps in last Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns. Jahlani Tavai also has taken on a much larger defensive role after mostly playing on special teams in 2021, and the Patriots will add veteran Jamie Collins to that mix this week, elevating him from the practice squad for Monday’s Bears game.
The greatest boost, though, has come from Wise, who’s started all six games opposite Judon. A complementary piece for his first half-decade in Foxboro, Wise is in the midst of a breakout season at age 28, already tying his career high for sacks with five and holding the second-highest Pro Football Focus grade of any Patriots defender entering Week 7.
Wise has played 84.8% of defensive snaps this season, an unusually high rate for a 6-foot-5, 275-pound D-end. Entering this weekend, only five NFL players listed as defensive ends or tackles had played a higher percentage of their team’s snaps: Sam Hubbard, Aiden Hutchinson, Maxx Crosby, Chandler Jones and Aaron Donald.
“They’re playing well, and it allows me to play fresher and be fresher when I get in there,” Judon said. “I appreciate them, and we just feed off each other. If I need to play 90 snaps, I can. But right now, I don’t have to. I just commend those guys for stepping up and filling big roles.”
Judon, Wise and the rest of the Patriots’ pass rushers face a juicy matchup Monday night. Bears quarterback Justin Fields has been sacked on a whopping 20% of his dropbacks this season, by far the worst mark in the NFL.