FOXBORO, Mass. — Patriots fans have seen this before from Matthew Judon.
Last season, the star edge rusher began his New England career with 20 tackles and 6.5 sacks through five games, during which the Patriots went 2-3. Through five games in 2022, Judon has 19 tackles and six games with New England again going 2-3. Judon, who had two sacks and a forced fumble in Sunday’s 29-0 win over the Detroit Lions, once again is playing like one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
“(Judon) had another great day,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said after Sunday’s convincing victory. “Again, he is a very physical presence for us on the end of the line.”
The question isn’t whether Judon is capable of this level of play; he clearly is. Rather, the 30-year-old must prove that he can keep it up for an entire season.
Judon garnered legitimate Defensive Player of the Year buzz through Week 12 last season, amassing a whopping 11.5 sacks. But he disappeared down the stretch, registering one sack in Week 13 and zero the rest of the way. Judon was a completely different player late in the season, and his collapse played a major role in New England’s defense cratering after the bye week.
Judon owned up to his struggles after the campaign and throughout the offseason promised to be better. He made similar comments Sunday evening while basically admitting he wasn’t in good enough shape last year.
“I’ve gotta stay conditioned and healthy,” Judon said. “When I can do that, I can play like I do first game and last game the same, I think I’m a different person. So if I stay in condition and healthy, I think I’ll be able to play throughout the year at a high level.”
But it hasn’t been all self-motivation for Judon. During the summer, Patriots safety Devin McCourty apparently challenged Judon and offensive tackle Trent Brown to lead the way for New England.
“I told him and Trent in the preseason that their physical abilities are different than everybody else on the team,” McCourty said after Sunday’s game. “They can take grown men and move them. And if they come out week-by-week and set the tone, it sets a tone on offense, defense, really for the whole game. And I think (Judon) has done that. I think dating back to our first joint practices with Carolina, the way he approached that day and training camp, and it wasn’t about sacks — it was just moving people and being disruptive. And he’s continued to do that all year. And I really think it gets our defense going.”
Judon has accepted the challenge. In fact, on Sunday he became the first Patriots player to record a sack in each of the team’s first five games. Don’t be surprised if he makes a run at Andre Tippett’s franchise record of 18.5 sacks.
“I want him to keep going. Break the sack record, just keep going,” defensive tackle Carl Davis said in the locker room, via Andrew Callahan of the Boston Herald. “I’m happy for him balling with all his hard work and preparation. Also just him being a leader in this defensive room and on this team, he’s very important and vital to this team.”
Judon currently is on pace for just over 20 sacks, which would put him within range of the all-time single-season record of 22.5 set by T.J. Watt and Michael Strahan. Again, he was on a similar pace last season.
But the Patriots don’t need Judon to break records and win awards. They just need him to play at a high level from start to finish.