Statistically, the New England Patriots have one of the NFL’s top defenses. But Jerod Mayo believes they can be so much better.
The Patriots’ linebackers coach and de facto co-defensive coordinator on Tuesday said his unit has not come close to reaching its ceiling.
“I would say from a defensive perspective, we’re nowhere near what we’re capable of,” Mayo said one day after New England’s defense powered it to a 27-13 win over the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. “Every game that we play, we go back and watch the film and we say, ‘These are the plays we left out there on the field.’ And as you continue to progress throughout the season, you can’t leave plays out on the field. The better the team, the more you have to go out there and execute.”
On Monday night, the Patriots sacked backup Cardinals quarterback Colt McCoy six times and forced two turnovers, including a fumble that linebacker Raekwon McMillan returned for a go-ahead touchdown. After struggling in gotta-have-it situations during the previous two games, New England held Arizona to 4-for-14 on third down, 1-for-5 on fourth down and 1-for-3 in the red zone.
Mayo went on to praise several members of the Patriots’ defense, including AFC Defensive Player of the Week Josh Uche, who provided three sacks against the Cardinals and has 10 over his last six games. He also said veteran linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley does not receive the recognition he deserves.
“Uche and (Matthew) Judon and Lawrence Guy and (Davon) Godchaux, all those guys are doing a great job up front,” Mayo said. “At the second level, those guys are getting better as the year progresses. Bentley, probably one of the most underrated linebackers in the league. Not sure why he doesn’t get much publicity, but he’s one of the best ‘backers in the league. And then you look at our safeties, they’re probably one of the best groups in the league.
“But at the same time, with all that being said, we just need to put it all together, and that’s on us as a coaching staff, that’s on the players to go out there and execute and really have that focus on a down-after-down basis.”
Doing so against top-tier competition has been a problem for the Patriots this season. They’ve held seven of their first 13 opponents below 20 points, but all of those teams would miss the playoffs if the season ended this week. Their wins came against Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Jacoby Brissett, Zach Wilson (twice), Sam Ehlinger and McCoy, who replaced an injured Kyler Murray early in Monday’s game.
The Patriots rank in the top 10 in most defensive metrics, including fifth in points allowed per game, third in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA and first in expected points added per play. But they’re 0-4 against teams currently in the playoff picture and gave up an average of 28.5 points in those games. They recently struggled to slow down the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills — two offenses flush with high-end talent — in back-to-back losses.
The Patriots’ final three regular-season games are against teams ranked third (Miami Dolphins in Week 17), fourth (Buffalo in Week 18) and fifth (Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16) in offensive DVOA, so they’ll need to reverse this trend if they hope to survive this difficult closing stretch and secure an AFC playoff spot. And this Sunday’s road matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders will be a challenge, too.
Las Vegas has posted unspectacular offensive numbers this season under new head coach Josh McDaniels (11th in scoring, 16th in DVOA, 12th in EPA/play) but could have its full complement of offensive weapons available for the first time in weeks. Tight end Darren Waller and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow are eligible to return from injured reserve and rejoin All-Pro wideout Davante Adams, running back Josh Jacobs and quarterback Derek Carr.
“I don’t think you’ve really seen what the Raiders are actually able to do — and maybe we’ll see it this week — as far as the injuries are concerned,” Mayo said. “Waller’s probably coming back, and Renfrow’s probably coming back. They have Jacobs, they have Adams on the outside and Carr, so this will probably be the first time in a long time that these guys are actually pretty healthy. It’ll be a huge challenge for us, and hopefully the guys are up to the task.”