Pats Can’t Stop Allen
The Patriots defense has a big problem on their hands: Josh Allen, the 6’5”, 237 lbs, has a cannon for a right arm, and wears number 17 for the Buffalo Bills.
With 13:48 remaining in the third quarter of week 14, the Patriots would see Bills punter Matt Haack for the last time. In the next 20 Bills’ possessions against the Patriots, Haack would be missing-in-action as they went without a punt against a division rival.
When the Patriots left Orchard Park that Monday night in December, they were in first place in the AFC East and controlled their destiny for the top seed in the playoffs. They would return to lose four of their next five games, including two complete dominations at the hands of the rival Buffalo Bills.
In the Bills’ next 20 possessions following that final Haack punt, they would score 11 touchdowns. Of the other nine possessions, they attempted three field goals and turned the ball over on downs twice –once at the New England 14-yard line to end the Monday Night showdown, and the other at the New England 1-yard line in the Week 16 rematch. The remaining four possessions were kneel downs at the end of a half or the end of the game.
The Bills’ absolute bludgeoning of the Pats in the final 9 7/8 quarters against them was largely due to Allen. He was supernova hot after that final Haack punt. After Haack punted on the Bills first possession of the week 14 matchup, Allen would go 59 of 89 for 710 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions, while adding 162 yards on 21 carries in the next 129:15 of game time against the Pats. The Bills would outscore the Patriots during that same stretch 83-41.
Allen Offers Massive Roadblock for Pats
How far the Patriots go from here is largely dependent on how they can handle their Josh Allen problem. The defense requires a compete reboot to give the Patriots a legitimate chance at reclaiming the throne atop the AFC East, let alone advancing in the playoffs. The AFC is flush with talented young quarterbacks, but getting over the hump against Allen should be the Patriots’ top priority as he remains within their division. Start there before focusing on the conference.
The Patriots defense faded down the stretch, putting up clunker after clunker after the bye week. For a stretch in the middle of the season, the defense played lights out. They dominated opponents. They racked up sacks and piled up the takeaways.
After the bye, it all stopped.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this sag in performance coincided with Matt Judon also largely disappearing. Before contracting COVID-19 during the bye week, Judon had 12.5 sacks and was constantly disruptive. After the bye, he failed to record a single sack.
Recent Drafts to Blame?
The Patriots have also gotten next to no production from recent day two draft picks. Chase Winovich was taken 77th overall in 2019. The high energy pass rusher had six total tackles this year and no sacks.
The Patriots traded up to draft Josh Uche 60th overall in 2020, and he produced only 10 tackles and 3.0 sacks this year; all three sacks came in the first two weeks of the season.
Anfernee Jennings was taken 87 overall in 2020. He has 10 career tackles, all from his rookie campaign. Finally, there’s Ronnie Perkins, taken as a pass rush specialist this past draft at 96th overall. He was a healthy scratch for 13 games before being placed on IR.
16 tackles and three sacks for the 2020 season from four top 100 prospects over the past three years. For a defense that was completely outmatched against the Bills, this area would be a good place to start.
All four of these players are known to be fast-twitch pass rushers with high motors. While they may not be three-down players, they should be offering more value than they have. For comparison, Logan Wilson of the Cincinnati Bengals had nine tackles (three for a loss), and one pass defensed in the Super Bowl. Wilson was taken five picks after Uche in the 2020 NFL draft.
Belichick is known for shapeshifting his defensive game plan to match his opponents’ strengths on a week-to-week basis. Perhaps the complex roles and differing approaches is leaving young players lost and confused. Belichick’s best defenses have often been veteran-laden units.
However, Belichick always seems to be able to unlock players’ potential by maximizing their talents within his defensive scheme. The examples are endless. Aqib Talib. Kyle Van Noy. Akiem Hicks. Part two of Patrick Chung. The disconnect here is more than scheme fit or ability, and that is worrisome.
This offseason becomes even more important if an in-house fix isn’t available. Making the front seven a more explosive and faster unit should be priority number one. Ja’Whaun Bentley, Dont’a Hightower, and Jamie Collins are set to be free agents, and all are solid in their own respect.
Losing a leader like Hightower would shake the locker room and lead to a decrease in the on-field product. Collins should stick around on the cheap as a solid role player. Meanwhile, Bentley had a down 2020 before looking much better surrounded by increased talent in 2021, and might be tough to keep.
The Patriots should look to add in free agency and the draft to inject talent into the front seven. Moreover, free agency is littered with intriguing names. The draft is relatively deep in the first along the defensive line, but top linebackers may be in short supply. Regardless, the Patriots need to address their Josh Allen problem or there will be more disappointed offseasons in the future.