Patriots Appear to Be Building an RPO-Proof Defense
Right after they selected linebacker Josh Uche with the 60th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the formula became abundantly clear: the New England Patriots are prepping themselves to defeat the RPO.
It's something they struggled with last season. They lost three regular season games to RPO-heavy teams (Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, and Kansas City Chiefs). In order to be able to shut down this offensive strategy that is quickly taking the league by storm, the Patriots needed three things: size, athleticism and versatility. This would allow them to line up in a normal 3-4 alignment and be in a comfortable position when seeing that play call.
The main idea was to get size on the interior of the defense and the middle linebackers spots and have speed and athleticism on the edges. But where was Bill Belichick's first tip of the hand? When did he first tip his game plan for this philosophy during the offseason?
It came when he signed safety Adrian Phillips.
Phillips was the first versatile piece New England acquired this offseason. The former All-Pro safety saw snaps at linebacker with the Chargers, playing a role much like Patrick Chung has played in the past. He flies all over the field and plays up near the line of scrimmage on occasion. He is just one way to beef up the Patriots' run defense while not sacrificing anything in pass coverage. He has some of the best traits that help prevent New England's defense from being gashed by the RPO.
Next, we look to the draft, more specifically the first two picks for the Patriots. When talking about safety Kyle Dugger and linebacker Josh Uche, you cannot help but mention athleticism and versatility. Those traits are the first ones mentioned when talking about either of those players.
Dugger was asked during the Combine if he would consider a move to linebacker by some teams. While it is unclear if any one of those teams were the Patriots, it would certainly make sense they were. In the same fashion as Phillips, Dugger flies all over the field. Also, he might be the most athletic player on New England's defense in 2020. Both Phillips and Dugger can play snaps at linebacker and offer so much at that position. Again, that safety/linebacker hybrid can help provide speed on the edge, making tackles in space, while at the same time not sacrificing anything in the passing game.
As for Uche, he should be playing outside linebacker. However, there is some speculation that he could also play inside linebacker as well. One of Uche's college highlights was versus Penn State last season when he was able to to catch up, cover a fast K.J. Hamler, and breakup a past intended for him. That clip is enough to show that if Uche can do that, he can also track down a ball carrier running towards the sidelines. He has shown flashes of being a solid tackler in space, although he could improve here.
The athleticism and versatility of this year's revamped Patriots defense has now been highlighted. But what about size? Well, the size was on the roster last year. The size comes from Dont'a Hightower and Ja'Whaun Bentley at middle linebacker.
While it may take some time for the plan to completely unfold due to shortened rookie camps and less interactive offseason programs this year, the plan should eventually be for Uche and Anfernee Jennings to man the outside linebacker roles as soon as possible while Hightower and Bentley take the inside. Then, when facing RPO-heavy teams, rotate Dugger and Phillips at either Jennings' spot or as a safety in the box.
With the size of Hightower and Bentley in the middle and the three Swiss-Army knives (Uche, Dugger, and Phillips) roaming around the field, run-pass options will be difficult to run against the Patriots. The inside run and slant routes over the middle will be hard to complete with two big middle linebackers manning the fort, and runs to the outside and tight end flat routes will also be tough to complete with the speed and athleticism New England will have on the edges.
Look out for one of the Patriots' biggest weaknesses on defense last year to become one of their strong suits in 2020. Belichick knew after losing his star quarterback that he would have to bulk up a defense that was already pretty strong. He is prepping New England's defense to dominate some of the AFC's strongest offenses as the six-time Super Bowl champions try to maintain their high level of success into a third decade.