Defensive Line Rotation a Unique Aspect of Patriots' Defense

Photo Credit: Stew Milne (USA Today Sports)


That was the word head coach Mike Zimmer used when describing Sean Payton’s offensive approach before a meeting with the New Orleans Saints.

It might be an apt adjective to use with regard to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, as well.

The Patriots have never been known for having a surplus of high-end defensive talent — sure, they’ve had Pro Bowlers like Devin McCourty come through — but their defense has often been a collective of specially-trained role players that fulfill Belichick’s ‘Do Your Job’ mantra.

Especially on the defensive line.

New England used eight in their defensive line rotation last week as they beat the Jets 27-13. That was a light week for the Pats’ defense, which routinely finds a way to use nine or 10 defensive linemen. The Vikings, by contrast, rarely have more than seven or eight active.

Per Pro Football Reference, the Patriots have used 10 different starting units on the defensive line in 11 games, only duplicating once.

“They have a lot of different personnel groups and they use them in a lot of different ways,” said Zimmer. “Each week seems to be a different type of game plan based on who they’re going against. They’re always going to try to make you beat them left-handed if they can.”

The Patriots have eight defensive linemen with 100 or more snaps on the season. Only six teams in the league have more than that, but many of those teams had their hands forced by injury. New England hasn’t lost a defensive lineman to injured reserve all season (unless you count converted linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley) yet has found a way to incorporate 11 different players at various points, including 10 within games against Buffalo and Green Bay. There were times last season when the Vikings would only play six — in blowout wins.

How does New England pull that off roster-wise? By shorting themselves on offensive players. The Patriots only keep two quarterbacks and eight offensive linemen. They also started the year with just four wide receivers as they waited for Julian Edelman to return from suspension.

It’s a fairly anonymous but effective defensive line group. They have three former first-round picks in Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn, but six of their top nine contributing DLs were either third-day draft picks or undrafted, headlined by Trey Flowers, the second-highest-graded edge rusher in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, and Lawrence Guy, a former Packers seventh-round pick ranked in PFF’s top 10 for interior defenders.

New England has struggled to wrap up opposing quarterbacks with only 17 sacks on the year — third worst in the NFL. But Zimmer has still seen them apply plenty of heat — they have 228 pressures on the year, 26 more than the Vikings, using their platoon methodology.

“They’re like third in the league in quarterback pressures and knockdowns, and things like that, but they have not been getting a lot of sacks,” said Zimmer. “But as I’ve said many times, sacks aren’t the most important thing, it’s trying to get pressure on the quarterback. They are blitzing a little bit more this year than I’ve seen them in the past. I think that’s kind of based on some of their skill sets as well.”

Let’s pause for a quick meet and greet with the Patriots D-line rotation:

Trey Flowers: Drafted in 2015 in the fourth round. He has 17 sacks over the previous two and a half seasons, 3.5 this season, and he’ll probably line up across from right tackle Brian O’Neill.

Deatrich Wise Jr.: A second-year player taken in the fourth round in 2017, Wise leads the Patriots with 4.5 sacks from the 3-technique spot.

Lawrence Guy: A journeyman on his fifth team, Guy’s 25 starts in his two seasons with New England far exceeds his workload with his previous four clubs. He’ll line up mostly at left defensive tackle.

Malcom Brown: Taken with the final pick of the first round in 2015, Brown will see reps at nose tackle and occasionally get push up the middle. He has 8.5 career sacks.

Danny Shelton: A former first-round pick by Cleveland who was acquired for a third-round pick in the offseason. He’ll also get nose tackle snaps along with Brown.

Adam Butler: A 2017 UDFA who will see snaps in the defensive tackle rotation.

Adrian Clayborn: The former first-round pick didn’t pan out in Tampa Bay, then found new life on Atlanta’s NFC Championship team two seasons ago. Signed with the Patriots in March. Plays primarily at right end across from the left tackle.

Keionta Davis: Another 2017 UDFA, Davis may spell Clayborn at right defensive end, though he didn’t play against the Jets.

John Simon: Picked up in late September after being cut by the Colts. Plays an outside backer-defensive end hybrid role.

Derek Rivers: A former third-round pick, Rivers also plays a similar backer/end role like Simon but hasn’t played since Week 9.

That’s the group. Castoffs, Day 3 draft picks, reclamation projects and a few blue-chip prospects.

It’s not a decorated unit, but every group represents a challenge for Kirk Cousins and his protection unit, which has allowed a league-high 201 pressures this season but took a step in the right direction against Green Bay.

“They did a great job, and when you’re able to go through your reads, step up, have a clean pocket, deliver the throws without any pressure around you, it helps you be more accurate,” said Cousins, “it helps you be more consistent, and it allows some of the best players on our team like Diggsy and Adam and Kyle and Dalvin to be able to make plays.”

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