You did not need to have a football mind as advanced as Bill Belichick’s to know what Bill Belichick was thinking in the hours after his New England Patriots were humiliated by the Buffalo Bills in the Super Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs.
There was really nothing super about it. The Patriots’ defense, which six weeks earlier reaped the wild winds in Buffalo to make a defensive statement in a 14-10 victory, was bludgeoned in the 47-17 playoff loss.
It was the culmination of a five-game run after the team’s Week 14 bye where the defense simply could not stop anyone. The Colts ran all over the Patriots in Week 15 and it never got any better. The Bills did it to them twice, in Week 16 in Foxboro, then the Divisional Round game, when Buffalo’s punter never let the sideline.
After such a brutal stretch of defense, or lack thereof, it was clear the Patriots were of the mind to overhaul the whole thing, especially at linebacker, where teams practically fell over themselves to run that ball at them.
The first big domino fell on Monday, as the team released veteran linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The rest of the purge should continue as the clock counts down to the start of free agency next week.
Van Noy was first, but he won’t be the last as Don’t’a Hightower awaits his fate
Technically, the first high-profile member of the defense to start packing his bags was J.C. Jackson, who learned late last week that the franchise tag, which long had been suspected to be coming his way, would not, in fact, be applied to him, allowing the market’s top cornerback to become an unrestricted free agent.
And while it is still technically possible the Patriots will match whatever offer another team presents Jackson, it’s just as likely the Patriots will be saying goodbye permanently and save the $17 million that the franchise tag would have cost them.
Van Noy then got his pink slip on Monday, saving the Patriots about $4.1 million against the salary cap. Those small but meaningful gains will probably continue with another veteran linebacker who seemingly played the final six weeks in cement shoes, Dont’a Hightower, also being shown the door.
Younger and faster are the watchwords in Foxboro these days, and Hightower is neither. Despite opting out of the 2020 season, which should have put some extra miles on his 31-year-old body, Hightower faded down the stretch along with the rest of the defense.
The Bills all came due on the defense in the playoffs, necessitating an overhaul
Never before January’s Super Wild Card round had an NFL team played a “perfect” game, defined as having no punts, field goals or turnovers. Never in the regular season and certainly not in the playoffs.
After 13 weeks the Patriots defense was allowing an NFL-best 15.38 points per game. But after their bye week, starting in Week 15 through the playoff blowout, the Patriots allowed an average of 27.2 points per game. In those final five weeks, the Patriots went 1-4, the lone victory a 50-10 beatdown of the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
But in the four losses to Buffalo (twice), Indianapolis, and the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots allowed at least 27 points in all four games. They allowed just two games of 27 points or more in the first 13 weeks. The Patriots generated three turnovers against Jacksonville, but just one in the four losses combined. And playing with an offense that was run-first and with a rookie quarterback who lacked the ability to produce points in bunches, the Patriots fell behind by scores of 20-0 to Indianapolis in Week 15, 20-7 to the Bills in Week 16 and 17-0 to Miami in Week 18, and finally 27-0 on Saturday night.
The defensive collapse was personified by one of its two best players over the first 13 weeks. Defensive end Matt Judon was all over opposing quarterbacks after 13 weeks, recording 12½ sacks, 25 quarterback hits and 14 tackles for a loss. In the final five weeks, Judon had no sacks, one QB hit and one tackle for a loss. In the playoff loss, Judon played on just 39 percent of the Bills’ snaps.
And so the rebuild is underway.
The Patriots can get younger and faster in a hurry
The Patriots have the No. 21 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, and many mock draft experts have pointed to one player most likely to head to Foxboro: Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd.
Lloyd is considered the second-best linebacking prospect in the draft, but should still be on the board at No. 21 if the Patriots want to go in this direction.
The Patriots also have a core of linebackers and edge rushers from the previous two drafts – Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings from the 2020 Draft and Ronnie Perkins last year — ready to step up and take on meaningful roles.
And if the Patriots still want to have veterans around these young players, Calais Campbell and former Patriot Chandler Jones could be options in free agency.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference