It happened week after week after week, it seemed. The Patriots were attacked on the edges of their defense by opposing running games.
They gave up 197 yards in Week 7 to the Niners. They allowed another 186 to the Rams in Week 14. The very next week they gave up a whopping 250 yards on the ground to a below-average Dolphins rushing attack. Each included breakdowns on the edges, where Bill Belichick's outside linebackers go to work.
Typically that's thought of as a pass-rushing position, and it is. It should be. But when teams have access to 4.5 yards per carry, as they did against the Patriots in 2020, then obvious pass-rushing situations may become fewer and farther between.
But even when the Patriots did find themselves in those obvious passing situations, they were a bottom-third team getting after quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus graded them as the No. 23 pass-rushing team in football, they were 27th in sacks and 25th in sack rate.
So how do they fix it? To start they'll just need more from the outside 'backers they have. It's not a long list.
Veteran starter John Simon is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, as are Shilique Calhoun and Brandon Copeland. Both Calhoun and Copeland are primarily special-teams types, but both at least could have some front-seven experience.
Outside of any potential free-agent additions this group now belongs to the kids, so to speak.
Chase Winovich saw his role bounced around in his second season, going from playing in the range of 30-50 snaps per game through the first month of the season, then watching his play time slip all the way to just five snaps in Week 8. Toward the end of the season, Winovich became more of a regular but struggled at times against the run.
Will the Patriots count on him to be a starter and a three-down contributor next season? Can they? At the moment he looks penciled in to be exactly that, but the team made it relatively clear what they thought about his run defense based on how he was used throughout the course of the season.
Two second-year players should benefit from a full offseason in the Patriots program -- even if this offseason it appears as though the COVID-related limitations on teams through the spring and summer will look very much like they did in 2020.
Let's start with Josh Uche, who along with Kyle Dugger was one of the team's most impressive young defenders last season. He played just 179 snaps in nine games, but in that time he generated 14 pressures, six quarterback hits and a sack. From Week 8 through the end of the season, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder graded out as the 17th-best edge defender in football, per PFF. As a pass-rusher and a quarterback spy, Uche showed that he belonged.
“He’s done a lot of positive things for us in the kicking game and defensively," Belichick said of Uche in December. "Has some versatility. We were kind of trying to figure that out early, what his best spot would be. And it took a little while for all that to materialize . . . He’s definitely going to help us. He’s a good football player. We’ll be able to define his role and his situation next year.”
Anfernee Jennings is a more complicated case. He began the year playing more on the edge than he did off the line. After the Niners did what they did in Week 7, he played off the line almost exclusively until Week 12. At that point he became a more movable piece for Belichick, essentially splitting his time between playing on the ball and off. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has the size to play both spots -- and he might be their best option at the moment to replace Simon's early-down role on the edge -- but that's based on his frame more so than his production as a rookie.
The Patriots also have former practice-squadders like Tashawn Bower and Rashod Berry, who'll be in the mix for time on the edge in training camp. But the overall experience level for this group is lacking.
Unless . . .
If Dont'a Hightower ends up coming back, that could help Bill Belichick solve a lot of his edge-of-the-defense issues. Though he's played more in the middle of the defense over the last few years because of his value to the group as a communicator, he'd immediately become the most capable outside linebacker on the team.
After opting out of the 2020 season, it's unclear what the future holds for Hightower, but his return could end up meaning a great deal for this group. At the very least it would provide Belichick a little more flexibility in terms of how he builds. If he adds an off-the-ball linebacker in free agency or the draft, then maybe he'd have the freedom to put Hightower on the edge and immediately upgrade that position on all downs. If Belichick finds it easier to find an outside linebacker, then Hightower could handle the inside linebacker spot that struggled in 2020.
But at this point, prior to the draft and free agency, the outside linebacker position is going to have to rely on a rapid on-the-field maturation process from a trio of young players: Winovich, Uche and Jennings.