PATS REPORTER

Perry: The future is now for young Patriots defense

PATS REPORTER

You thought there would be nothing to glean from this suddenly Cam Newton-less football affair on Monday night?

This, friends, is a glimpse into your future. Good or bad.

Not offensively, of course. Brian Hoyer isn't the future in New England. (Though seeing Jarrett Stidham in a rout or Damien Harris as the lead back could qualify as a 2022 offensive preview of sorts.)

But defensively? This matchup still has plenty of juice when the Chiefs offense and Patriots defense share the field. Of particular interest? The young core of defenders Bill Belichick has compiled over the last several years who've been thrust into key roles.

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If Chase Winovich, Kyle Dugger, Ja'Whaun Bentley and J.C. Jackson come through with big-time performances at Arrowhead Stadium — if they can, for instance, help hold the Chiefs to 23 points the way last year's defense did — then there is reason to be optimistic about the development of the young defensive core in New England. There will be real, tangible hope for what's to come on that side of the ball when the question gets asked, "What happens when Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Patrick Chung and Dont'a Hightower move on for good?"

If they aren't enough to help keep the Patriots within striking distance Monday night? The next decade — the duration of the pact that will keep Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City and the AFC — could feel a lot longer than that.

 

It's a litmus test. Not for where they will be when they've fully developed as pros. But for how close they are to where the Patriots would like them to be.

Is the next defensive core — one that will take the mantle from McCourty and Hightower, who took it from Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, who took it from Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi — another year away from leading the group? Two? Or is it more like six games? Or are they even closer than that?

We'll have a better idea by late Monday night. Even if the team is a longshot to win, Belichick's young defensive players will be handed a mental and physical challenge unlike any they've seen through the first month of this season.

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For Bentley, it's about recognition. Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy will have pre-snap motions and shifts set to cloud defensive assignments and alter run-fits. Bentley won't be a splash-play generator in all likelihood, but can he alert a teammate to a change quickly that prevents a splash play on the other side?

For Winovich, it's about consistency. Going into Week 4, only one player in the NFL had a higher pass-rush win rate than him, according to Pro Football Focus: first-team All-Pro edge-defender for the Steelers T.J. Watt. The Patriots will need a continuation of that kind of productivity from their 2019 third-round pick. 

Why? Because they can't try to pressure Mahomes by adding more bodies to the pass-rush. That's defensive self-immolation. It'll come down to players like Winovich, Adam Butler, John Simon and Deatrich Wise to bother Mahomes. Winovich has been the best of the bunch thus far this season. If he can get home, that'll help. 

For Dugger, it's about building momentum. He's been a force at times as a pass-rusher early in his rookie season. But against the Chiefs, he might be tasked with the most difficult coverage matchup of his life if he's asked to shadow Travis Kelce. 

An interesting thing happened during the Patriots win over the Raiders involving Dugger. Second-year corner Joejuan Williams was initially the third-down coverage answer for Las Vegas tight end Darren Waller. Two holding penalties on Williams later — both of which resulted in automatic first downs — Dugger was assigned to Waller. Dugger didn't see any Kelces at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, but he's been compared to All-Pro safety Derwin James by teammate (and former James teammate) Adrian Phillips, and he certainly has the athletic profile to become a tight-end eraser. The question is whether or not he's ready for that gig now.

 

For Jackson, it's about preventing the deep ball. Two seasons ago, as a rookie, he was touted as the team's best tracker of the football by Devin McCourty, and his coverage numbers from last season stack up against some of the best in football at his position. Whether the Patriots play zone, whether they go man-to-man and have Jackson chase around Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, or whether he's the Kelce matchup (which he's been before), he'll be a key part of the plan in making the most explosive offense in the NFL a little less so. 

Make no mistake: This is an all-hands-on-deck situation. The Patriots will need Stephon Gilmore to play like the Defensive Player of the Year. They'll need both McCourtys, Phillips and Jonathan Jones to keep the ball in front of them.

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But the developing young defensive core for the Patriots could easily swing the outcome. 

Go missing? This one could get ugly. And questions would linger about the long-term viability of a defense that will have to deal with Mahomes for the next 10 years.

Show up and show out? Should result in a little more certainty about a roster in a state of transition.

Even if it's hard to learn anything about the Patriots offense without their starting quarterback Monday night, there will be plenty happening on the other side of the ball worthy of your attention.