Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where our focus will be when practices begin. Today we take a look at the return of Patriots second-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley and what that might mean for the rest of the Patriots defense.
Jerod Mayo has to be excited. As the new inside linebackers coach for the Patriots, he'll be working with not only a pair of veteran 'backers who've proven to be big-time contributors in Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. He'll also have Ja'Whaun Bentley to teach.
The second-year player was given Mayo's No. 51 last year and was the team's most promising youngster early on. (You'll remember, it was tough sledding for Sony Michel in the season's first few weeks, and JC Jackson hadn't yet emerged.) Before suffering a season-ending biceps tear in Week 3, Bentley had already made an impact on Bill Belichick's defense.
He played in the middle of the field, he could be seen helping to direct traffic at times (though not surprisingly he at times needed directing himself), he blitzed, he played the run, and he was trusted to run with tight ends and running backs in coverage. The fifth-round choice out of Purdue was not thought to be an NFL-caliber athlete by some clubs when he entered the draft, but he was trusted on all downs and started two of the team's first three games, playing in 138 of a possible 217 snaps (63.6 percent). He racked up 14 tackles, a quarterback hit, one tackle for a loss and one interception in that time.
Now healthy and ready to get back on the field for the start of training camp, it'll be interesting to see exactly how Bentley is deployed. He played primarily in the middle of the field at the "Mike" linebacker spot last year, wearing the green dot that identified him as the player relaying linebacker coach Brian Flores' calls. One would expect, given his football IQ and where he fit last season, he'll be back in that spot again.
The question is: What will that mean for his teammates, many of whom helped to nearly shut out the Rams in Super Bowl LIII as Bentley watched?
The assumption many places is that Hightower will suddenly be freed to take on more of an edge-defender role with Bentley back in the middle. That may be true, particularly if the Patriots roll out more 3-4 front-seven looks than they have in recent seasons. Hightower's power at the point of attack and relentless pursuit of quarterbacks (when given the opportunity) would fit perfectly in a "Sam" or "Jack" outside linebacker role.
But when Bentley was on the field last season, Hightower was often playing off the line alongside him. He helped get things organized and helped Bentley decipher what was in front of him. Whether Bentley was available or not, Hightower was the brain of the entire defensive front. There were times when the Patriots would go with a five-man front, putting Bentley off the ball in the middle of the field and Hightower on the edge, but oftentimes Hightower and Bentley played a bit of a two-man game in the middle.
There were snaps where both hovered the A-gaps and then dropped into coverage. At times they faked blitzing those same gaps and one chased up the field while the other dropped. Against the run, if both were off the ball, they flowed to their assignments in a synchronized charge.
Hightower could benefit from not having to direct as much traffic as he's used to with Bentley going into his second year and likely understanding much more than he did as a rookie. Bentley should be able to shoulder more of that pre-snap workload.
Another player whose role could be adjusted -- someone who could be spending more time on the edge -- with Bentley back in the picture is Van Noy. He was used almost exclusively a left outside linebacker with Bentley on the field for those three weeks last season. No surprise there. His size and athleticism are ideally suited for that spot. He's strong enough and polished enough to rush off that edge, and if a back leaks out of the backfield, he's fast enough to run and chase when needed. That look of Van Noy on the line off the left side -- whether that was the strong side or not, meaning he played both the "Sam" and "Will" roles -- and Bentley and Hightower off the line was used prominently against the Texans and Lions, which were the two games Bentley started in 2018.
Upon re-watching Bentley's snaps last season, I was also reminded just how often he was used in coverage, which could have a trickle-down effect on Patrick Chung. It was Chung (and at times Devin McCourty) who spent a significant amount of time last year running with tight ends and backs. I'd expect the same to be the case again this year, but with Bentley now an option, it could allow the Patriots to get a little more creative with their matchups. As a primarily man-to-man defense, having myriad defenders to roll out against short-to-intermediate passing game targets should provide the Patriots defense with a ton of flexibility.
Yeah. Mayo has to be licking his chops. We'll see how he helps his young promising linebacker as the two work together closely over the course of the next month in camp.
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