How will Ja'Whaun Bentley's return impact Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy?

How will Ja'Whaun Bentley's return impact Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy?

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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10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

NASHVILLE – The product popped last week when the Patriots played the Lions in their preseason opener. This week in Nashville? Kinda messy.

The explanation for that is simple. Very few of the team’s best players took part on either side of the ball.

Among those on the DNP-CD list were: Tom Brady, Phillip Dorsett, Stephon Gilmore, Sony Michel, James White, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, David Andrew, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Michael Bennett and Lawrence Guy.

“A lot of the guys that practiced a lot (during the week) didn’t play tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “Guys that didn’t practice as much played a lot tonight so I think we had a really good evaluation of everybody.”

What was our evaluation? Come with! We’ll show you!
The Patriots left tackle position is going to be in unbelievably capable hands with ISAIAH WYNN. Playing in a game for the first time since blowing his Achilles last preseason, Wynn was a wall in pass protection, showed great feet in getting blocks at the first level and then looking for work further downfield and seems to just lock defenders up.  

I asked Wynn, “How did you feel you did out there?”

“Good,” he said. Then, as if remembering he better sound too satisfied, he added a beat later, “I still have plenty of things to work on though.”

The pace of the game was – at times – excruciating. It was a little bit of everything. An early PI challenge by the Titans (they lost as rookie Joejuan Williams was found to be on the right side of the law on a third-down pass breakup). A couple of injuries to Patriots (Derek Rivers hurt his knee and, sadly, it looks like it’s going to be a while for him. Again. Shilique Calhoun got dinged but appeared fine in the locker room). But more than anything else, it was the penalties. The Patriots had 12 called on them and the Titans had 10. That is attributable to less-experienced players on the field in some cases but the most significant penalty sequence of the night came late in the first half. First, tight end Lance Kendricks placed a Titan in a headlock when he was pass-protecting for Jarrett Stidham. The holding call resulted in a safety. Next, after the free kick, the Patriots had 12 men on the field defensively.

Speaking of defense, there’s a real collaboration going down on the Patriots sidelines. It appeared Steve Belichick called defensive plays in the first half and Jerod Mayo called them in the second half. Also, Patrick Chung – in uniform but not playing – was active in helping coach the secondary on a down-to-down basis, signaling in plays and seeming to help make calls.

Getting back to that free kick I mentioned? Jake Bailey, the Stanford rookie took it. And he hit it almost to Pluto, about 65 yards in the air. On Bailey’s only punt of the night, he hung it 54 yards and there was no return. Ryan Allen, God bless him, he’s not going down without a fight. He had a punt of 57 yards and dropped one of his two inside the 20. Bailey was the holder on field goals and PATs and Stephen Gostkowski missed his only attempt, a 40-yarder.

In two preseason games, Jakobi Meyers has caught 12 of the 14 passes sent his way for 151 yards and two touchdowns. And the balls he’s catching aren’t short little slants and outs. They are crossers in traffic and downfield passes as well. After watching him during practice and in two games, it’s clear he’s the real thing and he deserves to be a starter. Honestly, when N’Keal Harry returns from whatever’s ailing him and Josh Gordon joins the team and begins practicing, I’m going to be really interested to see if they can exceed what Meyers is doing. And not just exceed it for a time. Do it every day the way he has. It’s a fascinating story. During the game, longtime NFL personnel man Jim Nagy, who runs the Senior Bowl, stated plainly on Twitter that Meyers was “the best contested ball catcher in last year’s draft.” 

A great week of practice by Braxton Berrios was followed up by a modest game. He was targeted once and that pass was picked by Logan Ryan. The throw from Brian Hoyer didn’t have a lot of zing on it but Berrios was kind of floating upfield on his route as well which made it easy for Logan Ryan to undercut him for the pick.

Rookie running back Damien Harris worked his ass off with four catches for 23 yards and 14 carries for 80. He’s not an edge-of-your-seat kind of runner who’ll make spectacular moves but his meat-and-potatoes style is a nice fit. Reminds me a little bit of Benjarvus Green-Ellis.

I had no idea the Patriots had a player named Calvin Munson. But when No. 48 showed up on about eight straight plays defensively with pursuit, pressure or brilliant form tackling at linebacker I made sure to check. He was everywhere. And, mind you, that was against the Titans first offense.

How important to the team is Matt Slater? Both times the Patriots had a player spend an extended period on the field with an injury, Slater was the person who went out with the medical staff to – I’m assuming – lend some support to the player. Whether he was assigned that job or just took it on himself, I don’t know but nothing happens without the OK of Bill Belichick. He’s not going to sign off on guys just walking on the field whenever they want if someone is hurt. This is a role for Slater. Between this assignment and seeing Chung as almost a player-coach, it’s cool to see how empowering Belichick can be as a boss with some of his players.

Through two preseason games, Jarrett Stidham has performed exactly as advertised. He makes some incredible throws – a back-shoulder touchdown to shortish receiver Damoun Patterson was like a drone strike – and he gets a little skittish and can make some sketchy decisions. He had two near-picks that could have been taken the distance the other way.

Those throws and decisions can definitely be coached out of him if he’s willing. But the touch and accuracy? That’s a gift. I also liked his instincts on a pair of scrambles that picked up first downs. The issue he’ll deal with – as Jimmy Garoppolo did – is that the starters are better than the scrubs and if you find yourself on the field with them, they move faster and hit harder so spin-o-rama escape moves that work in August can put a quarterback in a sling in October.

The Patriots are off Sunday but back at it again on Monday and Tuesday getting ready for their first home game of the preseason. There are no more open practices this season so that party is over.

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Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon's return: 'Football is No. 2'

Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon's return: 'Football is No. 2'

Despite playing a sport that typically values third-down efficiency over empathy, Matthew Slater has no problem speaking up to be the voice of compassion inside the Patriots locker room.

Josh Gordon's reinstatement by the NFL on Friday is a complicated issue. How was it determined that Gordon is well enough to play? Is football what's best for him? How will the Patriots provide him with support when he returns?

But Slater broke it down more simply following his team's preseason win over the Titans in Nashville: When it comes to Gordon, football isn't what's most important right now.

"We are excited,” Slater said of Gordon's return. “I’ll say this: Football is number two. We want to see him first and foremost doing well as an individual, doing well as a man, and we want to support him however we can. We’re just going to take this one day at a time, which is all any of us can do. And we’ll see what tomorrow brings and then we’ll let the day after that worry about it when it comes around."

Gordon was a big-play threat any time he was on the field for the Patriots last season. He played in 11 games and led the NFL in yards per reception (18.0). He was suspended late in the year for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and though his NFL rights have remained with the Patriots -- they signed his restricted free-agent tender this offseason -- he hasn't been with the team for months.

Bill Belichick pointed that out in a statement released Saturday.

“For the past eight months, Josh’s situation has been entirely a league matter," Belichick's statement said. "When Josh returns to our program, we will evaluate the entire situation and do what we feel is best for Josh and the team."

Slater emphasized the point that he and others will welcome Gordon with open arms.

“I think having support is always a good thing, no matter who you are, no matter what life has brought your way," Slater said. "I think support is good, and hopefully he finds that he has support here. I think that’s really all I can say about it now. What’s good, what’s not good remains to be seen.”

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