ALLEN PARK, Michigan — Matthew Stafford has had a chance to stare down the Patriots defense for the last two days, and a couple of things have stood out — particularly at the second level.
"There's some big physical guys out there, no doubt," he said Tuesday. "Their linebackers are really big and physical. [No.] 54. [No.] 8. And they got a safety [No.] 22 rolling around out there that looks like a defensive end. They've got some great players."
The Patriots don't only bring size and physicality to the table at the linebacker level with players like Dont'a Hightower (No. 54), Jamie Collins (No. 8) and versatile 6-foot-4 safety Obi Melifonwu (No. 22). They come at you in waves.
Among the strengths of the Patriots roster — at least in early August — is the talent they boast at linebacker. On our most recent roster projection, a whopping nine of our 53 active-roster spots went to linebackers. And we might've even left off some names who've proven over the last few days that they can play.
"Oh, elite,” said Kyle Van Noy when asked about the team's depth at that position. “Elite. I think it’s very elite. I’m very excited to let loose and see what we all can do together. I’m really excited for it, as some people have knocked us. We’re slow and all that. I’m excited to come out and play."
It looks like Bill Belichick is going to do what he can schematically to take advantage of his depth, and his players' varied skill sets, at linebacker in 2019. If he makes a shift to a defensive scheme that favors 3-4 looks over 4-3 looks, as has been the case thus far in training camp, it'd allow him to get more linebackers on the field and potentially add a layer of deception to his front for opposing quarterbacks to sort through.
A defense that features two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers — and here's the important thing: if those four players are somewhat interchangeable — could play games with the minds of quarterbacks on a snap-to-snap basis.
"A lot of offenses try to game plan for guys being in certain spots in certain situations," Hightower said. "Whenever we're able to mix it up, line up different, be in a different front, or blitz, cover, drop, whatever, nobody really knows where we're at. As long as we continue to grow the chemistry between ourselves and continue to learn the defense we'll be alright."
Hightower is the best example of a truly interchangeable piece. He can serve as the brains of the defense in the middle of the field on one snap and then kick down to set an edge on the next. Van Noy has experience off the line and on. Jamie Collins has played both. We've seen Ja'Whaun Bentley play at the second level and closer to the line of scrimmage as well.
The Patriots have edge players who look like they have the ability to contribute in Chase Winovich (impressive in Tuesday's practice versus Lions offensive linemen), Derek Rivers (hard to block in one-on-one drills throughout camp), Shilique Calhoun (dominant at times on Monday) and John Simon (ditto). They have a true middle linebacker like Elandon Roberts who has been getting reps with the starting defense.
Add them to a mix with versatile pieces like those above and the possibilities are endless.
"I think it's fun," Hightower said. "A lot of times guys are just lined up in one part spot, but one of the things we do here is you get asked to do one, two, three different things if possible. It definitely makes our defense unique and a lot different. It's just good to be able to drop here, cover a back here, blitz here, coordinate a rush over here. I think everybody kind of enjoys not knowing where you're going to be, just waiting to hear the call."
While Stafford found success against the Patriots and their fronts last year, he admitted Tuesday that they've been a challenge for him this week between their changing looks and the sheer talent of their players.
"I feel like every time we've played them we've gotten something completely different," he said. "This practice has been no different than that. It's something new every time. That's what they like to do. Scheme you up. Make you play left-handed. I thought we did a good job of adjusting. One of their best assets is just the players they have. They've got good scheme and all that but those guys fill those roles extremely well and are really talented players."
Bentley could, in some ways, be the key. The second-year 'backer out of Purdue was impressive enough early last season to earn a starting role before getting hurt against the Lions in Week 3. When healthy, his presence in the middle of the field — often as the green dot-wearing linebacker barking out the calls his teammates — allows players like Collins and Van Noy more freedom to use their athleticism off the edge to drop or rush.
While recovering from his biceps injury, Bentley stuck around the team. He went to meetings. He ate up as much information as he could so that when Year 2 rolled around he would have an opportunity to hit the ground running.
"He's a young player but he's very smart," Hightower said. "He's definitely been a sponge. All last year he wasn't one of the guys who went home or whatever. He stayed around, was in all the meetings, taking notes and stuff.
"Having guys like him around only helps. Not just our linebacker room but the defense as well, having a guy like that who knows the defense pretty well and is able to talk and help guys get lined up and make adjustments. Whenever you have all guys on the same page like that you can simply look at him and say one thing and have him thinking the exact same thing, definitely helps."
"[He's] just comfortable," Van Noy said. "Was around us so we got a relationship with him. In all aspects. He's just a good player and I'm excited to see what he does."
That year behind the scenes for Bentley might end up being critical to how things go for the linebacker group this year. Not only does his strong tackling and cover ability give him the physical skill set to play the middle — and free up Van Noy and Collins to play on the line — but his mind gives Hightower and other veterans on that side of the football a valued sounding board in competitive situations.
It's already shown up this summer.
"Whether we're looking at formations and him giving you a guess on what the play might be based on down and distance, or whether it's an adjustment with a motion or something," Hightower said, "that's been something that's really been good in our room this year. A lot of guys that have different perspectives. Everybody doesn't play the same. We kinda get taught the same thing, but we all have different tools so it's always good to have different guys to speak about different things."
"We gotta all be on the same page so you look to rely on everybody on your defense," Bentley explained. "You have confidence in those guys and you're looking to constantly build those relationships, build that camaraderie so you can be out on the field and just handle business."
The Patriots have inside and outside linebacker groups — coached by Jerod Mayo and DeMarcus Covington, respectively — that are brimming with talent and high football IQs. That should provide Belichick freedom in terms of how he organizes his defense, and it should give opposing quarterbacks headaches.
But it's still early, and the players in those rooms are smart enough to know that what qualifies as promise now doesn't mean much.
“I think we know what kind of tools we’ve got, but if we don’t use them, what do you really have?” Hightower said. “So we’re talented or have experience, whatever you want to call it. We have to go out and execute to that and not get complacent.”
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