On Monday night, the biggest play in the Patriots' biggest game of the season was delivered by their most valuable player.
With 8:18 left, the Bills were at the New England 6-yard line facing second-and-goal. Trailing 14-10 and going into the wind, the drive they were on represented their first sustained march of the night. They weren’t likely to create another. Even if they did, the wind probably added about 20 yards to any field goal attempt. So 14-13 probably wasn’t gonna cut it. Buffalo absolutely, positively needed a touchdown.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen lined up under center, faked a handoff and set up to survey. Patriots defensive end Matt Judon, set up on the right edge, diagnosed pass and then took Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney and walked him back into Allen.
Allen tripped over Sweeney, tried to get up and then was swallowed up again by Judon for a 9-yard sack. The Bills wound up having to attempt a 33-yard field goal. They missed. They never got that close again.
That play – and so many others like it this year – are why Judon is the thinking man’s choice for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s been the most impactful defender on the NFL’s best defense. He’s got 59 hurries, 33 pressures and 14 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. (NFL.com has him at 12.5 sacks.)
Per NFL stats, he’s tied for fourth in quarterback hits (25) and tied for sixth in tackles for loss (13). He’s played 700 snaps. The Patriots lead the NFL in scoring defense.
What’s that you say? J.C. Jackson is better? I appreciate the sentiment. He’s second in the NFL with seven picks and leads the league in pass breakups (17). But a large part of Jackson’s success -- and the fact the Patriots lead the league in picks with 19 -- can be traced to the pass rush pressure they’re unleashing with Judon at the center of it.
The Patriots haven’t had a singular pass-rushing headache on their defense like Judon since Chandler Jones was traded. And it’s Judon’s ability to win his individual matchups with speed, power or a combination of the two that’s made the Patriots defense so potent. The Patriots blitz on 23.8 of dropbacks (18th in the NFL) but are eighth in both hurry percentage and pressure percentage and sixth in sacks.
Last year, the Patriots had 24 sacks. This year, they have 32 through 13 games. It’s all tied together – pass rush, coverage, score, down-and-distance – we know that. That’s why it’s hard to single out one player on one defense as being the reason that defense as a whole is so successful.
But the Patriots – in the eyes of many – were supposed to be screwed if they didn’t appease Stephon Gilmore’s contract demands. All that money they spent in the offseason on free agents like Judon would be for naught if they couldn’t cover. Turns out, Gilmore’s absence has been rendered moot in large part by the pressure up front.
Often, the default DPOY vote goes to the defensive player who is most singularly dominant in either a statistical category or to the naked eye. Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt won six of the past nine awards because it took a village to deal with them on the defensive line and they put up numbers. In 2019, Stephon Gilmore led the NFL in picks and PBUs and the Patriots led the league in total defense in what was – for a while – an historically outstanding season.
This year, Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt is the favorite to win the award. He’s got 16 sacks and is the third-rated edge defender according to PFF, behind Cleveland’s Myles Garrett and the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby. Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs is also in the DPOY mix with nine interceptions.
Watt’s been brilliant. He’s also got four forced fumbles. But Judon has 59 quarterback pressures to Watt’s 40, according to PFF. He’s also got 33 hurries to Watt’s 15. Judon’s played 700 snaps. Watt has played 511. That’s almost 200 fewer snaps! (I know you could do the math on that without me … still …). And where is Judon to be found on PFF’s overall edge defender rankings? He’s 49th. Out of 54. He’s two spots behind Deatrich Wise.
PFF takes into consideration grades for pass rush, run defense and coverage. Judon’s got a very low grade as a run defender so that in part is what’s dragging him down.
But it’s worth pointing out that Watt, Garrett and Crosby are all on teams that are outside the playoffs looking in. They can’t be blamed for the sins of their respective offenses or coaching staffs. Still. It’s worth noting that their individual standout performances aren’t quite the tide that’s raising all boats. Judon’s has been.
Will he be recognized for it? Or, with Mac Jones as the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year and Bill Belichick a favorite for Coach of the Year, will the 50 voters empaneled by the Associated Press (disclosure: I’m a voter) be inclined to spread the wealth a bit?
This much is true: neither Watt, nor Garrett, nor Diggs nor Crosby has a play like the one Judon made Monday that impacts both their team’s season and the entire playoff landscape. And it’s worth noting.