FOXBORO -- This has been building for Michael Bennett. There have been moments when he's been visibly frustrated on the sidelines during games. He's described his dwindling snap count as the "zero role." Now he's suspended for a game after having what he called a "philosophical disagreement" with Patriots defensive line coach Bret Bielema.
How did we get here? How did Bennett go from starting and playing 37 snaps in the opener to playing 11 snaps against the Giants -- most of them in garbage time with the game well in-hand -- and now having his jersey pulled for a week?
There are myriad factors at play.
Bennett has been accustomed to playing in very different defensive systems throughout his career in Tampa Bay, Seattle and Philadelphia that one NFL source described to me as schemes that allowed for more freelancing and complemented Bennett's ability to win one-on-one matchups.
The Patriots, meanwhile, play a much more coordinated style that is predicated on each player executing his responsibilities in order to frustrate opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
Clearly, the adjustment period Bennett has had to undergo hasn't gone the way the Patriots anticipated. Players like Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise have impressed in the snaps they've been given through six weeks this season, helping to chip away at Bennett's workload. But for a player of Bennett's talent level and salary -- his cap hit is the sixth-highest on the team this season -- to play three first-half snaps in a regular-season game, as he did against the Giants, is a sign of how his role has nearly vanished.
Have Bennett's waning snap counts been the result of his unwillingness to do things the way the Patriots want them? Or is he simply a bad scheme fit and unable to do what the Patriots have asked?
Probably a little bit of both.
To try to get a better sense of what it is that Bennett is -- and isn't -- doing to get himself on the field more often, let's delve into what we've seen from him through a half-dozen weeks in a system unlike any he's played in before.
WEEK 1: EVERY-DOWN PIECE
The Patriots underwent a defensive transformation this offseason, morphing from a 4-3 scheme into more of a 3-4 scheme. After free agency and the draft -- where Belichick added players like Jamie Collins, Chase Winovich and Danny Shelton -- it was pretty apparent the team was better suited to lean on its linebacker depth and its behemoth defensive linemen. The 3-4 change made sense.
While Bennett, who measures 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, is an ideal 4-3 defensive end, he was a bit of a 'tweener in the new Patriots defense. About 40 pounds lighter than classic 3-4 ends (think 315-pounder Lawrence Guy) and about 25 pounds heavier than the outside linebackers the Patriots employ, Bennett looked like perhaps he'd be best suited as a situational pass-rusher who could rush from the interior or the edge.
That's not how it played out in Week 1. When the Patriots defense took the field for their season-opener, he was in the starting lineup and played on 12 of their first 13 snaps. He was an every-down player despite being an undersized end in Belichick's defense. And on the first third-down play of the 2019 campaign, Bennett actually came off the field.
The Patriots may have found out quickly, though, that Bennett was miscast. On the first play of the season, Bennett aligned off the outside shoulder of the guard (3-technique) and burst seven yards up the field. The problem? Steelers running back James Connor hit the hole vacated by Bennett and scooted for four yards.
Of Bennett's 37 snaps, he ended up playing seven as a 3-technique tackle. Fourteen snaps (38 percent) came from a position aligned directly over an offensive tackle (4-technique) and seven more snaps on the outside shoulder of a tackle (5-technique).
Regardless of where Patriots defensive linemen play, they're typically expected to two-gap, meaning they're expected to take on their blocks and be able to play a ball-carrier on either side of that block. Knifing through the line aggressively, as Bennett did on the game's first snap, is something only a few players on the Patriots defense might be able to do -- but that's not usually what they want because it can lead to open running lanes.
On a zone running play later in the game, Bennett cut through the Steelers line once again. He ended up behind the ball-carrier and effectively took himself out of the play, though a Pittsburgh blocker turned to try to block him anyway. That left an open window for Collins to slice through and notch a tackle for loss, but that would be the kind of play the Patriots staff might look at and say that the result didn't necessarily justify the process.
There was one more play that stood out when watching Bennett in the opener. In other systems, Bennett's coaches may have been OK with him rush past the quarterback, understanding that it might be worth allowing a player to over-pursue if it meant he was screaming up the field and occasionally pressuring quarterbacks.
Running past the quarterback for Belichick, though, is a no-no. Bennett did just that early in the game on second down.
Bennett finished the game with two quarterback hurries on 27 pass-rush snaps. He played on five of Pittsburgh's 12 third-down snaps.
WEEK 2: NOTICEABLY ABSENT
Bennett didn't start down in Miami. That in and of itself wasn't a huge red flag. Depending on a certain look or personnel package, the Patriots will substitute players in and out of the game without a second thought.
But Bennett's snap percentage was down significantly from Week 1 (55.2 percent of snaps) to Week 2 (40.3). Whereas he played 12 of the first 13 plays against the Steelers, against the Dolphins he played only nine snaps through three quarters. Fourteen of his snaps came after the Patriots had taken a 23-0 lead.
The Patriots used Bennett a bit differently in terms of his alignments down in Miami. He played at the 1-technique spot (off the shoulder of the center) eight times in the opener. The following week, he was aligned on the center just four times, and he played more than half (56 percent) of his snaps off the tackle, including three snaps as a 7-technique end aligned well outside the tackle.
As his role changed a bit, Bennett did show signs of trying to make corrections from Week 1. He did his best, rushing off the offensive left, not to run past quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick early on.
He also did his best not to knife through the line on zone runs, maintaining his gap responsibilities in order to help stuff a second-quarter run.
Plus he had a well-earned hustle sack late in the game, slanting inside from the 4-technique position, disposing of the guard across from him, and then bull-rushing a tackle to get into the backfield.
There were, though, instances where Bennett showed bad balance and seemed to be overmatched on the interior. On a second-down run early in the game, he was pancaked as he followed a run-fake. On a second-down pass play soon thereafter, he tried to run a stunt with teammate Adam Butler but they collided and both fell to the turf.
Bennett had another first-down snap late in the game, playing the 1-technique spot, where he was turned around and at one point had his back to the football in the middle of the line of scrimmage.
In terms of his effort, Week 2 showed that Bennett was willing to do the things he was tasked with doing. But there were plays that made it appear as though either Bennett either wasn't willing to take the coaching he'd been given in order to execute the play or wasn't physically able to execute what he'd been asked to do.
WEEK 3: BIT PLAYER
Bennett's usage in Miami was curious, but he still ended up with his first sack as a member of the Patriots, and the game was a blowout. As a result, his snap count didn't necessarily set off any alarms that things weren't going well. (Though the number of early-game snaps he saw against the Dolphins should've spoken volumes.)
In Week 3, his snap count fell to 19, and his snap percentage dipped a bit to 38 percent. He continued to be moved outside by the Patriots, not seeing a single snap aligned across from the center after 22 percent of his snaps came over the ball in Week 1.
Bennett's first snap came with 4:25 left in the first quarter, and he sacked third-stringer Luke Falk from the 4-technique spot. That immediate production didn't necessarily lead to more regular work, though.
Perhaps desperate to make plays with the snaps he'd been given, Bennett had trouble breaking some of the habits he flashed in Week 1, piercing through the Jets offensive line and into the backfield -- as he did on the first play of the season -- to run by running back Le'Veon Bell without making the stop. When he tried to two-gap later in the game, as he did in the second quarter, he lost his balance and was shoved to the turf from his 4-technique spot by tackle Brandon Shell.
WEEK 4: CONTAIN CONCERNS
Bennett played more snaps in Week 4 in Orchard Park, but his snap percentage actually tumbled to 30.4 percent. He moved all along the line from the 1-technique spot (two snaps) to the 3-technique (seven snaps), 4-technique (six), 5-technique (seven) and 7-technique (two) positions. Despite that movement, his role as a passing-game player became a bit more defined against the Bills.
While about a third of his snaps came against the run the week prior, Bennett played just three snaps of run defense against Buffalo and 21 against the pass. Run or pass, Bennett at times had difficulty staying on his feet.
Against the run on one second-and-five snap, he burst up the field and was quickly washed down the line by a tight end he never saw coming, giving Frank Gore enough room for a first down. Later, tasked with trying to take on and shed a tackle one-on-one, he ended up on his back in the middle of New Era Field.
Against the pass, Bennett appeared to try to execute as a stunt player to free up teammates for clear rush lanes. But working through the trash in that fashion hasn't looked comfortable to him. He occasionally collided with teammates -- as he did in Miami with Butler -- or simply lost his footing and ended up on the ground, taking himself out of the play.
On one snap that was eventually wiped out because of a too-many-men penalty, Bennett helped give Butler a lane to the quarterback, but he ended up smothered on the Bills logo in so doing.
Against the Bills, Bennett also was on the scene on a couple of occasions when Josh Allen broke the pocket. Pass-rush plans can differ from week to week and from player to player, but typically Belichick wants to keep mobile quarterbacks inside the pocket rather than flushing them outside and encouraging them to scramble for first downs.
Allen had a couple of scrambles that ended up not hurting the Patriots -- one actually ended up with Allen throwing a pick; the Patriots were bailed out with a late hold on the other -- and Bennett might've had a hand in both.
The play that ended up coming back because of a hold initially looked like a third-and-4 conversion Allen picked up with his legs. Rushing from his 7-technique spot on the left edge, Bennett pushed into the backfield and chased Allen, eventually accidentally wiping out fellow rusher Shilique Calhoun on the other side of the formation in the process.
Had center Mitch Morse not tugged at Butler after Allen already had the first down, this might've been a game-changing play. It was 13-10 in the third quarter so the Bills had life, but two plays later they were forced to punt.
On the play where Allen threw his second pick to Patriots corner JC Jackson, Bennett got up the field from his 3-technique spot and flushed Allen to the right. Kyle Van Noy wasn't in position to contain the quarterback, providing Allen all kinds of time and space.
If those plays weren't executed the way the Patriots coaching staff had hoped -- players often say they're encouraged to "crush rush," bull-rushing mobile quarterbacks to crush the pocket around them -- that might help explain Bennett's playing time from that point on.
WEEK 5: SHOWING SIGNS
It hasn't all been bad for Bennett. He has 2.5 sacks, a quarterback hit and six more hurries in 130 snaps. And in Washington, though he only played 14 snaps, he flashed some positive signs of progress -- though not enough to get him on the field consistently the following week.
As a 3-technique, he moved with his block -- instead of bolting up the field -- to help limit a zone run. He drew a hold deep in Redskins territory with an effective bull rush. In the second half, he flashed his athleticism by moving around his blocker and into the backfield to share a sack with Dont'a Hightower.
And on a third-and-19, he made a very obvious attempt to two-gap the way his bigger teammates so often do. He peeked behind guard Wes Martin (No. 67) to be able to make a play on running back Chris Thompson whether he went to Martin's right or left.
Bennett wasn't able to shed and make the tackle in time, but it was an example -- late in a game where Bennett didn't play much -- of his willingness to try to do what he's been asked.
WEEK 6: MISSING IN ACTION
Bennett played just four meaningful snaps against the Giants. Three came in the first half, and they all came in the second quarter.
On one of those three snaps, he bumped into Butler during another stunt from his 5-technique position. While the Patriots appear to execute those types of plays multiple times over the course of a given game to help generate pressure, they've been a work in progress for Bennett, who in other systems was likely more accustomed to trying to beat his man and let others along the line worry about doing the same.
Something interesting happened when Bennett entered the game late, with the score 35-14. For the first time this season, he played as a wide 9-technique, on the outside shoulder of the tight end. (Below he's on the offensive right side of the formation in a three-point stance.) He showed good speed off the ball and flashed impressive power once he got into his blocker, notching a couple of hurries on back to back snaps.
We won't have an opportunity to see if Bennett will play more in that role on the outside in Week 7, but perhaps the Patriots will have him there down the line if they feel as though that's where he's best fit to play.
The Patriots have plenty of more versatile defenders who typically occupy that spot -- their outside linebacker group is among the deepest on the roster -- but if Bennett's performance inside isn't what they've wanted, then perhaps he's best suited for a niche role as more of a 7-technique or 9-technique player.
For a sense of just how different things have been for Bennett this year, consider this: Of the 130 snaps he's played, he's played just seven as a 7-technique defensive end outside of the tackle and six (all in meaningless work against the Giants) as a 9-technique. That's 10 percent of his total snap count this year.
Last year, according to Pro Football Focus numbers gathered by CLNS Media's Evan Lazar, Bennett played the LEO and REO spots -- the wide defensive end spot -- a combined 565 times. He also played as an outside linebacker an additional 27 times in Philadelphia's defense. In total, that was 71.3 percent of his workload.
Bennett is -- for now, at least -- more of an interior player, playing 78 percent of his snaps either as a 3-technique defensive tackle or across from a tackle as a 4- or 5-technique player. Used initially in run and pass situations this season, the Patriots have moved him further and further from the running game, having him on the field for just five run plays in his last three games.
What now? If the Patriots feel as though Bennett isn't a scheme fit (if he can't play as an undersized 3-4 end), and if they feel like they're deep enough at edge rusher (where he played most of last season) without him, then perhaps they'll be inclined to move him before the Oct. 29 trade deadline.
If they feel as though he can break the habits he's developed in other programs, if they feel as though he's physically built to withstand the rigors of life on the interior -- either by applying the coaching he's been getting or by showing better buy-in -- then they should keep him. He's clearly still physically gifted. He has noticeable burst off the line of scrimmage and on a per-snap basis, he's been productive with the work he's been given.
It may prove difficult to teach a 33-year-old new tricks, and his recent suspension may be an indication that he's not currently willing to learn them. But if he's not traded, and if he wants to get back on the field, he may have no other choice.
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