BALTIMORE — Devin McCourty put it bluntly early in the week. The Ravens were in possession of an offense unlike any the Patriots had encountered. Lamar Jackson was in possession of a skill set the Patriots had never before had to stop.
"We haven’t seen an offense like this," McCourty said. "We haven’t seen a quarterback like this."
Given all this defense has seen, that's saying something.
As the Patriots look to continue to build on what's been a historic statistical season on that side of the ball, they'll match up with Jackson and the Ravens as the oldest defense in the NFL.
'NOT OLD ENOUGH TO USE A CANE'
After tallying the ages of each team's 11 players with the most starts this season, the Patriots came out with the highest average starter age: 29.27 years old.
And they were No. 1 with a bullet.
There was a three-way tie for the next-oldest defense between the Ravens, Rams and Vikings. All three had an average starter's age of 28.09, more than a full year younger than the average Patriots starter. Eight teams had an average age between 27 and 28 years old. The NFC's most dominant defense, the Niners, have an average age of 25.64 years old.
For some historical perspective, the 2000 Ravens starting defense — which featured 35-year-old safety Rod Woodson — had an average age of 28.09. The 1985 Bears had a starting group with an average age of 26.18.
No matter how you slice it, the Patriots have a level of experience that is rare. It just might be one of the secrets to their success.
"I think we obviously have a good group of guys when it comes to having knowledge of the system," McCourty said recently. "I’m still not old enough to use a cane, and still can still run around a little bit out there."
BETTER (STATISTICALLY) WITH AGE
Indeed, for as experienced as the Patriots are — the McCourtys are 32, Patrick Chung is 32, Jamie Collins is 30, Lawrence Guy, Stephon Gilmore and Dont'a Hightower are all 29 — some of the team's best athletes can be found on that side of the ball. Devin McCourty hit 22.05 miles per hour during a pick-six in Buffalo last year; Jonathan Jones, a slot corner and talented punt-team gunner, is considered to be in the conversation as one of the fastest players on the team.
The physical skills of Patriots defenders have been fairly obvious to anyone who's watched them this season. Gilmore's blend of strength, speed and quickness have helped him establish a reputation as the best cover corner in the league. Players like Guy and Hightower remain forces at the point of attack. Collins is able to leap-frog grown men from a stationary position. Kyle Van Noy, 28, has used a variety of pass-rush moves to power through or bend around blockers to rack up a team-high 31 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
And the statistics the team has accumulated would back up that they're doing more than simply out-thinking opponents.
As our Tom E. Curran enumerated in his "Chasing history" column this week, what the Patriots are doing — regardless of the competition they've faced -- has been remarkable. They've allowed 40 points. They've allowed four touchdown drives. They've ended six opponent drives with touchdowns themselves. They're on pace to wipe out the lowest third-down conversion percentage allowed this century (2017 Vikings, 25.25 percent) by almost 10 percent (15.6).
'A GOOD HEAD START'
Dominant as they've been, the Patriots haven't reinvented the wheel defensively. They mix up their coverages but play primarily Cover 1 man-to-man looks that many teams around the league are beginning to favor. They scheme up their pass-rush with extra bodies, well-timed twists and stunts along the line of scrimmage, or all of the above.
The secret, though, might be that they can run a variety of different defenses — almost mistake-free — from one snap to the next in order to give opposing offensive coordinators ulcers. In order to do that, Bill Belichick has needed experienced players.
Experience in the NFL helps. But experience in the system — with the terminology, with the coaching points, with each other — is paramount.
"I’d say overall, when you look at our defensive roster, there’s a lot of guys that have played a lot of football here," Belichick said last month. "But, this year’s [continuity] has probably been a little bit more, maybe, than in the past. Adding a player like Jamie Collins, who’s a new player, but he’s not really a new player -- that probably sort of counts as an experienced veteran player. So, yeah . . . our carryover defensively is good.
"We did have a good head start on that, but I think over the last couple years we’ve had a pretty high level of continuity. Granted, we’ve lost a couple of big players here over the last few years — Trey Flowers, who was really a three-year heavy starter for us, and Logan Ryan, and [Malcolm] Butler, and guys like that. They had played three or four years, so this year it was good to have Jason [McCourty] back with Steph and Jon Jones and J.C. [Jackson]. So, there’s good continuity there at the corner position, maybe a little more than we’ve had in the last couple years, but Steph’s been here three years and Jon’s been here four years. It’s maybe a little more than it’s been, but we’ve had a decent level of that over the last two or three years, too."
As ESPN's Bill Barnwell pointed out this week, all of the 15 most-frequently used players on the Patriots defense have multiple seasons with the team. Ten have at least three years in New England.
To go from last year's Super Bowl, holding one of the league's most explosive offenses to just three points on the game's biggest stage, and then return with the majority of that group? That has allowed the Patriots -- as Belichick put it -- a nice little "head start" on their competition.
"The biggest thing is most of the same group from that Super Bowl is back," Van Noy told The Pat McAfee Show recently. "We lost Trey Flowers and that's about it. We gained more people. We gained a lot of depth. You have guys in the secondary, we have probably everyone in the secondary is starter at places, and every at linebacker we have is a starter at other places, and up front everyone can start.
"It's really, really impressive the depth we have . . . We're just playing on a string. Everybody is tied together. Everybody knows their role. I thin that's a big thing when every year you try to find your role on whatever team you're on. But this team we already knew each other's roles before the season even started. Now we're just trying to maintain and keeping it going."
'WHATEVER YOU SEE . . . MAKE THE CALL'
With great experience has come great responsibility, though.
Because Belichick trusts that his defense can juggle several different approaches to a given situation, he'll lay them all out there for the players to choose.
"There’s a lot of times for us as defenders," Devin McCourty said, "we go out there and he’ll tell us like, 'Hey, you’ve got five different options right here. Whatever you see best, by formation, by personnel, make the call.' And he’s told, whether it’s myself, Duron [Harmon], Pat, who really makes a lot of calls, Hightower, Jamie, [Ja’Whaun Bentley], [Elandon Roberts] — he tells us all as signal callers, 'Nine of out 10 times, I trust you’re going to make the right decision. So I don’t want to tell you what to do and ruin the game.'
"As he always says, 'Coaches mess up games more than anything.' And I think him allowing us to do that, for one, it makes us want to study and understand the game, to take accountability to our coaches, to our teammates. And then I think, two, it allows us to just play free — go out there, study the game and do what you think is necessary. I think once you’re able to do that, good or bad, it falls on us and we take that responsibility.
"I think that’s why you see us playing so fast as a defense right now because if something goes wrong on the field, we don’t have to look to the sideline. We’re sitting there talking to each other like, 'I’ve got to do this next time. I’ll do that.' And I think that enables us, no matter if we give up a play or not, to continue to just try to play good football."
They may give up plays against the Ravens. Everyone this season has. Jackson's ability to turn nothing into an explosive gain from his position is unique. He might require a different type of defense — maybe one that forces the Patriots to get more speed on the field.
If that's the case, if they go with a little different starting lineup, whoever's out there knows he'll have the benefit of working with a unit that has several coaching proxies on the field, able to provide feedback in real time as the game is buzzing around them.
"We're just led by a great group of veterans," said first-year Patriots safety Terrence Brooks, a six-year veteran who could factor into Sunday's defensive plan as a sure-tackling core special-teamer with 157 defensive snaps to his name this season.
"These are probably some of the smartest players I've ever played with. It makes the job a lot easier. You don't always need your coach there to tell you what to do. You have people who are in the game with you going through that experience so they have a little more insight in that way. These guys have been phenomenal with the communication."
PROFILE NO ACCIDENT
How did the Patriots get here? How did they become the oldest and most dominating defense in football?
Players like Chung and Devin McCourty have been around for half of Belichick's Patriots tenure. They help to make up a core — with players like Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater — that represents the second iteration of the Patriots dynasty. But a couple of 30-somethings on the defensive side aren't enough to make them the most experienced unit in the NFL.
Stockpiling low-cost veterans is something the Patriots have made a habit of in recent years. Veteran players are typically known commodities, even if some of them -- like Van Noy -- came to the Belichick's roster from another program where they hadn't reached their potential. They also typically don't require the number of weeks that integrating younger players might in an age when the collective bargaining agreement limits practice time.
The Patriots would love nothing more than to hit on every draft pick they make — and they've made 19 over the last two seasons in an effort to infuse their locker room with some youth — but they've also been one of the league's trailblazing organizations when it comes to pick-for-player deals that inevitably inflate the team's average age.
They were the oldest 53-man roster in football when teams entered Week 1 of the regular season this year, and they would've held that title even if they'd somehow replaced their 42-year-old quarterback with someone 15 years younger.
On OverTheCap.com, you can see just how invested the Patriots are in veteran talent. No team has more cap space devoted to what the site calls "low" veteran contracts, meaning deals that take up $4.4 million or less on the cap. (Jason McCourty, Collins and Jones would all qualify as "low" veteran signings.) They're fifth in the league in cap dollars committed to "middle" veteran contracts, meaning deals that range from $4.4 million to $8.4 million on the cap. (Van Noy, Harmon, Chung and Guy all qualify as having "middle" veteran contracts.) Meanwhile, they're 30th in cap spending on rookie deals.
Belichick has been willing to pay for experience on his defense, and it makes sense as to why. With half the 2019 season in the books, and with the Patriots on track to rewrite records, it's clear there is no substitute.
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