New England Patriots: Relying on born-again linebackers

New England hasn't been able to cover running backs in the passing game for years. Will a born again group provide better coverage in 2019?

New England has reached the Super Bowl in four of the past five seasons, winning three of their appearances. This has occurred despite serious issues in linebacker play over the years. Without rehashing the Patriots deficiencies as a run defense, let’s focus on a recurring weakness of the team: covering running backs in the passing game.

While this is not exclusively the responsibility of a team’s linebackers, a lot of the onus falls upon the position. As a result, we can look to FootballOutsider’s coverage vs. running back rankings as a decent proxy for how well New England’s linebackers have performed over the past half-decade:

Year

Coverage Rank

2018

22nd

2017

22nd

2016

22nd

2015

17th

2014

27th

As illustrated above, New England has managed to reach or win the Super Bowl despite being below average covering running backs in the passing game. In fact, the one season when they were average, 2015, is the one time in the past five years where they did not represent the AFC in the season finale. Go figure.

The Patriots are banking on a born again group of linebackers in order to provide better passing game coverage. Born again in the sense that the team got the band back together and are hoping to turn back the clock. The final piece of the puzzle is a second-year youngster that flashed as a rookie.

New England’s linebacking core

The core of this group will be Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins. Ja’Whaun Bentley is the fresh blood that showed out on a very small snap count in 2018.

With this in mind, let’s look at the three main linebackers’ coverage grades over the past five years.

Year Hightower Van Noy Collins
2018 63.5 (32nd)* 64.5 (27th)* 59.8 (37th)*
2017  N/A 58.4 (32nd)* 41.2 (94th)**
2016 68.3 (27th)* 54.4 (73rd)** (Detroit)

52.9 (76th)** (NE)

72.1 (26th)** (NE)

51.8 (77th)** (CLE

2015 66.7 (18th)* N/A 77.7 (10th)*
2014 84.4 (7th)* 69.0 (17th)* N/A

*Rank among linebackers that played a minimum of 550 snaps
**Rank among linebackers that played a minimum of 222 snaps

Years ago, Hightower and Collins excelled in coverage. However, both have been steadily declining since. At times Collins has been downright horrendous. Van Noy appears to have settled in at mediocre once becoming a full-time player for New England.

Keep this table in your memories as we move throughout the rest of this article.

Before Hightower saved Super Bowl XLIX (before Malcolm Butler saved Super Bowl XLIX), Jamie Collins was torched in coverage by Marshawn Lynch. There was 2:02 remaining in the 4th quarter, with the Seahawks having just received the ball after a touchback. From the 20, all the Patriots had to do was get one stop to hit the two-minute warning and have great odds of winning the Super Bowl.

But New England’s defense did everything they could to blow the game. It’s kind of been their thing since 2007. Forget the lap catch. Forget the Hightower tackle. Forget the Butler interception. Seattle most likely never gets that close if this never happens.

Lynch makes Collins look silly, and the Seahawks cross midfield on one play before the two-minute warning. New England’s win probability dropped ~20% from that single play.

However, instead of importing a specialist for an upgrade, the Patriots are trying to recreate some magic of yesteryear. Is the cast of characters up to the challenge?

Dont’a Hightower

With the five years since Hightower’s excellent season in coverage comes five years of difficult aging. Hightower has repeatedly missed games throughout his career and was limited to only five in 2017.

At the beginning of 2018, he looked cooked. He was noticeably stiff and slow with 2014 feeling and looking like a lifetime ago. Even 2015 feels like memories of a past life.

At 29-years-old, the ship has most likely sailed on Hightower regaining some athleticism and turning back the clock. At this point, the wise bet is he continues to plod along as a middling linebacker in coverage.

Jamie Collins

Remember, Collins was banished to the Browns in 2016 for breaking the scheme repeatedly. It’s not that he left the team while in Bill Belichick’s dog house, he left the team by Belichick picking up the dog house and throwing it into the dumpster fire labeled “Hue Jackson.”

As laid out above, Collins’ career in coverage took a dark turn upon his arrival in Cleveland before leveling out to passable in 2018. Collins turns 30 in October, so similar to Hightower the best-educated guess is that his prime coverage days are behind him.

The hope really is that he can settle in between his 2018 and 2016 New England range to be adequate in this department. Remember, the Patriots aim to be the team with the least amount of flaws, not the team sporting the most amount of strengths. Collins being a top 30 coverage linebacker is a win for this roster.

Kyle Van Noy

Van Noy is an interesting case. In 2015, the first where he played enough snaps to qualify, he did well in coverage. He then was poor in 2016 when he spent half his time in Detroit and half his time in New England. Since then he has been serviceable during his two full seasons with the Patriots.

Van Noy doesn’t need to pop in this category in 2019. An incremental uptick toward the 20th best coverage linebacker will sufficient. The most likely outcome, however, is that he hovers around 30th again.

Ja’Whaun Bentley

The beacon of hope. The young blood. The youth in the pipeline.

On an extremely small sample of 138 snaps last season, Bentley showed out for New England. He posted an 80.7 overall grade. Jordan Hicks posted an 80.7 grade in 2018 which ranked 10th among all linebackers.

To be clear, this is a massive small sample size alert. Still, what Bentley did at the beginning of the season was extremely encouraging. The biggest size was how well he did in coverage.

The book on Bentley coming into the draft is that he was a run stopper that struggled to defend the pass. Despite this, Bentley posted an 84.5 coverage grade last season. Even smaller sample size alert: it came on 73 coverage snaps.

There is a lot of noise in what Bentley did last year. Odds are he isn’t an immediate top 10 linebacker in the NFL. All that said, he represents the easiest path to improvement in this area for New England if he can build on his rookie year flashes.

The aggregate

New England is hoping that by running it back with a similar cast of characters, the linebacker play in 2019 will be good enough. This group is almost reborn with the return of Collins.

The best shot at finally improving in an area that has plagued the Patriots for years is an inexperienced linebacker that far exceeded expectations to begin his pro career. How reliable it is that Bentley continues that play is up for debate. The odds are probably against him.

Despite getting the band back together and holding a lottery ticket, the outlook in this department still looks as bleak as we’ve seen in the past half decade.

Jonathan Rosenberg is a writer for PFN covering the New England Patriots. You can find him @frosted_takes on Twitter.

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast!

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Fantasy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review!

Related Articles