They started slowly during the season and again in the championship game. As a defense, they give up yards and aren’t loaded with stars. Oh, and all the attention goes to their own quarterback.
In that sense, Matt Patricia is perfectly groomed (if not facially groomed), for the next gigantic task, here with the Lions. The defensive coordinator wasn’t the focal point of the Patriots’ 24-20 AFC championship thriller over Jacksonville. That would be Tom Brady, again and forever.
But Lions fans desperately looking for a template, for signs their all-but-signed head coach can do a lot with less, there it was. The Patriots don’t have any defensive players on the first or second All-Pro teams. They field a collection of disparate pieces, from discards to a smattering of high picks. And early against Jacksonville, they were getting shredded, as the Jaguars drove 76 and 77 yards for touchdowns and a 14-3 lead.
Sideline cameras showed a frustrated Patricia, but not a frantic Patricia. A few hours later, cameras showed an exuberant Patricia squeezing a rare smile out of Bill Belichick with a big ol’ bear hug. In the celebration aftermath, Patricia was seen laying on the turf with his son, making angels in the confetti debris.
The Lions will have to wait a couple more weeks to officially land their man, but that’s OK, because Patricia apparently teaches patience well.
He also could be different than previous Belichick disciples, proving capable of both cold calculation and raw, bubbling emotion.
“(My son) hasn’t really been to a lot of games,” Patricia said Monday. “He wanted to go play on the field, so we played a good game of touch football. He beat me 4-0, kind of outran me there a little bit.”
By the time Patricia plays his son again, he’ll likely have made the necessary adjustments. We have no way of knowing whether Patricia will be the guy to finally, fully alter the Lions’ culture, but there’s little question he has the ingredients and the credentials, from his intelligence to his competitiveness to his strategic edge.
How much credit?
In the first half against the Jaguars, Blake Bortles rolled up a 131.9 passer rating and Jacksonville piled up 209 total yards. The Patriots deftly adjusted — by all accounts, it’s Patricia’s overwhelming strength, half to half, game to game — and cranked up the aggression. On seven second-half possessions, New England held Jacksonville to a pair of field goals, forced four punts and stopped the Jaguars on downs on the final drive.
“Over 16 games, a play or two may have success,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “But Matt said it best: It wasn’t a big adjustment that you needed to do, it was just needing to play aggressively.”
It probably won’t be that simple taking over the Lions, where Patricia is expected to be in charge of the defense. The theory is, he’ll retain Jim Bob Cooter to run the offense with Matthew Stafford, although that’s not been confirmed.
Patricia, 43, has been Belichick’s defensive coordinator for six years, and is headed to his third Super Bowl in that capacity. New England assistants often are touted and then struggle as head coaches, partly because it’s impossible to know how much of their success is tied to the system.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels apparently will get a second shot, with the Colts. Is he respected because he’s bright, or just bright enough to let Brady be Brady? Is Patricia respected because he’s bright, or bright enough to implement Belchick’s system and endure his demanding ways?
The Patriots’ defense can’t be pegged because it’s ever-changing, from 3-4 to 4-3 principles, plugging in players that haven’t worked out elsewhere. Former Lion Kyle Van Noy is a prime example, essentially dumped two years ago. Against Jacksonville, he collected the key sack on the final drive, led New England with nine tackles in the game, and finished fourth on the team in tackles during the season.
Van Noy’s role at middle linebacker grew after the Patriots lost Dont’a Hightower for the season, and he played multiple positions. The Lions never saw that versatility after drafting Van Noy in the second round, although nobody turns projects into important pieces like the Patriots do.
New England’s leading sack guy in the regular season was Trey Flowers, a former fourth-round pick, with 6.5. Their two leading tacklers are defensive backs Devin McCourty, a first-rounder, and Patrick Chung, released by Philadelphia.
One of their secondary backups is Johnson Bademosi, another former Lion acquired for a late pick. One of their defensive linemen – Lawrence Guy – was released by several teams and another — Eric Lee — was signed off Buffalo’s practice squad. The Patriots rarely spend big on a free-agent, although they sprung for cornerback Stephen Gilmore, and he made the fourth-down knock-away against Jacksonville.
Everyone has to be able to do just about everything, and there’s always room for more. Late in the season, New England added former Steelers star James Harrison, and he’s been a disruptive factor.
Signs are encouraging
After four games this season, the Patriots were allowing an average of 31 points. In the final 12 games, they gave up an average of 14. New England’s defense finished 29th in total yards but fifth in total points, from a stagnant start to a furious finish, kind of like the Jacksonville game.
Naturally, Patricia downplays his tactical maneuvering. It’s not just about personnel sets, but a mindset.
“I think those guys just executed everything a little better than we’d done early in the game,” Patricia said. “Obviously they gave us some problems that we had to try to handle. A lot of it for us was trying to settle down, communicate, be aggressive and play our fundamental stuff a lot better.”
Fundamentals and aggression, simple concepts. And by his standard look — scraggly beard, pencil behind the ear, hat turned backward — Patricia isn’t a frills guy. That’s good, because the Lions aren’t loaded with frills, with Darius Slay their lone Pro Bowl defender.
It was only one game, one strong second half, one more comeback on a list of many for the Patriots. For the Lions, it was one enlightening glimpse into what they hope they’re about to get.