After several key departures in the offseason, it’s safe to say that the New England Patriots defense has regressed from last season. Some regression was bound to happen after the Patriots posted historical numbers on the defensive side in 2019, but it’s been a steeper decline than originally anticipated.

New England still has one of the best secondaries in football, but their second-level has been borderline disastrous so far this year. On top of that, their pass rush has been suspect. All in all, New England has a slightly above average, but opportunistic defense as they lead the league in interceptions. 

Part of the issue with the pass rush is about who isn’t back this season. Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, who were the Patriots sack leaders in 2019, left in free agency due to salary cap restrictions. Defensive captain Dont’a Hightower, who set a career high in sacks last year, opted out of the season due to concerns about the Coronavirus. Between those three players, New England is missing 19.0 out of 47.0 total sacks as a team last season.

Second-year defensive end Chase Winovich, who registered 5.5 sacks as a rookie, entered this year as the Patriots most productive and best pure pass rusher. Despite starting the season with 2.5 sacks through four games, Winovich’s production and playing time had fallen off over the past month. 

In New England’s consecutive losses against Denver, San Francisco and Buffalo, Winovich logged just 40 defensive snaps and 2 tackles. But against Baltimore, Winovich logged 65 snaps and it resulted in arguably the best game of his career. 

Defensively, New England is one of the teams that generally lead the NFL in their use of man coverage. They have the personnel in the secondary to use man coverage against every wide receiver corps, and are able to bring extra pressure as a result. The issue with man coverage, however, is that it turns the defensive backs away from the quarterback as they lock in on the receivers. This means that the pass rush needs to be disciplined in order to pressure the quarterback while still keeping him in the pocket.

When defenses run zone, the coverage is able to pass off routes while keeping their eyes in the backfield for a potential scramble. Facing the dynamic Lamar Jackson, New England opted for more zone coverage.

With that extra assurance from the secondary, pass rushers such as Winovich can really “pin their ears back” and take more chances. This is especially true when a defense, such as New England’s last Sunday night, decides to play with extra defensive backs on the field, creating more speed in their underneath zones.

On a pure pass rushing rep in the first half of the game, Winovich used a “Ghost” pass rushing move to beat Ravens tackle Orlando Brown. Winovich flashed his inside hand as though he was going for the long arm move, which made Brown shoot his hands, only for Winovich to pull it back and flatten his pads around the edge. 

For the rest of the game, Winovich’s pass rush was built around that speed to the outside. Even on his inside moves and stunts, Winovich was getting the offensive tackles to respect his outside rush first, turning their hips to the outside to open a lane on the interior.

On this rep, Winovich draws a holding call on right tackle D.J. Fluker, but New England was smart to spy Lamar Jackson with the speedy Jonathan Jones in case of a scramble to the outside. 

New England purposefully schemed opportunities for Winovich by using their best stunt weapon: Deatrich Wise Jr. At 6’5 and 275 pounds with the athleticism of a defensive end, Wise is brilliant at using his frame and agility to crowd offensive lineman and make it difficult for them to pass off blocks.

New England ran a “T/E” stunt (defensive tackle before the defensive end) to free up Winovich for a quarterback hit. Sometimes Lamar and Mark Andrews are just too good.

On the Ravens final offensive drive, Winovich forced a checkdown with a pressure on a spin move. He brilliantly waited for the offensive tackle to shoot his inside hand, which was when Winovich dropped his pads low and spun underneath the punch. It was an impressive display of patience as a pass rusher and the technique to pull off a spin in tight quarters. Once again, that was only set up because of his earlier wins on the outside.

As previously mentioned, the training wheels were taken off of Winovich and he was allowed to take more chances as a pass rusher. That resulted in improved pass rush production (9 pressures), but also some sloppy reps. New England is going to have to live with that to get the most out of Winovich, which is necessary for this particular Patriots defense that is struggling to get after the quarterback. They will be able to rely on him when the defensive gameplan calls for more zone coverage, specifically against mobile quarterbacks.

Speaking of quarterbacks who have speed and can extend plays, New England plays one on Sunday in Deshaun Watson.

The Patriots will lean on Winovich’s development as a pass rusher to disrupt the Texans passing game, and he will face a test in left tackle Laremy Tunsil. As long as New England properly schemes plays for Winovich to hunt quarterbacks, either protecting him with a spy behind him or speed in underneath zones, the Patriots will get the necessary pass rush production.

Winovich’s development has involved improved awareness of protections and routes to his side, which should keep his playing time steady moving forward.

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