If the New England Patriots were going to have success in 2021, Bill Belichick needed to be a prime candidate for the Coach of the Year award. The NFL has often discounted Belichick as a finalist because he is often the best coach in the NFL. But this year felt like a particularly large achievement: making the playoffs with a rookie quarterback — and for the first time since Tom Brady’s departure.
The 2021 Patriots’ successes have been tied much closer to Belichick’s achievements and failures than they have been with those of quarterback Mac Jones, even if he tends to find himself in the spotlight.
This Patriots team was supposed to be built around Belichick’s brain — not necessarily around Jones’ progress and development. So as the Patriots head into the postseason — and Jones’ development seems to have stalled — Belichick needs to get to work. Jones may be averaging 1.5 turnovers per game in his last four appearances, but the Patriots defense is also failing to generate turnovers of its own, with just four takeaways in the last four games — a massive regression from their 26 in their first 13 games.
Belichick is struggling to get the most out of his top two defensive players Matt Judon, who signed this offseason for four year and $56 million, and J.C. Jackson, who is among the league’s best cornerbacks. Those two players will be key in slowing Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who had a sensational Week 16 performance in New England (30/47, 314 passing yards, 3 touchdowns; 12 carries, 64 rushing yards).
Judon, in particular, has struggled in run defense and has slowed what had been a torrid sack pace. After opening with 12.5 sacks in 14 games, he has none in the last four. It’s a similar story with pressures. He had 59 in the first 13 games and four in the last four games. Judon was limited with COVID-19 and played sparingly against the Buffalo Bills. But it seems offenses have found ways to neutralize him.
Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick fielded a question about Judon’s recently-declining statistics.
“Yeah, there’s something to be said for what happens on paper. I’d say the biggest thing is, did you get the win or the loss? I have no issues with Judon right now,” Belichick said Tuesday. “He continues to make plays for us whether they show up on the stat sheet or not.”
The Patriots have gotten good — not great — play from Jackson. And it’s fair to expect the best from a player with the second-most interceptions in the NFL. He dropped a few interceptions in recent weeks, most notably his botched opportunity against the Bills in the fourth quarter of Week 16. he also allowed a touchdown in Week 18 against the Dolphins. As ridiculous as it sounds, mistakes are atypical for the cornerback this year.
New England’s confidence in Jackson doesn’t seem to have wavered.
“I’ve got confidence in everything that I call that J.C. will get the job done out there — along with everyone on the defense,” Belichick said Tuesday. “Along your question with J.C., I see all the work he puts in during the week. I see him studying. I see him preparing. I see him compete every single day he goes out on the field.”
There’s no denying the offense can play better. There’s no denying Jones can and should play better. But the defense is the strength of this team. The defense, when playing well, allows the offense to run the ball early and often, which plays to their strengths. And so it’s the defense, guided by Bill Belichick, that has to step up in this upcoming postseason game.