By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If Stephon Gilmore didn’t stick a hand in Devin Funchess’ face, this week’s discussion may have totally changed around the Patriots’ 33-30 loss to the Panthers. For starters, we may be talking about a win, as Tom Brady probably would have gotten the ball back with two minutes left needing to just get New England into field goal range.
The talk also would have spotlighted a clutch play by Deatrich Wise Jr.
It’s important to point out how promising the rookie pass rusher has looked through the first four games of his NFL career, as he’s been one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise below-average front-seven. Had the flag not come out on Gilmore on that fateful third-and-7 play late in the fourth quarter, Wise’s sack on Cam Newton would have dropped the Panthers back by 11 yards and forced a punt.
You can see in the GIF below how Wise brushed aside Panthers right guard Trai Turner (a Pro-Bowler for the past two seasons) and blew right through him to get to Newton in about three seconds:
The raw stats don’t look good for the Patriots’ pass rush, but it hasn’t been nearly as bad as the laughably poor coverage in the secondary. The Pats’ eight sacks as a team ranks just 27th in the NFL through four weeks, but they’re not usually about sacks as much as pure pressure – and there are signs that they’re improving. According to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots pressured Newton on 24 of his 33 dropbacks – a good rate that may have had a bigger effect on the game if the QB wasn’t able to chuck the ball to wide-open receivers on so many plays.
On the season, PFF has graded Wise an “above average” 83.7, including 84.4 in pass rushing. Trey Flowers has earned himself an 81.1 overall and generated three sacks, six hits, and 12 hurries in four games. If not for his forced fumble at the start of the third quarter, the Patriots’ loss may have been much uglier.
Of course, this is not to say the Patriots have had a good pass rush. They’ve gotten virtually nothing in that department out of their linebackers. But Dont’a Hightower has barely even played so far and should be able to contribute more as he gets healthier (and hopefully stays that way). The play of Wise and Flowers up front has at least shown glimpses that the defensive front could develop into an average, serviceable unit over the course of the season.
The secondary play has been positively atrocious, but it’s not an issue of talent, either. The hope is that they can work out their egregious communication problems and develop into the strength of the defense that they were expected to be. If the Patriots are going to be the legitimate Super Bowl contender (or favorite) that they were supposed to be in 2017, that will have to happen.
If it does, the pass rush could suddenly achieve “good enough” status, especially if Wise and Flowers keep stepping up in big moments.
It’s worth noting that Wise delivered a clutch play when the defense really needed it at the end of that game. It was simply all for naught thanks to Gilmore’s costly penalty. The Patriots’ pass rush may not become a strength, but it has a chance to at least work its way toward the middle of the pack. And if not for Gilmore, the group would have made a crucial contribution to what very well could have been another classic Brady comeback.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.