BOSTON (CBS) — For the first time in a long time, the Patriots had a bad rushing defense in 2020. Real bad.

The Patriots ranked 26th in rushing yards allowed and 18th in rushing touchdowns allowed. Outside of 2013 and 2002, the Patriots have never ranked so poorly in both categories under Bill Belichick.

That figures to change in a hurry for the 2021 squad.

For one, the improvements on offense should lighten the workload on the defense overall. (The Patriots punted 55 times, turned the ball over on downs eight times, and gave the ball away 19 times.)

More importantly, though, the Patriots made some upgrades on the front seven that should pay dividends in getting the defense closer to the 2019 level than last year’s group.

Depth Chart

DT
Montravius Adams
Christian Barmore
Byron Cowart
Carl Davis
Davon Godchaux
Lawrence Guy
Bill Murray
Akeem Spence
Nick Thurman

OLB/DE
Henry Anderson
Rashod Berry
Tashawn Bower
Matt Judon
Ronnie Perkins
Josh Uche
Kyle Van Noy
Chase Winovich
Deatrich Wise

LB
Ja’Whaun Bentley
Terez Hall
Dont’a Hightower
Anfernee Jennings
Brandon King
Harvey Langi
Cameron McGrone
Raekwon McMillan

ADDITIONS: Adams (FA), Anderson (FA), Barmore (draft), Godchaux (FA), Judon (FA), McGone (draft), McMillan (FA), Perkins (draft)

DEPARTURES: Beau Allen, Adam Butler, Brandon Copeland, John Simon (unsigned free agent)

Bulking up on the interior was clearly a priority for Bill Belichick. The team added Davon Godchaux (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) and Montravius Adams (6-foot-4, 304 pounds) to help plug the middle and account for the loss of Adam Butler. Then Belichick traded up in the draft to take Christian Barmore, who was considered by most analysts to be the best defensive tackle in the draft. The second-round pick could prove to be a steal if he fulfills that potential. And Henry Anderson will likely be  called upon to firmly set the edge, a critical component of the Patriots’ run defense.

And with the interior shored up, the Patriots can work on the edge to get after the quarterback more than they did a year ago, when they recorded the sixth-fewest sacks in the NFL. They spent big on Matt Judon, who’s averaged 7.5 sacks per season over the past four years. They brought back Kyle Van Noy, who played the best football of his life in the Patriots’ defense from 2016-19. And they kept Deatrich Wise in the fold, hoping for continued improvement in year five for the 2017 draft pick.

Inside, the significance of the return of Dont’a Hightower cannot be overstated. The linebacker does everything for the Patriots’ defense, and his absence last season as a COVID opt-out was insurmountable. His return helps the Patriots’ defense in stopping the run, defending the pass, getting after the quarterback, communicating before the snap, and countless other ways on and off the field. And with Hightower in his spot in the middle of the D, everyone else can slot into more suitable roles at the linebacker level.

The Patriots needed some strong upgrades throughout the front seven after an uncharacteristically weak season a year ago. They’ll have to prove they can work together in order to pull that off, but it would be hard to be critical about the moves made in the offseason to target that obvious weakness.

CBSBoston.com Staff