By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Leading up to the 2021 Patriots season, we’ll be taking a look at a specific storyline that will have our attention throughout the season. Today we dive into the team’s special group of pass rushers, one that will be causing some nightmares throughout the year.READ MORE: NFL Adds Monday Night Playoff Game To Wild Card Weekend
The Patriots aren’t always known for possessing an elite pass rush. They’re more of an opportunistic team when it comes to getting to an opposing quarterback, focusing more on a disciplined defensive approach.
But this year, Bill Belichick can deploy several quarterback-seeking missiles when he sends the defense out on the field. The biggest bang will be provided by prized free agent signing Matt Judon, who is determined to live up to the four-year, $56 million contract that Belichick gave him over the offseason. He was named a Pro Bowler the last two seasons after racking up 15.5 sacks for the Ravens, including a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2019, and he’s gotten to the quarterback 34.5 times over his five-year career. He looked like he was being shot out of a cannon when he was on the field in the preseason, and will be making life miserable for opposing offensive coordinators for 17 of the next 18 weekends.
Judon’s going to be commanding a ton of attention from opposing blockers, which will just open up avenues for other Patriots pass rushers to get to the quarterback. The return of Dont’a Hightower and the versatile Kyle Van Noy will really open things up for the team’s linebackers, which is great news for second-year linebacker Josh Uche. He’s poised to break out in his own right, but with such a vast collection of pass rushers around him, he’s going to get his share of licks on quarterbacks. He was a talented pass rusher his final two seasons at Michigan, and should come into his own at the NFL level in the very near future.READ MORE: Patriots-Saints What To Watch For: A 'Do Your Job' Week For Pats Against Alvin Kamara
Rookies Ronnie Perkins (16.5 sacks in three years at Oklahoma) and Christian Barmore (eight sacks last season for Alabama) are also a few big bodies that could create a spark on defense. And if he can ever get out of Belichick’s dog house, Chase Winovich can get into the backfield.
With all of these different players capable of getting to the quarterback, the Patriots could find themselves with one of the NFL’s best pass rushes in the league. The last time that New England was close to the top of the NFL in sacks was in 2015, when the Patriots ranked second with 49 sacks. Chandler Jones led the pack with 12.5 sacks, while Jabaal Sheard chipped in with eight, while several others (Jamie Collins Sr., Rob Ninkovich and Hightower — just to name a few) were able to apply pressure. It’s not an unrealistic expectation for Judon to hit double digits in sacks, with a slew of other players flirting with eight or more this season.
Facing Tua Tagovailoa and rookie Josh Wilson twice will help the cause. Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold — all quarterbacks who love to be sacked — are on the schedule in 2021, as is rookie Trevor Lawrence.
And with a secondary that will get picked on early in the season, and perhaps all season depending on how the Stephon Gilmore situation plays out, the Patriots are going to have to make quarterbacks as uncomfortable as possible in the pocket. With an incredible group of players that can seek out a QB, expect some big sack totals from the Patriots in 2021.MORE NEWS: Thursday Night Football Claims Pair Of High-Profile Panthers To Injury
Tune in to Patriots-Dolphins on Sunday, Sept. 12 on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots! Coverage begins Wednesday night with Patriots 1st Down at 10:30 p.m. on TV38 and continues Friday night with Patriots All Access at 7 p.m. on WBZ! Our opening day coverage begins with Patriots GameDay at 11:30 a.m., the Patriots and the Dolphins kick off at 4:25 p.m., and after the game switch over to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!