Matt Judon, New England Patriots' defense show early signs of promise

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There was a play during a New England Patriots practice in June when a wave of defenders crowded the line of scrimmage in two-point stances, challenging the offensive line to identify who might be rushing or dropping out.

Big-buck free-agent acquisition Matt Judon was one of the players. He exploded so decisively through a gap, essentially blowing up the play, that veteran safety Adrian Phillips couldn't contain his excitement. Phillips and Judon leaped into the air, high-fiving each other.

"That's my guy," Phillips later said with a smile.

The play was a reflection of one of the aims of spring practices, and also of the potential promise for a defense in hopes of a rebound in 2021.

Players don't practice in full pads in the spring, so outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick noted that the work was more about "understanding the mechanics of how to get to the quarterback, different rush paths and different rush lanes -- all that type of stuff."

That's something the Patriots could benefit from improving, considering their 24 sacks last season were the fewest for any Bill Belichick team in his 46 seasons coaching in the NFL (head coach or assistant).

Spring practices were also a chance for players to study the playbook, focus on communication, and simply get to know each other. Along those lines, Judon, who spent the first five years of his career with the Baltimore Ravens, made an impression on longtime captain Devin McCourty at the end of one day.

As is the norm, Bill Belichick summons players to the conditioning hill to cap things off, and the running is usually split up by position. But the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Judon shook things up, joining skill-position players who weighed significantly less than him.

"He's out in front, pushing himself," McCourty said.

Judon described it as just letting his competitive side show.

"It's to get my body in condition, to make it harder [than] it will be on Sunday," he said. "I'm always up for a race and a challenge."

With Judon as a signature addition setting an early tone, the Patriots look much deeper and more talented on defense, where they ranked 26th last season against the run (131.4 avg.) and 27th in the red zone touchdown percentage allowed (49 possessions, 32 TDs).

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower returned from his 2020 opt-out season, and made one of the best defensive plays of the spring, leaping high to intercept rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

Fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy was around the ball, too, picking off one pass and looking like a versatile chess piece primed to prove to the Miami Dolphins they made a mistake letting him go.

Meanwhile, one could envision a Lawrence Guy/Davon Godchaux pairing at defensive tackle providing more resistance against the run.

Free-agent defensive lineman Henry Anderson is part of that as well, while McCourty sees fifth-year veteran defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. stepping into more of a leadership role along with others, such as linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley. Josh Uche, a 2020 second-round pick from Michigan, also seems ready for increased responsibilities.

There is a looming question at cornerback, where No. 1 option Stephon Gilmore stayed away this spring. He's due a base salary of $7 million, below market value for a player of his caliber, so his status bears monitoring.

But even in his absence this spring, the Patriots fielded a competitive secondary with top cornerbacks J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones, and safeties McCourty, Phillips and Kyle Dugger leading the way.

Players stressed that there is a lot of work ahead, and nothing is given. Still, the quality and depth of personnel was hard to miss.

"When you put all those pieces together and there ain't no telling what we can do," said Phillips, the veteran safety. "You see a jump across the whole field and overall making our defense better."