Bill Belichick always says stats are for losers. If you’re a team, and play like a team, there is no truer mantra.
And while the Patriots believe in the message from their head coach, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a little fun with numbers.
Members of the team’s dominant defensive unit use sacks, picks, forced fumbles, and every other defensive statistic to push each other to greater heights.
It’s a friendly competition between the players. Since none of the opposing offenses have put up much of a fight, why not challenge each other?
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower says everyone enjoys their little side battles and competitions wanting to one-up the next guy.
Right now, safety Devin McCourty has four picks. Linebacker Jamie Collins has three, followed by Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson with two. Collins is just ahead of Jason McCourty on team tackles, and leads Kyle Van Noy in sacks. Those numbers allow for good competitive banter between the players.
“We feed off of each other. If somebody is making a play, like (Jason McCourty) got a pick (against the Redskins), I know when I get on the bus, I’m going to hear a tweet like I’ve got to get another pick. We compete. It’s a great group, not just in the linebacker room but the defense. We all want to compete. (Patrick) Chung and (Terrence) Brooks are competing with us on sacks. We’re trying to get more picks, more forced fumbles. It’s a great defense.”
It started as a game between the linebackers. It started with the Boogeymen, as they are now known. But with the McCourty brothers, it’s expanded to the corners and safeties and beyond. The result has the Patriots leading the league in both sacks (25) and interceptions (14) collectively.
“We go back and forth. It’s bragging rights,” Hightower said, when asked to expand on the subject during the week. “It helps the practices go by. It makes the games funner. I think it brings a lot more camaraderie, and brings us closer together.”
With Van Noy getting a fumble return for a touchdown Thursday night against the Giants, and Chase Winovich picking up a blocked punt and taking it to the house, there’s more material for the linebacker room to chew on.
It’s interesting to note that many past Patriot defenses, the great ones anyway, played similar games, and had similar in-house battles within the group with the same kind of friendly wagering going on.
Rodney Harrison, on the championship teams from 2003 and 2004, said those Patriots defenses, at that time the best in the NFL, also kept score of who was making plays.
“You’re spot on with that. Any time I played on a great defense, the challenge was to stop an opposing defense. But, behind that was, you always had bets, and challenges, and stuff like that with your teammates,” said Harrison, now an NBC analyst. “Who can get the first turnover, who can cause more fumbles, who can get more interceptions? When you have a great defense, it’s no longer you’re just preparing for the opposing team, Buffalo, Washington, or whoever it might be. You want to win the turnover battle. So it almost becomes a competition within a competition. It makes it fun.”
Willie McGinest, who was also in town Thursday night with NFL network for the game, also recalled how the defenses he played on with Harrison were also fiercely competitive, and pushed each other in a similar manner. That was part of the secret to their success.
“We did the same thing. It was really competitive. Guys pushed each other. It was a fun thing, but also a challenging thing. But it wasn’t just on the field stuff, it was off the field, too,” said McGinest. “It was workouts, it was making sure everyone was taking care of their bodies from drinking water, to massages, it was hydrating, whatever you can think of . . . who’s watched film, who got there the earliest, every single thing you could think of, we competed at. And I just think it took our competitive natures, and what we did on the field to a whole ‘nother level. And I think these guys are doing the same thing, too.”
Harrison, who enjoyed a halftime ceremony Thursday night acknowledging his recent induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame, said not every defensive unit can create the types of in-house challenges the Patriots now enjoy. It’s not for all defenses.
“You have to have a special defense to do that. Most of the defenses out here aren’t very good,” said Harrison. “They’re totally focused in on stopping opposing offenses. When you have a really great defense, you have to find creative ways of challenging yourself. That’s one of the main ways.”
Whatever these Patriots defenders are doing, works. They shouldn’t change a thing. They held the Giants to one touchdown Thursday night, and collected three more sacks, three more picks, and a fumble return. Opponents are only converting 14 percent on third down.
“These guys work extremely hard. These guys are asked to do a lot of different things. The challenges are there and they take pride in it,” said McGinest. “When you have the physical reward or evidence that everything you’re doing is paying off, the turnovers, the sacks, the interceptions, the tackles for losses, whatever, all the statistics, with people starting to compare you to the 2000 Ravens, and the ‘85 Bears, and the 2002 Buccaneers . . . it’s pretty impressive. It’s a compliment to what they’re doing on the field, and how they’re doing it.”
The great tease
So Rob Gronkowski’s analyst debut was more about playing football, than talking football. Between Patriots owner Robert Kraft saying Gronk hadn’t put in his retirement papers, and the former Pats tight end not disputing the claim, saying he’d “always keep the door open” to return, that got people buzzing.
The Patriots, however, can’t count on a Gronk return to save the day and fix what ails the Patriots offense. He’s not in the picture, and that’s how it should be.
With injuries creeping in, the Pats need help. The question is where to look, and which position? The mini-bye might help with some injuries, but it won’t eliminate the problems. Tight ends Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse have struggled as blockers, and LaCosse left the game with a knee injury, to go along with an ankle injury he’s been nursing all year. Might they bring Benjamin Watson back? He’d certainly be willing to listen. He’s currently sorting through a few inquiries, but would consider another go-round with the Patriots if they come calling. At worse, they need someone who can help maintain the edge. Izzo lost it on the strip-sack of Tom Brady. Former Patriot Dwayne Allen is available. They could bring him back. Or maybe they make a trade (Tampa’s O.J. Howard, Atlanta’s Austin Hooper, Cincy’s Tyler Eifert?). The eventual return of Isaiah Wynn should help the offensive line. Fullback Jakob Johnson is headed to IR with a shoulder injury, do they look for a fullback? The could bring TE/FB Andrew Beck back, who is on the Broncos practice squad. Wide receiver Josh Gordon also went down. It looked like an ankle, but it was announced as a knee injury. He came into the contest with a knee problem. They need wide receiver help, too.
It’s been noted Michael Bennett’s snaps have gone down with each game. He barely played Thursday night. So it no longer appears to be a load-management situation. It’s looking more like the Patriots could trade him before the Oct. 29 deadline. So there’s a lot for the Pats to ponder going forward.
Darnold no “magic wand”
Sam Darnold, who hasn’t played since the season opener last month thanks to having mononucleosis, returns Sunday against the Cowboys.
The 0-4 Jets, who the Patriots play next Monday night, aren’t expecting miracles for their woeful offense after getting their starter back. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains wouldn’t call Darnold a “magic wand” who will rid the offense of all of the issues plaguing the unit right now. But that’s not to say he won’t help.
Head coach Adam Gase said just with protection breakdowns alone, Darnold would be an upgrade.
“He has the ability to get the ball out quick,” Gase told reporters in New York. “His ability to move. (When) he breaks the pocket, he’s a threat. He’s a threat to run.... He’s played with those guys (offensive linemen) quite a bit to where he feels things and he’s out of there. He has a good feel for what to do in the pocket.”