FOXBORO — Sporting a black Patriots cap under the pedestrian bridge in the north end of Gillette Stadium, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia Wednesday sounded like a coach who’s ready to have his unit step up and help Jimmy Garoppolo and the Patriots get off to a fast start this season.
For the last two seasons, it’s been the defense that has led the way in the first quarter of the season as Tom Brady and the offensive line found their form.
In 2014, the team had big issues on the offensive line and it was the defense that held things together as the team struggled to a 2-2 start.
Last year, the team started 4-0 but it was the defense that had big moments against the Steelers on Opening Night, held the Jaguars to 17 points and limited the Cowboys to six points.
This season, the challenge is that much bigger with Garoppolo subbing in for the suspended Tom Brady in the first four games. The expectation from so many observers is that it’s the defense that’s going to have to lead the way. Patricia sounded a cautious tone at first, saying there’s so much work to be done between Thursday’s first day of camp and Sept. 11 when the Patriots take the field in Arizona.
“I think right now the challenge for the defense is to make sure we have good meetings and make sure we get all the information out that I can get out in the time that’s allowed,” Patricia said. “I’m real excited to be out there [Thursday]. So, for us, that’s our focus. It’s very much in the short term. It’s just about trying to put the guys out there together, build on what we did this spring, which was great. Go out there [Thursday] and improve.”
Patricia’s unit has been revamped with names like Terrance Knighton, Cyrus Jones, Shea McClellin and Chris Long joining the likes of Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jabaal Sheard, Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty. From what Patricia saw in the spring, he’s confident his unit can help Garoppolo feel like he doesn’t have to do it all.
“I think what was great about the spring was the work ethic and the guys really attacking and studying the game and trying to learn the mental part of it and then go out in the field in the spring, which is a big communication thing for us, defensively, and really work on the communication part of what we have to get done,” Patricia said. “Obviously, when we get to training camp, when we get the pads on, that’s the physical time where you can really get to the contact part, the technique part. We laid some groundwork, fundamentally, here in the spring. The big part of it, though, is the communication. What you want to get done in the spring now, with the way everything is laid out, the amount of practices, the way training camp is, the time you’re really committed to, we’re trying to use spring to some stuff installed, to learn the defense so that when we get to training camp, we can go out and just try and execute.”
The best of this time of year for Patricia? Simple. Hearing the clash of helmets and pads for his defensive playmakers.
“When we get out there, we’re in couple days here where we’re still kind of in a learning mode here and we’re working on fundamentals and techniques. But when we get the pads on, obviously that’s why we play the game. It’s the one sport where when you’re done playing, you can’t put the pads back on,” Patricia added. “These guys get the opportunities to put the pads on and improve. It’s a critical time for us and it’s a critical time with how fast everything really goes during the season for us to work on our fundamentals and our individual techniques.
“We’re in pads. We’re out there every day. We’re working on the different pad levels, things like that we’re going to emphasize. It’s a critical time for us to get [work] done. It’s very exciting from the coaching standpoint because you’re really coaching the fundamental techniques, tackling, all the things the defensively, the aggression part of the game that our play for. That’s the big draw. It’s great.”
McCourty was one of those who spoke the significance of this time of year and what it means to be back on the field in pads.
“It becomes football. I think in the spring, and now to start out training camp, it’s really just a heavy passing game and not much contact, but when you start to put on the pads, you really start to see the football team we’re going to be, what different guys can do on the football field, it’s just a different mentality,” McCourty said. “You might be able to out-quicken and run away from some people, but we have guys out there who are just hitters. They want to run through you and run into you. They lose some of that when we don’t have pads on, so we’ll gain all of that back this weekend.
“When you play defensive back, a lot of it is not as much a contact and stuff, just different positions. But for defensive backs, working on your craft, your footwork, your hand placement, you can do all of that with no pads on, so you can see those guys work. I think that’s the best thing about the spring. You see guys working on little things, you see guys working on learning the playbook and being able to be out there and play confident. I think we had a lot of young guys out there who, even some of the rookies towards the end, you could see their confidence building just from learning and studying and staying on top of different things they needed to. It’s an exciting time. We have young guys mixed in with some veterans, you come back to training camp and everybody’s competitive, everybody wants to earn a spot to play. It’s a fun time and I think it’ll be good practices.”