FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When it comes to the hardest things to find in professional football, the discussion usually starts with franchise quarterback. Then maybe top pass-rusher. Or left tackle. Possibly shutdown corner.
Not often mentioned yet worthy of being in the discussion is the three-down linebacker.
Rare is the ‘backer who can dominate on early downs, when adopting a physical style of play against the run is often necessary, and stay on the field in obvious passing situations and third down, when more athleticism might be needed to dominate in coverage or as a pass-rusher.
In a hard-to-miss transformation that has opened myriad possibilities scheme-wise, the New England Patriots‘ defense — off to a record-breaking start to the 2019 season — is fortunate to have not one, not two, but three such linebackers.
That is the nickname Hightower — a defensive captain — gave the linebacker corps following Sunday’s 33-7 win against the Washington Redskins.
“We want to go out there and be the engine and the starting force of the defense. If we go out there and play well, then that will hype every other spot, whether that’s in the front seven or the back seven,” Hightower said, noting that a big part of what makes it work is everyone buying in.
Asked about the nickname, one teammate had a chuckle.
“I have no idea. This is the first I’ve heard of it, but whatever it is, if it allows them to play the way they’re playing right now, I’m all for whatever nickname they come up with,” veteran cornerback Jason McCourty said with a smile. “Boogeymen, whatever the case it may be, it’s good as long as it consists of the way they’re playing right now.”
Hightower, Collins and Van Noy are leading the group by seldom, if ever, coming off the field.
The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Hightower, the defensive signal-caller, has totaled 20 tackles and two sacks in four games.
Meanwhile, Collins (6-foot-3, 255 pounds) has been a revelation in his return to the team from Cleveland, posting a team-high 26 tackles, 4.5 sacks and three interceptions in five games.
Van Noy (6-foot-3, 250 pounds), in four games, has 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Having three versatile all-around linebackers who fit in all packages — and pairing them with inside linebackers Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley and outside linebackers John Simon and Chase Winovich in more specialized roles — is an incredible luxury for head coach Bill Belichick and his defensive assistants, led by inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo.
“We have crazy depth. That only helps us. It’s great for our room, it’s great for the defense, it’s great for our team,” said Hightower, a 2012 first-round draft pick out of Alabama who seems to be as fast as he has ever been.
“In that room alone, we have guys who can play outside linebacker, inside linebacker, defensive end … Whenever you’re versatile and we’re able to communicate, we’re able to give offenses different looks and different things each and every week. Because we know it, and we’re smart enough to make changes on the move.”
The Patriots have allowed two touchdowns this season, and both came on the ground. They are the sixth team since the merger in 1970 to not allow a passing touchdown through the first five games of a season, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information. Meanwhile, their 11 interceptions are the most among those teams, passing the 1971 Colts’ total.
“We obviously have a great strength in our defense. They turn the ball over and make it so hard to complete every pass. We realized that in training camp. It’s amazing to watch those guys play right now,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who added in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI that the unit is “playing as well as any defense I’ve ever played with.”
On Sunday against the Redskins, the Patriots totaled six sacks, which marked the fourth straight game in which the unit registered at least five. That is the longest such streak in franchise history.
The Patriots’ 24 sacks, albeit against mostly lesser competition in the Steelers, Dolphins, Jets, Bills and Redskins, are the most by a team through five games since the 1998 Seahawks.
While it has been a complete effort — from big-bodied defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton up front to safety Devin McCourty (NFL-high four INTs) leading the secondary — “The Boogeymen” have been at the heart of the surge because it’s so rare to have three linebackers who play on all downs.
“The guys are very talented,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “We trust them a lot to make plays in the run game and the pass game. They help us out a lot.”