FOXBOROUGH – Bill Belichick was almost bragging.
“I mean we’ve played 20 players on defense the last four or five weeks,” the coach of the Patriots said.
Belichick had been asked why some veteran defenders — Michael Bennett and Devin McCourty in particular — are playing less this year than they have in years past. His answer was to point to the team’s depth, adding that there are a lot of good players and only so many snaps to go around.
It was a more believable answer in the case of McCourty, who has essentially gone from playing every snap to playing the vast majority, than with Bennett, who has experienced a more severe decrease in playing time. But the individual players weren’t really the point. The point is that this type of depth doesn’t happen very often in the NFL.
“Naturally, you start splitting it up between 20 guys, that’s what you’re going to get,” Belichick said. “Show me how many teams play 20 players on defense. I don’t know. There’s not too many.”
There are not. By Pro Football Focus’ count, there have been 17 Patriots defenders who have played more than 100 snaps this season, most in the NFL. Seven teams are tied for second with 15 players. Pro Football Reference, which includes kneel-downs in its snap count, has an 18th defender, Chase Winovich, on the Patriots’ list with 101 defensive snaps played.
Terrence Brooks, Elandon Roberts, and Deatrich Wise didn’t make the snap cut but still play a meaningful amount — 27 percent of the time for Brooks, 24 percent for Roberts, and 19 percent for Wise. That adds up to 21 defenders playing meaningful time.
Last year, only 17 defenders played as much or more as Wise is playing. It was 21 in 2017, 19 in 2016, 19 in 2015, 18 in 2014, and 15 in 2013. It’s worth noting those are play-time percentages taken from an entire season, which means those lists include some players who eventually went on IR and some who came in to replace them. Those players didn’t always play at the same time but are both included. One would normally expect more players to be used meaningfully over the course of a whole season. The opposite is true.
So, the Patriots defense is deeper than it has been in years. That has coincided with a historically good start for the unit. It’s also nice to have that depth for a Thursday night game, which means short rest.
“It’s definitely a tough turnaround. Especially on the road, and then you’ve got to come back home, kind of get situated,” Devin McCourty said Tuesday. “Before you know it, we’re first, second down, third down today, we’re red area and the next thing you know, you’re playing a game.”
Teams don’t build for their one Thursday night game per year, though, so this roster construction has significance beyond just that purpose. It’s notable that Belichick seems proud of how many chess pieces he has to rotate game-to-game and down-to-down because, clearly, there’s some opportunity cost in having this much defensive depth.
This is a team, after all, that just declined to activate tight end Ben Watson because, according to Belichick, there wasn’t a roster spot. However, there are roster spots for a third quarterback, defensive bit players such as Jordan Richards, Byron Cowart, and Shilique Calhoun, and five or six players (give or take a Gunner Olszewski) who basically only play on special teams.
A defense still can be good without being deep, and the Patriots have plenty of high-end talent. Even so, Belichick seems to believe it’s better to be able to rotate 20 deep on gamedays than to be able to keep an extra offensive weapon or two, even while that’s the side of the ball that has struggled so far this season.
At 5-0, you can’t argue with the results. Make no mistake, the Patriots’ apparent defensive depth isn’t just a side effect of playing well. The team’s roster moves tell us that Belichick and Co. think that depth is a major cause to this historic start.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.