FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ veteran-heavy defense was always expected to be a pillar of strength for this roster in 2023.
Sunday’s season-opening loss further validated such sentiment, especially against an explosive Philadelphia offense anchored by the likes of Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, and DeVonta Smith.
Despite ending up on the wrong side of the scoreboard, New England’s defense limited Philly to one touchdown during Sunday’s 25-20 loss, with that lone score coming five plays after a costly Ezekiel Elliott fumble in Patriots’ territory.
After that score? The Eagles were ground to a halt, going three-and-out on their final four complete drives of the first half.
In total, the Patriots limited Philly to just 195 total yards of offense over their final 47 plays, equating to 4.1 yards per snap.
“That’s a great defense,” Smith said postgame of New England’s defensive corps. “They do a great job disguising the coverage and things like that. They make it very tough for me to know what they’re in. They hold their coverage and disguise it until the last second. They are very athletic, a very fast defense and a very physical defense.”
As expected, stalwarts on that side of the ball like Matthew Judon (1.0 sack, two QB hits), Ja’Whaun Bentley (nine tackles, one tackle for loss), and Josh Uche (1.0 sack) all left their mark on the final stat line.
But an already-established Patriots defense had some company on Sunday night thanks to impressive debuts from a number of rookies on that side of the ball.
“We knew when we drafted them, when we got them in here and actually put pads on that they were really good players,” Judon said of the Patriots rookies. “I think for Gonzo [Christian Gonzalez] to go out there and play the way he played, for Keion [White] to get in and play how physical he played, Marte [Mapu] was in the game, him making plays just kind of all over the field.
“I don’t really know Marte’s background too much; I watched highlights and stuff, things like that. But, for him to be able to play linebacker, safety, and outside linebacker, that’s kind of unbelievable. As a rookie, those three guys had a lot of big plays. They handled it tonight exceptionally. They went out there and played their butts off.”
White, Gonzalez, and Mapu all earned a solid number of snaps against the Eagles, with Gonzalez earning a starting spot at outside corner next to Jonathan Jones.
Gonzalez finished with seven tackles and a sack, while Mapu added three tackles while primarily shifting in at safety. White was only credited with a pass defended in the loss, but regularly pressured Hurts and put a pair of established O-linemen in Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata on their heels on several plays.
“Gonzo almost had a pick today, he had a couple great tackles,” safety Adrian Phillips noted. “Keion doing what he did up front. Te’, he’s ‘see ball, get ball,’ he’s going to get to the ball. Just knowing that they’re out there, we’ve seen it in practice, so we already trusted them.
“Then, when we get into the games, it’s kind of a calming effect. They get their first hit out of the way, their little ‘Welcome to the NFL,’ then it’s just time to play ball. Those guys are ballers, so I’m not surprised.”
Gonzalez’s athleticism, on-field awareness, and fluidity while keeping up with wideouts in coverage allowed him to earn a starting spot at corner as soon as minicamp opened back in the summer.
But the 2023 first-round pick has further staked his claim at such an integral role on New England’s defense by further rounding out his game with some physical play.
Along with keeping tabs on one of the top wideouts in the game in Brown (seven catches, 79 yards), Gonzalez added some thump with his seven tackles.
It was a welcome development for Gonzalez, who drew some detractors during the lead-up to the NFL draft for his apparent lack of physicality in the collegiate ranks.
“I’m not really out to prove [anyone] wrong, like I was talking about earlier, just a team game,” Gonzalez said of any narratives about his game. “Going out there and doing what the defense needs me to do, what the coaches ask me to do, come in and learn from it. The big thing is learning from it, and there’s so much I can learn from today.”
Gonzalez saved his best plays for the fourth quarter. Along with a corner blitz that ended with him taking down Hurts behind the line of scrimmage, Gonzalez gave Mac Jones and the Patriots’ offense one last shot at a comeback with a timely pass break-up on a fourth-and-2 sequence that flipped possession back in New England’s favor.
“It means a lot,” Gonzalez said of the coaching staff’s trust in him. “There’s still so much we’ve got to gain. Just being here, ever since the spring, preseason, all that. Them knowing we can go out there and do it, and going out there and proving it, just trying to learn day in and day out.”
There were a couple of positives to glean from Sunday’s loss to the Eagles, especially with some of the sparks of life found on New England’s offense at various stretches.
But through just one game, it looks like an already effective Patriots defense is due to receive another shot in the arm this year in the form of youngsters like Gonzalez, White, and Mapu.
“He played really well,” safety Jalen Mills said of Gonzalez. “Everything is always a learning experience, whether you play good or bad. But Gonzo, he is a guy who comes in, puts his hard hat on every day, and works hard, so to see him out there and play well, that’s good for him.”
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