A quick glance at the Patriots front seven who played key roles in Super Bowl LI and those who will likely do the same in Super Bowl LII shows the stark contrast between the “Who’s who” of the former and the “Who’s that?” of the latter.
In other words, when the season started, it would be hard to convince the average Patriots fan that players like Adam Butler, Ricky Jean Francois, Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, Marquis Flowers, James Harrison and Eric Lee would be as important to the team’s success as Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy.
But the amount of turnover on the first two layers of defense has not stopped it from producing at a high level. The Pats allowed more than 17 points just three times since a 33-30 loss to the Carolina Panthers Oct. 1. Without the assimilation of the newcomers into the system, that turnaround is impossible.
Butler, a rookie, said part of his success has been due to an ability to settle into a specific role. Lately, the interior lineman has been used primarily in passing situations.
“That’s the only thing I’ve ever known (at the pro level),” Butler said. “I’ve really only been in the pass game. I was in the run game in the beginning of the season, but my position, I guess I’m arguably stronger at it now because I’m specifically focused on that and I’m not trying to juggle the run game and things of that nature. So, in a sense, yeah, (that specialization helps).”
The coaches certainly deserve credit for identifying what their players do best. But the defenders ultimately have had to do the work, and they’ve been quick studies.
Jean Francois was cut by the Patriots as recently as Dec. 2 and re-signed 11 days later. Since then, the interior lineman has been able to offset the loss of Branch, who missed three regular season games with a knee injury and then remained inactive in the playoffs for performance reasons.