NFL Draft spotlight: Why Josh Uche is a perfect match for Bill Belichick's Patriots defense

Phil Perry
NBC Sports Boston

You can hear it in Don Brown's voice. 

It's not that he drops a certain consonant at the ends of words. It's not that he overuses "wicked" like he's doing bad sketch comedy. There's a cadence, though, and emphases on particular vowel sounds that let you know he's a New Englander.

Brown grew up in Spencer, Mass., and attended Norwich University in Vermont. He then embarked on a coaching career that took him to, among other places, Hartford (Vermont) High, Darmouth College, Yale, Brown, UMass, Northeastern, UConn and Boston College. 

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Now the defensive coordinator at Michigan, Brown makes a point of it to go back to his roots as he approaches his offseason studies. The one team he watches before any other? The one that plays its home games off Route 1 in Foxboro. 

"That's the first place we go, Phil, in the offseason to study," Brown told The Next Pats Podcast. "Because coach [Bill] Belichick makes such great utilization of guys and gives them an opportunity to play them in different roles and different places. That's the first place we go in the offseason is to evaluate what they've done. Especially on third down."

It should come as no surprise then that it was Brown's defense that produced one of the best matches between player and scheme in this year's draft class.

LIKE A GLOVE

Josh Uche's tape is loaded with him handling Patriots-style responsibilities. That is to say, he did just about everything a linebacker can do.

New England's second second-round pick, No. 60 overall, rushed off the edge. He played off the line of scrimmage. He "mugged" the A-gap pre-snap - standing over the gap between the center and guard - and blitzed. He mugged the A-gap pre-snap and dropped into coverage. He wandered at the second level of Brown's defense, careful not to show his hand, then rushed. He patrolled zones in the short area of the field. He mirrored backs, tight ends and slot receivers in man-to-man coverage.  

Those were the types of duties shared by Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins in 2019, when the Patriots led the NFL in points allowed. Now that two of those three players left New England via free agency, it's easy to envision Uche slotting in to help pick up the slack based on what he did for the Wolverines.

"We always studied the Patriots defense," Uche told the Next Pats Podcast. "I remember just watching film on Hightower and Van Noy and the way they run their stunts and everything. I was already familiarized with the defense. Going into the draft, I was like, 'Man, if the Patriots grab me that'd be awesome because I already know some stuff they kind of do just because we implemented it into our scheme.'

When I actually got drafted, I was like, 'Oh my God. This is crazy. There's no way. This is like a glove, like the perfect fit. There's still a lot of work to put in. There's different terminologies and different techniques that need to be learned. But in terms of how coach Brown runs his defense, the multipleness of the defense, [it's] very similar to what I did at Michigan.

While Uche played all three downs at Michigan, he was primarily used as a passing-game player. There were moments when he was not in the game if Michigan was behind and going against opponents trying to bleed the clock with runs. On first down, he was not always on the field.

But on second and third down, his abilities as a sub defense star were allowed to shine. It was in those moments, when Brown drew up creative ways for Uche to get to the quarterback, that Uche's fit with the Patriots was readily apparent to anyone paying attention.

The Patriots, of course, haven't invested heavily in a traditional edge rusher in some time. Both Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers ended up elsewhere before they received big pay days. Instead they use deception - blitzes, games, stunts - and a number of versatile athletes to create disruption in opposing backfields. 

In the postseason in 2018, en route a Super Bowl win, Van Noy and Hightower combined to rush the passer 120 times and recorded 27 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. The other 27 off-ball linebackers across the NFL who rushed the passer in the playoffs that year combined for just 28 pressures on 150 pass-rush snaps. Including the 2018 regular season, the Patriots recorded pressure on 42 percent of passing plays when either Van Noy or Hightower rushed.

Last season, with Van Noy playing more on the edge, the Patriots continued to bring pressure with their off-ball linebackers.

From 2013-15, according to Pro Football Focus, Hightower (78) and Collins (67) led all off-ball linebackers in quarterback pressures. When they reunited in 2019, Collins and Hightower were back at it. No off-ball linebacker rushed more than Hightower (258 pass-rush snaps) and Collins was third (174). PFF had the Patriots down for a pressure rate of 35.7 percent last season, putting them in the top 10 in the NFL in that category, despite not having a premium individual pass-rusher on their roster.

At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, Uche is not your traditional edge rusher; his frame makes him look more like an off-the-ball linebacker in Belichick's scheme. But Uche is an athlete with explosive quickness, flexibility and power to get home. And he has plenty of experience working in conjunction with his teammates to generate pressure. 

Whether it's a "U" game (where the edge player waits for the interior player to attack outside first before rushing through the resulting opening), a "Double U" game (where the edge player waits for two interior players to attack toward him before looping around to rush through the resulting opening), or a "Me" game (where the edge player attacks inside first, allowing the interior player to loop around the outside), Uche executed them all at Michigan. He'll likely be asked to execute them all for the Patriots.

In the clip below, you can picture Uche taking the Collins role on the "U" game versus the Jets, the Van Noy role on the "Double U" game versus the Redskins, and the Hightower role on the "Me" game versus the Chiefs. (Hightower is running more of a delayed "Me" game, whereas Uche's "Me" game versus Alabama is quick off the snap.)

"Coach Belichick's a smart guy," Brown said. "He sees a guy with versatility, a guy that is a gym rat, a guy that just loves being around the building. [Uche] is a very smart guy . . . a smart guy that you can do a number of different things with. We asked him on second and third down to be our prime-time guy, but that also takes the mental ability and the capacity to absorb all the calls and checks, alignments and assignments that he had. 

"This year, he just flowed into it. A year ago, the '18 season, he finally came into his own about midway through the year. He had a great game against Northwestern and he's just kind of taken off from there ever since. Confidence is a big deal, as you know, with players, and I think that's what's happened with this guy."

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ARTIST AT WORK

That Northwestern game was a turning point in Uche's college career. He had 2.5 sacks that day - including a walk-off game-winner - and rolled from there. He ended up leading the team in sacks despite so few snaps being available to him behind 2019 draft picks Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary.

Uche went to Brown's office before the 2018 season, wondering how he'd be able to get on the field more. Transferring was a consideration. But Brown, who recruited Uche at Colulmbus High in Miami, convinced him that his time was coming. Uche still only played 148 snaps that season, but he recorded a whopping seven sacks in the process and had 19 pressures overall on just 97 pass-rush snaps.

"It was definitely difficult," Uche said of his lack of playing time. "Everyone wants to play. Everyone wants to contribute. It ate away at me a couple times. Just because I wanted to help and contribute and I knew I could. But it taught me to be a man. I easily could've ran away, I could've transferred, went back on my commitment to Coach Brown. But I decided to stay and fight. But I decided to stay and make something out of nothing, scratch and claw for more reps."

It was clear after his junior season that Uche was on the precipice of a breakout senior year. Brown thought Uche had the potential to be 2019's Josh Allen, the pass-rusher from Kentucky who had a monster 2018 as a senior and ended up being drafted at No. 7 overall. But Uche worked on his craft through his final season knowing that type of recognition would remain elusive without investing some serious sweat equity.

Every free moment was spent on refining his abilities as a pass-rusher. He'd bother Brown to set him up with tape to study Von Miller. He took every pass-rush rep he could. Then he took reps that were supposed to go to others. Brown said that the only reason an athlete like Uche didn't play more on special teams was because special-teams practice periods were when Michigan also held their pass-rush drills, and there was no way Uche was missing an opportunity to polish his ability to terrorize quarterbacks. 

"When we'd go to the pass-rush pit," Brown said, "the 1-on-1s, 'Josh! Get out!' Every time you turned around he was cutting in front of somebody, taking another rep. 'Josh Get out! Let somebody else go!' He loves ball. He loves to work on his craft."

Then, when practice was over, Uche went back to the tape. He studied himself. He studied other pass-rushers. He studied tackles, treating them like the artists he'd learned about in his Michigan courses, looking for their "signature" punch or pass-set and devising a way to beat it.

"Most artists, they have a specific theme that they stick to," Uche said. "If you go back to all their paintings, there's a specific thing that's like their signature. I look at it the same way with pass-rushing. All tackles, or most tackles, have a specific thing that they do and implement into their sets that make them so great. What I try to do is find what that is and then go back and find other top guys or other moves that have worked on them or had the potential to beat them or something that they're really good at beating - a move that I should stay away from. 

"I just try to find that theme and attack his game and then also go back into the archives and see, 'OK, he almost got beat on this, or he got beat on this, or he's really good at stopping this.' From there I just try to work it. I'll be on my iPhone typing up moves to work during the week. From there I'll go practice and I'll tell the offensive tackles, scout team offensive tackles, 'Hey, this guy likes to do this. He likes to shoot this arm first, and then he kicks at this angle.' And I try to work the moves that I feel like beat him. I'll try to work it during the week and then when game day comes, if he does throw a curveball then I have to change on the fly. But that's what I try to do."

The result? Eight more sacks. Michigan had him with a pressure percentage of 26 percent, which led the nation. 

Uche's speed made him a handful for most tackles or tight ends on the edge, but he has good length for his size (33.5-inch arms) and some pop in his hands to be able to jar tackles not bracing themselves for his bull rush. He also showed he could get skinny to get to quarterbacks, squeezing through small creases between interior offensive linemen. Or he could use brute force, bull-rushing guards to ruin plays quickly.

"He's an elite pass-rusher," Brown said. "It's funny. After doing this a long time, you find out, guys who get drafted as high as Josh have an elite quality. His ability to rush the passer certainly jumps off the screen when you watch his tape. It's no accident. He really works hard on his craft. He's really done a great job."

Uche didn't test at the NFL Scouting Combine because he was dealing with an injury he suffered at the Senior Bowl. But Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy told us on The Next Pats Podcast that Uche was the best defensive player at that week of practices outside of first-round defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. Had Uche tested, combined with the versatile pass-rushing chops he showed in Mobile, Ala., he might've ended up going much earlier on Day 2 of the draft and possibly sniffing the back half of Day 1. 

rectangle_josh_uche_michigan.jpg

Michigan LB Josh Uche
Michigan LB Josh Uche

'YES' MAN

While the Patriots used players like Van Noy and John Simon as their starting outside linebackers in 2019 - both of whom showed plenty of ability to set an edge on first down - Uche's work off the edge as a rusher could set him up nicely for a sub-rushing role in obvious passing situations. 

The Patriots, always looking for versatile pieces for their front-seven, won't pigeon-hole him into one role. Edge-rusher . . . blitzer . . . key piece to their pass-rush games up front . . . coverage option . . . They all make sense for Uche. That's part of the reason he makes so much sense for them, particularly as one of many meandering defenders in what we often refer to as their "Amoeba" fronts, where several players are strolling through the front seven with no defined alignment or assignment until the ball is snapped. There are moments on his Michigan tape where Uche is doing exactly that.

"Coach Brown called on me to do a number of things," Uche said, "and in order to help the team win I had to do those things. I'm not going to say no to anything that's going to help the team win, so whatever he asked of me, I made sure I gave it my all."

Uche's fluidity in coverage may be enticing as the Patriots have had occasional issues with backs and tight ends in the passing game in recent seasons. He's athletic enough to match up with opponents in shallow zones or mirror them as a man defender, potentially wiping out bail-out options for opposing quarterbacks working against one of the deepest secondaries in football. And when Belichick wants to deploy Tampa 2 looks as a change-up from his typical single-high safety coverages, Uche can hold his own as a deep-middle defender as well.

Uche, both before and after being drafted, has drawn comparisons to Van Noy from a variety of media outlets. Even Brown sees some Van Noy in Uche's ability to rush. Those comps are valid. But as someone who looks best suited to defend the pass, someone who looks built to play off the line as a pro more than on, someone with experience running games up front and blitzing, someone with the ability to spy scrambling quarterbacks, Collins - though bigger than Uche - feels like a good match as well.

It was Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo who ran through the team's scheme with Uche before the draft. 

"My first WebEx meeting I had with the Patriots was with Coach Mayo," Uche said. "He taught me the defense in, I wanna say, under two minutes. He taught it to me so well, I was able to recite it to him after when he started asking me questions . . . That's just a testament to how good of a coach he is, just in a short amount of time to be able to teach the basics of the defense and I was able to recite that stuff. I definitely feel that Coach Mayo is the best in the business, just how he interacts with his guys, his personality. I look forward to working with him."

With all that Uche could be asked to do in Belichick's defense there's plenty of work ahead for him. But his old coach, the one with New England in his blood, knows Uche will adapt to his new environment seamlessly.

"He's just a flat-out football junkie," Brown said. "They're gonna love him because he's gonna be knocking on the door. 'Coach, what can I do with this film? Can you get me set up?' He's just one of those guys. It's a beautiful thing when you have a player like that who you don't have to encourage. He encourages you to be the best that you can be every single day."

 

NFL Draft spotlight: Why Josh Uche is a perfect match for Bill Belichick's Patriots defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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