Since Week 8 of this NFL season, close to a dozen players have recorded at least six sacks. Three players have gotten to at least seven sacks, but only one has hit the double-digit benchmark in this span. Not Nick Bosa, or even Micah Parsons, but rather Josh Uche of the New England Patriots. His teammate and Defensive Player of the Year contender Matt Judon has been his biggest supporter for some time now, claiming after his three-sack performance against the Indianapolis Colts, that Uche was “probably the best pass-rusher we have.”
That quote has proceeded to age like a fine wine, as Uche is now one of the more fascinating stories of this NFL season. After being drafted 60th overall in the 2020 Draft, Uche wasn't much of a factor in the Patriots' pass rush rotation early on, securing just four sacks in his first 27 games. Now, he's shown clear as day why Bill Belichick selected him in the second round, playing well above that draft slot this last month and a half with his 10 sacks in his last five games. But how did Uche get to this point, why is this happening now, is there more to this than meets the eye? Let's dive in.
Getting the Opportunity
Uche didn't get much of a shot to play during his rookie year in 2020, even with some notable COVID opt-outs that year, including Dont'a Hightower. The Michigan product played in just 29.5 of the defensive snaps in nine games that season. The most time he saw in a game that year was in a 45-0 blowout win over the Chargers, where Uche picked up four pressures on half the defensive snaps. That next year his snaps were virtually even, even with Hightower returning, along with the addition of Judon. Uche did start the year with three sacks in two games but wasn't much of a factor beyond that.
Months before the 2022 season even began, Patriots defensive coordinator Steve Belichick spoke highly of Uche, saying, "I see him being an important piece to the puzzle for us going forward." But early into this season, that was not the case. Deatrich Wise ended up being the early-year compliment for Judon, tallying five sacks in the opening six games. Uche then ended up on the inactive list in Weeks 6 and 7, and only played over a third of the snaps just twice in five games, never hitting above 40 percent. Then that Week 8 Jets game happened and the rest is history.
What ultimately changed you may be wondering? Uche simply got the chance to show what he can do. In this run of his, Uche has played in 40 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps, up from 26 percent to start the season. Coincidently, all three of Uche's multi-sack games have come when he has played in at least 40 percent of the snaps, including 64 percent this last Monday night. Last week Bill Belichick credited Uche's availability when talking about his recent production. Then brought up that he's always looked good in practice and on film this Wednesday morning. So at least publically speaking, the Patriots have always felt good about Uche by the sounds of it.
All in the Technique
Of Uche's 10 sacks, the one that jumps out the most was his strip sack on Josh Allen two weeks ago.
Does that speed off the line along with the duck move under the tackle look familiar? It should, because, for all intents and purposes, that is the Von Miller special.
The technical term for this move is the ghost rush, and Miller has made many an offensive tackle look downright silly with it in the last decade. As you can see in the top clip, Uche executes it perfectly and made a momentum-swinging play in the process causing a fumble. Miller is a mentor/inspiration to many young pass rushers in the NFL, and Uche is no exception. Uche told Mark Daniels of MassLive a few days ago that he's watched Miller's stuff since high school, and still does so to this day before games. Safe to say that's worked out pretty well.
Uche clearly uses his speed to his advantage, as you can see above with the stop-and-go inside move on Cardinals left tackle Josh Jones. While speed is the primary part of Uche's repertoire, he has some sneaky good power, which he showed off in the Cardinals game as well, for a recent example. On the Marcus Jones interception, Uche worked over Josh Jones over the point of contact enough to get a hand on Colt McCoy to heavily alter the pass. That pick almost certainly doesn't happen otherwise.
Later, in the fourth quarter, Uche completely bulldozed Kelvin Beachum, nearly driving him into McCoy before the quarterback got ragdolled to the ground for Uche's third sack of the evening. To be an elite pass rusher, you have to have some versatility in your craft, and Uche has done a good job showcasing he can get the job done in several ways as of late.
While Uche's 10 sacks in five games are beyond impressive, sacks are not everything when it comes to rushing the quarterback. Simply applying pressure is just as good, and in some cases, like the forced interception he caused on Monday, can be better. Especially true when you can apply pressure consistently, and it just so happens Uche is the No. 1 pass rusher in the league in that metric (via PFF). His 20.7 pressure percentage is nearly a full percent higher than Packers' EDGE Rashan Gary and over two percent higher than every other qualifying defender in the NFL.
Here to Stay
"I told y'all I wasn't the best pass rusher, and our best pass rusher [Uche] is emerging ." Those are the words of Matt Judon, who in case you don't know, has a league-leading 14.5 sacks this season. For him to be essentially saying that for the better part of two months says a lot about the third-year pass rusher. Judon also alluded to something interesting as well on Monday night.
"People are going to have to block him. And if they don't, and they chip my side, and they worry about me, Uche will do that every week. I just love the way he's playing with confidence and poise. And this is the most he's played since he's been in the NFL. So it's taken a toll on him, but he's gone out there, and he's had a lot of success. We all knew it, we all knew the type of player he was, he was drafted pretty high here, and now he's emerging, and folks are going to have to watch."
That will be the dilemma for opposing offensive lines moving forward, especially with Christian Barmore returning imminently. If you give extra attention to Uche now, that will put Judon in an excellent spot on the opposite side. Or that will potentially open things up for Barmore, Wise, Daniel Ekuale, etc, inside. You can't double everyone, but I'd imagine teams are now fully aware of what Uche can do. He broke out in year three at Michigan, and now, it's abundantly clear that Uche has broken out in his third year in the NFL.