FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England Patriots defensive lineman Michael Bennett knew it on his first day of training camp.

The collection of pass rushers around him was highly diverse. Unique even.

“You’ve got guys like Chase (Winovich), you’ve got guys like Shilique (Calhoun), you’ve got guys like Kyle (Van Noy). Just a lot of different people,” the three-time Pro Bowler said after Thursday’s 10-3 victory against the Panthers.

“There’s not a lot of middle linebackers that can rush, and you’ve got (Dont’a) Hightower who can rush and Jamie (Collins).”

What Bennett and Carolina Panthers quarterbacks likely found out Thursday was that at the peak of its powers, New England’s pass rush is also deep and dangerous. The Patriots snatched four sacks, pushing their preseason total to 15, with 13 players contributing at least a half-sack. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, as physically gifted a dual threat as there is in the NFL, was dropped twice in the first quarter.

The first came courtesy of Van Noy on a perfectly timed speed rush off the right end that put him in Newton’s lap before the play had a chance. The second sack was the result of sticky coverage and extra effort by third-year defensive tackle Adam Butler, who kept pushing the pocket after he’d been stonewalled up the middle.

“Credit goes to (the secondary) because if one guy gets open,” Butler said, “it doesn’t happen.”

By themselves, those sacks might illustrate the depth and diversity of New England’s pass rush on their own: sacks by an edge rusher and interior penetrator. One speed rush and one power push. One a function of coverage and pressure working in concert, the other simply a great individual rush.

But as mentioned earlier, the Patriots weren’t done partying in Carolina’s backfield. Bennett, a 33-year-old defensive end, whipped the interior of Carolina’s line, playing across from the center, and reserve lineman Ufomba Kamalu tacked on one more at the end.

Bennett’s raw strength and ability proved a point he made postgame: Pass rushing can be a simple game of beating the man across from you when you disregard alignment, opponent and difference in size.

“He’s 300 pounds?” Bennett asked of Panthers center Matt Paradis. “Pretty light.”

Bennett later gave voice to an old Bill Belichick idea he’s seemingly espoused since arriving in New England. The pass rush is ultimately a cooperative effort; rushers complementing one another, with blitzers from the second level and coverage in the back end. A good pass rush is controlled and connected.

“It’s how well you can rush as a group, because it’s not one person. It’s the person pushing the pocket, it’s the person making the quarterback step up, so we’ve just got to continue to grow as a group,” he said. “It takes repetition, and I think we’re doing a good job of trying to figure out how many rushers we’ve got.”

New England shuffled five, six and seven defensive backs on passing downs against the Panthers. Linebackers bounced between hanging over the center to off the edge. A few linemen did the same. Some of it was to experiment, other times to seed presnap confusion in the Panthers’ minds.

It’s not just the preseason scheduled affording the Patriots a chance to tinker with their pass rush plans. Their skill sets are so diverse that the staff would be remiss not to mix and match.

From a physical perspective, New England’s defensive linemen range from 6-foot-2 to 6-6, and from 250 pounds to almost 350. From a scouting standpoint, they boast speed, power, quickness and burst off the line, plus an advanced feel for executing two and three-man stunts. They’re as versatile a group as you’ll find.

Bennett can rush from anywhere in the front, just like Hightower and Van Noy. Winovich might get there. Butler and Lawrence Guy can play end and tackle. Fifth-round rookie Byron Cowart is trending in that direction, as is Kamalu and second-year rusher Nick Thurman.

Along with the Patriots’ standout secondary, these pass rushers around Bennett are the chief reason New England has allowed fewer than eight points per game this preseason. Keep it up, and they’ll pull into a tie with the defensive backs to form one of the best defenses in the league.

“We knew that it’s a step in the right direction,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said. “We know that at the end of the day that these games don’t count for nothing more than just opportunity to get better and continuing to grow as a group. We like where we are at and we like where we are heading. We have to continue to work and never get complacent.

“We just have to continue to keep grinding.”

NOTES: The Patriots have likely lost Brandon King for the season, according to a report from the Boston Globe.

King, 26, has been a trusted special teamer for the Patriots since signing in 2015. He reportedly suffered a torn quadriceps in the second quarter Thursday. After a few moments on the field, he was helped off the field on a cart.

King’s positional versatility likely contributed to the contract extension he just signed in May. He’s listed as a safety, but has lined up at linebacker. His absence, combined with the uncertainty created by Patrick Chung being charged with cocaine possession, leaves the Patriots facing roster decisions that weren’t on the table just days ago.


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