Too often during the 2009 season, New England's blitzers disappeared at the line like flies on a bug zapper. That yields one of their most vital questions for 2010: How will the Patriots generate a pass rush?
It would help if the Patriots could get back to their ways of creating that jaw-dropping confusion for the offense. Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel were masters of this tactic, rendering opposing quarterbacks helpless as they dropped back to pass and either got blindsided or threw a pass into a pocket of defensive players.
The Patriots were tied for 23rd in the NFL last season with 31 sacks, 17 behind the league-leading Vikings. Yet, sacks don’t always tell the whole story. The Jets had the most relentless pass rush on the planet, but they only recorded 32 sacks. New York's opposing quarterbacks had league lows of a 51.7 completion percentage, 58.8 passer rating, 2,459 passing yards and eight passing touchdowns. The Patriots, meanwhile, were in the middle-third of each category.
Belichick, who will take upon a bigger role on the defense this season, could implement that UFO "base" — when each player roams around the box before the snap — but that can only be effective if the younger defensive players are smart enough to perfect it. It's also important for the Patriots to force passing situations on second and third down because the UFO is useless against the run.
More realistically, the Patriots just need to generate more pressure from their typical front-seven, whether they're playing a 3-4 or 4-3 (and there will be plenty of both in 2010). It will start up front, where the Patriots have stalwarts Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. Plus, they added linemen Damione Lewis and Gerard Warren to add depth to the rest of the crew that includes Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace. Obviously, none of those players can bring it like Richard Seymour, but the Patriots are at least better equipped to move forward without him after last season's stunning, last-minute trade.
Then, the Patriots have added some juice to the second level. Linebacker Adalius Thomas was released, so that headache will eventually be the problem of another medicine cabinet. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo enters the season healthy after his knee injury definitely affected his play in 2009.
From there, it's all about matchups and rotations. Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess are back and will fill the hybrid, edge-rusher role. Banta-Cain led the Patriots with 10 sacks, and Burgess played better down the stretch after a disappointing start. Who knows, maybe he'll be better off with a full year under his belt in Belichick's system.
New England also added two linebackers in the draft. Outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham has worked with the hybrids in spring practices, and early indications make it appear he will fill a similar role as Banta-Cain and Burgess. Inside linebacker Brandon Spikes won't have a direct impact on the pass rush, but his presence could at least give Belichick the option of moving Gary Guyton to the outside spot, where his speed might be a huge factor.
One thing is for certain: The secondary was typically reliable last season, and the Patriots' worst defensive performances were the result of a lack of pressure from the front-seven. If the physical guys up front can turn that around, defensive backs like Brandon Meriweather, Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler and Patrick Chung should be able to make some more plays.
There are still question marks. Mainly, the Patriots don’t have an elite pass sack master like Elvis Dumervil, Jared Allen, Dwight Freeney, DeMarcus Ware or Brian Orakpo. And even though Dean Pees is no longer the team's defensive coordinator, what can Belichick add in 2010 that he couldn’t implement in 2009?
At this point, the optimism has to come from the Patriots' versatility. They can rotate Banta-Cain, Cunningham, Burgess, Guyton and the defensive linemen to keep the edge players fresh and ready. And there must be a conscious decision to turn them loose with more fervor. Without that, the Patriots' pass rush has no chance to break out of the funk it's been buried in for two seasons.
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Thursday, June 24: Can Tom Brady be better in the fourth quarter?