Will the Patriots improve their pass rush this season?
The question, really, is multilayered because head coach Bill Belichick hasn't ever spent a large sum of resources on outside linebackers. He went after two big-name free agents in Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas, but neither lived up to their hype — Colvin due to a serious hip injury, and Thomas due to an attitude problem. Belichick re-signed Tully Banta-Cain on short money for a second stint with the team in 2009, and the Patriots gave the outside linebacker a three-year extension in 2010 that could reportedly be worth as much as $19 million.
In the draft, Belichick has used a second-round pick on Jermaine Cunningham (2010) and a third-round pick on Shawn Crable (2008), but those are the only two outside linebackers whom Belichick has taken in the first four rounds during his 12 drafts with the Patriots. And with very few immediate needs in this past draft, Belichick ignored the position until targeting an unknown Markell Carter in the sixth round.
Keep in mind, Mike Vrabel (12.5 sacks in 2007) and Banta-Cain (10 in 2009) are the only two Patriots who have recorded double-digit sacks during Belichick's tenure in New England. Lower the bar, and Vrabel (twice), Colvin (twice), Banta-Cain and Willie McGinest are the only outside linebackers who have registered at least seven sacks during the Belichick era.
The pass rush hasn't always a problem, though. The Patriots had at least 40 sacks five times from 2001-07, when the Pats were at the height of their dominance. But since the core of those Super Bowl teams started to dissolve in 2008, the sacks have been much harder to come by. The Patriots tallied 30 in 2008, 31 in 2009 and 36 in 2010.
At the very least, the numbers have trended upward, but the Patriots still lack a dominant edge rusher. Banta-Cain's sacks were slashed in half in 2010, so the Patriots can hope he finds a resurgence in 2011. There should also be some optimism surrounding Cunningham, who was the Patriots' best edge setter as a rookie but only recorded one sack (although, he pressured Peyton Manning to throw a game-decisive interception, so he deserves credit there).
There's also reason to believe Rob Ninkovich and Eric Moore can continue to improve, and Carter has been said to have a high motor, and he could potentially surprise some people. But again, it's hard to project how he'll play as a rookie after a career at Central Arkansas.
Belichick's defensive system is complex, and it calls for the outside linebackers to read the play before reacting to their assignment. When polled last season, they said there were very, very few occasions when they were instructed to go straight downhill after the quarterback.
It could be a chicken-or-egg argument. Does Belichick's philosophy need some tinkering? Or would he tinker it if he had some elite pass rushers? As for the latter question, though, why would Belichick have passed over those pass rushers in recent drafts, most notably Clay Matthews?
And while the Packers and Steelers showed last season that elite outside linebackers can do worlds for a defense, they're not the only thing that matters. Eight outside linebackers registered at least 10 sacks in 2010 – DeMarcus Ware (15.5), Tamba Hali (14.5), Cameron Wake (14), Matthews (13.5), Terrell Suggs (11), Shaun Phillips (11), James Harrison (10.5) and LaMarr Woodley (10) — and three of them missed the playoffs, including Ware, who led the NFL. Then again, three of them also played in the Super Bowl.
There might not be a perfect solution to the theory, but it's obvious that pass-rushing outside linebackers are becoming more popular cogs nowadays. Since the NFL is a pass-heavy league, it's definitely important to have players who can disrupt the quarterback as much as possible, and the Patriots are still absent of an elite player at that position.
Ty Warren's return might help the Pats' pass-rushing department, at least from a system's perspective, as could the health of Mike Wright, who led the team with 5.5 sacks before suffering a season-ending concussion.
If the Patriots improve upon their pass rush in 2011, it will be due to a team-wide approach because they have yet to make any serious additions to the roster. For whatever reason, right or wrong, it's just never been Belichick's style.
Jeff Howe will answer one Patriots-related question every day through Aug. 1.
Wednesday, July 20: Can Tom Brady repeat his performance from 2010?
Friday, July 22: Can the Patriots match their 14-2 record from 2010?