After years of begging and pleading from the Patriots' faithful, Bill Belichick finally addressed the pass rush in the 2012 NFL draft. But while the long-term issue was taken care of, did it actually do anything in the short term for New England's ability to get after opposing quarterbacks?
New England used two first-round picks on players that presumably should have helped the Patriots get after the passer better. Defensive end Chandler Jones was taken with the No. 21 overall pick and linebacker Dont'a Hightower was taken four slots later. The Patriots also added defensive ends Jake Bequette in the third round, Justin Francis as an undrafted rookie free agent and Trevor Scott as a veteran free agent. All four of those players — plus a move for Rob Ninkovich from linebacker to defensive end — were expected to replace the production of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson this year. So far, they're behind the 2011 team's pace.
Last year's Patriots finished with 43 sacks, 54 QB hits and 164 QB hurries for 261 total QB pressures in 1134 plays according to Pro Football Focus. They were able to generate a QB pressure on 23 percent of plays. Carter was the most successful at rushing the passer — despite missing 2 1/2 games — with 51 total pressures and Anderson was close behind with 45.
This season, the Patriots are on pace for 36 sacks, 48 QB hits and 130 QB hurries for 214 total QB pressures in 1096 plays. They're generating a QB pressure on 19 percent of plays. Jones is the leading pass rusher, on pace for 62 total pressures, while Ninkovich is second, on pace for 31. Nink finished last year with 39.
The problem is, the Patriots have filled Carter and Anderson's roles with Jones and Ninkovich, but they simply aren't blitzing linebackers like they did last year with Nink. The Patriots will have
to start blitzing their linebackers, and rushing five or six players
Hightower's pass-rushing ability — which he flashed at
Alabama in a variety of roles — has gone wasted so
far. Hightower has just 19 snaps blitzing this season, while Jerod Mayo
and Brandon Spikes have 26 apiece. While the two veterans have five QB
pressures each, Hightower has seven in less snaps. Hightower
should replace either player — likely Spikes — as one of the Patriots'
sub-package linebackers. He's better in coverage, and he's a
better pass rusher.
New England has also got very little pass rush out of their starting defensive tackles. Love has just 10 total pressures, while Vince Wilfork has eight. Last year, at least early in the season, New England had both Albert Haynesworth and Myron Pryor to get after the passer inside. Hayneworth's Patriots campaign may have been short-lived and embarrassing, but he was productive in limited time at DT. Pryor is on the PUP list this season and should be returning soon. Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham has been filling in for Love on third down, but the Patriots should also be subbing out Wilfork. Pryor's return from the physically-unable-to-perform list should help.
What may be most distressing is that the Patriots have played some very poor offensive lines this season, and their production has still been limited. New England could have beat Arizona if they were able to pressure Kevin Kolb more. The Patriots collected half as many total pressures as most teams have against Arizona this season.
An increased pass-rushing role from Hightower and better interior rush from Pryor may not make up for the lack of 47 pressures from last year to this year, but it should at least help. All the blame for the Patriots' poor pass defense is on the secondary, but a decrease in rushing the passer certainly plays a role as well. Hightower may not have the experience that Mayo or Spikes do, but he should be an every-down player.