Since Chandler Jones injured his ankle midway through the first quarter of the Patriots’ Week 11 matchup with the Colts, the team has been rushing their linebackers more than twice as often as before the rookie went down. Now, without Jones this weekend and without interior-rush threat Jermaine Cunningham — who was suspended four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy — New England may employ those big, thumping linebackers even more.
In total, rookie Dont’a Hightower has rushed the passer in 10.1 percent of his 2012 snaps. In the last two games, that has increased to 16.6 percent. Brandon Spikes‘ season total stands at 8.4 percent, while he’s been blitzing at a rate of 16.8 percent in Weeks 11 and 12. Jerod Mayo hasn’t seen quite the same uptick in blitzes, but he has rushed the passer 5.3 percent of the time the last two weeks, versus 4.95 percent overall.
The Patriots should have been employing this strategy all along. None of the linebackers are tremendous in coverage, but they’re all above average at getting after the passer. Hightower and Spikes have especially proven dangerous in that area. In the last two weeks, Hightower has one sack and one quarterback hit, while Spikes has one QB hit and four pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Since most of Cunningham’s production came as an interior rusher before Jones’ injury, that area may suffer the worst for the Patriots. They could use Justin Francis, Ron Brace or Brandon Deaderick in that role, but none of those players provide the same speed/strength combination that Cunningham has. What the Patriots can do is blitz hard up the middle with Spikes, Hightower and — at times — Mayo.
Hightower could play a number of roles on defense this weekend for the Pats. He had experience in college at Alabama playing defensive end, rushing outside and rushing inside. With his size — 6-foot-4, 270 pounds — we could actually see Hightower play some undersized defensive tackle a la Cunningham.
It would be wise to send a number of different formations at rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. While he’s adjusted to the NFL well, he’s still a rookie, and he’ll still get floundered by defensive schemes he hasn’t seen. The improved Patriots secondary — and more reliance on man coverages — allows the team to use their linebackers less in coverage as well.
With Devin McCourty covering more ground at free safety, and newcomer Aqib Talib shoring up his side of the field, the Patriots simply don’t need their linebackers taking up space — really, that’s all they do — in the middle of the field as much any more.
All of this is not to say the team won’t miss Jones and Cunningham. They will. But they can lesser the impact of missing both players if they can still get pressure from the linebackers, Trevor Scott and whoever they choose as a sub-package defensive tackle.
Worry not Patriots fans, the team still clinch the division this weekend even without Jones and Cunningham, though it may take Bill Belichick getting more creative with his defense, which is typically a good thing.
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