Over the last three years, the Patriots have slowly tried to rebuild their team, and especially the defense, through the draft.
They’ve done a great job, acquiring starters like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes, Nate Solder, Stevan Ridley, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Alfonzo Dennard. Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio have successfully improved the offense and run defense, but the one area that still needs help is pass defense.
Trading for Aqib Talib, moving McCourty to safety and acquiring a slew of safeties should help matters, but New England still struggled to consistently get after the passer in 2012, especially after Jones got hurt.
In 2011 the Patriots put a band aid on their pass rush by adding Andre Carter and Mark Anderson on one-year deals. And it worked. Carter, Anderson and linebacker Rob Ninkovich were all solid in getting after the passer as Carter and Anderson both racked up 10 sacks, with Ninkovich adding another 6 1/2 outside. Carter also had 16 quarterback hits and 24 hurries, Anderson had six hits and 36 hurries and Ninkovich had eight hits and 35 hurries.
The Patriots were able to get after the passer on 39.6 percent of passing downs, or every 2.52 plays. That was while using Brandon Deaderick and Shaun Ellis at the left defensive end spot, and neither were effective in getting after the passer.
Those figures went down in 2012, despite moving Ninkovich from strong-side linebacker to left defensive end, where he would get more opportunities to rush the quarterback. The Patriots got after the passer on 34 percent of all passing downs, or every 2.94 plays. They were still sending as many blitzers as in 2011, too — New England averaged 4.18 pass rushers in 2012 to 4.16 in 2011.
The difference was that the Patriots were never able to find a third rusher — like Anderson in 2011 — to give Jones and Ninkovich a rest. Jermaine Cunningham did an alright job of creating pressure up the middle, but he was rarely used outside effectively. Justin Francis and Trevor Scott got snaps at edge rusher, but neither were good enough to give Ninkovich or Jones a consistent rest.
The Patriots have a few options in 2013 to take some pressure off their starters. The first of which, and perhaps most appealing, is the possibility of adding either John Abraham or Dwight Freeney as a situational rusher. Both players are getting up there in age, but they proved in 2012 that they can still rush the quarterback.
Unfortunately, both players are also still fighting to find a team that will guarantee them more playing time than the Patriots are likely offering. Either player could probably find about 600 snaps in New England, mostly on third downs, but that may not be enough to get them to sign for the contract the Patriots are offering.
New England has some in-house options as well, though. They could use rookie Jamie Collins in a 2011-Ninkovich-type role. Collins has experience in pass coverage and pass rush, and if he proves adept, could be playing next to Jerod Mayo on third downs. The Patriots would have the option to either drop Collins to cover tight ends and running backs or blitz him at linebacker.
Collins can also play defensive end, which he proved at Southern Miss. So Collins could serve as that situational rusher that Abraham or Freeney could provide. Making Collins wear a lot of different hats in his rookie year may be asking too much, though. It would probably be best to stick him in one role early, either as a linebacker or situational pass rusher.
The Patriots could also use Hightower in that 2011-Ninkovich role, too. Hightower ranked as one of the best pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL last year, according to the website Pro Football Focus. Hightower only rushed 65 times, but he generated pressure on 14 of those snaps. Mayo rushed 74 times and also generated 14 total pressures.
Hightower had experience at Alabama in rushing off the edge as a defensive end. It’s doubtful we see him serve that role in the pros, but he has proved an ability to get pressure in both college and the NFL at outside linebacker
The Patriots are very deep at the defensive end position this year, and one way to increase their pass rush productivity would be to use one of those players on third down or to at least give Jones and Ninkovich a rest once in a while by using a rotation. Cunningham, Francis, Marcus Benard, Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan and Jason Vega can all fight for that role in training camp and the preseason.
Bequette was a third-round pick out of Arkansas in 2012, but he only played 29 snaps last season on defense. Buchanan was a seventh-round pick in 2013, and showed the needed ability to be a situational rusher at Illinois his junior year in 2011, but he struggled in 2012, which is how he fell to the seventh round.
Regardless of who’s generating pressure outside, the Patriots pass rush, and therefore pass defense, should be better based on the interior rushers New England acquired this year — plus the improved secondary. Armond Armstead and Tommy Kelly should be better than Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick at getting after the passer from defensive tackle, even if it’s just on third down.
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