Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Tommy Kelly Making Pass Rush Patriots’ Best Defensive Asset

Chandler JonesThe Patriots may boast the best trio of linebackers in football. Jerod Mayo is a perennial Pro Bowler, Brandon Spikes is arguably the best run-stopping linebacker in the NFL and Dont’a Hightower is a nice mix of the both of them. But, while so much attention is bestowed on the run-stopping abilities of the second level, the pass rush has been the big story on defense this preseason.

The Patriots’ defense has racked up eight sacks already this preaseason, including games of three (versus the Eagles) and four (versus the Buccaneers) sacks. The defensive line, and defense as a whole for that matter, already has a face in Vince Wilfork, but Chandler Jones has already taken on the role as the face of the Patriots’ sack society.

Jones was having a breakout rookie season — five sacks in his first six games — before injuries limited his production in the second half of 2012. The impressive rookie missed two games down the stretch and was limited in the Patriots’ run to the AFC Championship Game, where a nagging ankle injury kept him from making the same sort of impact as he did early in the year. Even after a disappointing end to his rookie campaign, the former first-round pick made strides during the offseason and is expected to make major waves along the defensive line in his second season — waves that are already crashing down along the shores in New England.

Jones recorded a sack in both of the Patriots’ first two preseason games, including a strip sack of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles in the preseason opener. Jones didn’t bring down the quarterback in the Patriots’ third preseason game on Thursday, ending his short-lived streak, but he managed to disrupt quarterback Matthew Stafford‘s rhythm and provided pressure during the two-plus quarters he was on the field. Jones wasn’t alone in pressuring Stafford on Thursday, though, nor has he been this preseason.

Veteran Rob Ninkovich has been applying consistent pressure off the opposite edge all preseason, and he did so again in Detroit. Ninkovich was probably the Patriots’ best defender on Thursday night, recording six tackles, one for a loss, while disrupting Stafford in the backfield and even combining with Tommy Kelly to bring down the Lions’ quarterback for the Patriots’ lone sack on the night. Playing in a hybrid defensive end-linebacker role, Ninkovich rushes a bit more than Jones and the rest of the linemen, and he’s also been successful doing so — with now two sacks and three quarterback hits to his name.

Jones and Ninkovich headline the Patriots’ pass rush this season, but they’re far from alone in the endeavor. Kelly has been one of the NFL’s best interior rushers over the last nine seasons, and, even at 32, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Kelly has been in the backfield more times than you can count on two hands this preseason and has 1 1/2 sacks to his name. He also seems like a perfect fit to play the nose — if Bill Belichick would even dare take Wilfork out — in sub sets on third down.

Marcus Benard, who has one sack of his own, and second-year end Justin Francis, who hasn’t hit the sack stat sheet just yet, can also provide a formidable rush from the outside. Benard seems like the better pure pass rusher, at least to this point in the preseason, and he figures to be the team’s third-down rushing specialist, similar to Mark Anderson‘s role on the defense two seasons ago.

While successful, coming off the edge isn’t the Patriots’ only way to pressure the quarterback. Spikes, Hightower and Mayo all have decent-to-good pass-rushing skills, and, of the three, Spikes has shown the most of it already this preseason. He had two sacks against the Bucs last week, and, for a player with just one career sack, appears set to take on a bigger role in that area this season. Hightower probably has the best rushing skills of the three, and he, too, should see extended time blitzing off the edge this season.

You also can’t forget about rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, who came within inches of decapitating Foles in the first preseason game and played a ton of defensive end at Southern Mississippi, where he had 10 sacks his senior year. He’s seen as more of an asset as a coverage linebacker, keeping pace with linebackers and running backs out in space, but his pass-rushing skills are nothing to scoff at and we should see him rushing on occasion this year.

There are a wealth of pass rushers on the Patriots’ roster heading into this season, which is a nice departure from the struggles they faced pressuring quarterbacks in 2012. Last season, the Patriots finished smack-dab in the middle of the NFL with the 15th-most sacks in the league at 37. But the development of Jones and Ninkovich, plus the addition of other guys like Benard, Spikes and Collins to the mix, should give the Patriots a much-improved pass rush this season. And with some lingering questions about depth on the interior of the line and even still in the secondary, the pass rush may be the unit that steadies what could be a top-10 defense this season.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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