FOXBORO, Mass. — For the Patriots’ pass defense to improve in 2013, it will have to come from two units.
Obviously, the secondary has to be better. And with Aqib Talib back at cornerback, Devin McCourty at safety and some new blood in the back end of the defense, that squad should be much improved from last season. It also has to come from the defensive line, though. The Patriots’ pass rush was middle of the road last season and if they can put more pressure on the opposing quarterback, that will only help out the defensive backs.
There are probably six spots to fill at defensive end and there are eight quality players fighting for those roles. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are locks for the starting jobs, but Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham, Marcus Benard, Michael Buchanan, Jason Vega and Jake Bequette will be fighting for the remaining spots.
Last season, the Patriots lacked a player like Mark Anderson, who piled up 10 sacks in 2011. Anderson was the player whose sole purpose was to get after the passer on third down and in sub packages. Cunningham was the defensive end who played the third-most snaps in 2012, but many of those came in an interior role.
Benard has been the most impressive pass rusher in training camp so far. He has dominated in 1-on-1s and had great success in limited time with the Browns in 2009 and 2010. He missed most of 2011 after crashing his motorcycle and all of 2012 after being cut. He’s the player best suited for that third-down role if he can stay healthy and if he keeps performing well in practices and preseason games.
Benard was an unheralded signing in January, but his strong play has been noted by coaches. While Cunningham has been out, Benard has been taking first-team snaps at defensive end and on the inside.
The player who likely has the best chance to come out of that group of six with a roster spot is Francis. Francis played the fourth-most snaps at defensive end last season with New England and his versatility is his strongest suit. At 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, Francis can line up at seven-technique defensive end and three-technique defensive tackle in 4-3 alignments and five-technique defensive end and outside linebacker in the 3-4. He’s a solid run stopper and his pass rush had noticeably improved by season’s end. That was punctuated by a three-sack performance against the Dolphins in Week 17.
“It expands your mind,” Francis said about versatility. “Being versatile is always a good thing. Playing more than one position is always a good thing. The more you can do, the more valuable you are. I just critique myself, I listen to Vince [Wilfork] when he’s critiquing me, TK [Tommy Kelly]. I learn whatever I can from them. And I let the older guys basically groom me into something.”
Francis isn’t quite the third-down pass rusher that Benard can be or Anderson was, but he’s a solid performer whose best role would probably be at the five-technique defensive end or strong-side seven-technique. Francis said all the competition at his position is only making each player better.
“It’s only right,” Francis said about competition. “There’s always going to be competition and that’s the only way you can make your team great. I look forward to competition and I’m pretty sure the rest of the guys feel the same way. That’s what we want. We want to be competitive and we want competitors out here. We don’t want anybody that’s not competing.”
A player like Bequette has already taken noticeable strides during training camp, even though it appears he’s buried at the bottom of the depth chart. He struggled during 1-on-1s early in the summer, but he’s improved and has shown some flashes against the Patriots’ offensive linemen.
Bequette, Vega and Buchanan may all be fighting for one spot if Cunningham can get healthy and show what made him a second-round pick in 2010. Bequette, a third-rounder, barely took the field his rookie year in 2012. The Arkansas product only played 29 snaps and seemed to get off to a slow start last summer. Bequette didn’t compile any sacks, quarterback hits or pressure in his limited time, but it may be difficult for the team to write off a third-round pick so early.
Buchanan hasn’t flashed much as a rookie either. The Illinois product had Patriots fans excited when he dropped all the way to the seventh round. Buchanan was great in 2011 when he had Whitney Mercilus, a 2012 first-rounder, playing across from him, but his production dropped off in 2012 after some off-field issues.
Buchanan has been overshadowed by guys like Benard and Francis during training camp, but he should be able to show his ability more clearly against Philadelphia on Friday. The same goes for Vega, who also hasn’t flashed much since coming over from the CFL.
Mixing in some 3-4 looks may help the Patriots generate more of a pass rush, as well. If Jones can get after the passer from the five-technique defensive end position, Ninkovich and either Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins or one of the defensive ends would be coming from the other side. Teams will generally send five pass rushers in a 3-4 alignment, which puts more pressure on coverage players, but also means they have less time to cover.
The Patriots didn’t spend big at the pass rush position in 2013, but the hope is that some of the second-year players will step up this season. And with all the competition at the position, each player should improve as they’re fighting with one another for a roster spot.