Rob Ninkovich’s Dominant Performance, Poor Showing by Offensive Line Among Five Takeaways From Patriots-Lions

Rob NinkovichIt would be easy to write off the entire Patriots-Lions game as one big sloppy mess for New England.

After all, they lost 40-9 to a Detroit team that had many struggles of their own. But that’s not how we do things over at NESN.com, especially for a preseason game. Yes, the Patriots had their fair share of errors, most notably in ball security and tackling, but it wasn’t all bad for New England.

The Patriots’ first-team defense was downright dominant for the most part, forcing the Lions to go three-and-out six times in the first half. They were repeatedly put in tough situations and continued to stop Matthew Stafford and the Calvin Johnson-less Detroit offense.

As good as the Patriots’ defense was, though, their starting offensive line was just as bad. Tom Brady didn’t have much time to push the Patriots down the field as all of his protectors had trouble fending off the impressive Lions defensive line.

Kenbrell Thompkins was the biggest winner from last night, but we covered him in depth Thursday night after the game. Read more about who impressed and what the Patriots still need to work on in our five takeaways below.

1. Patriots’ starting offensive line can’t keep Tom Brady upright: It’s certainly not time to panic, nor was it last preseason when the offensive line struggled, but this was not the best performance for Brady’s protectors from top to bottom. Dan Connolly looked rusty, Will Svitek continued to struggle at guard, Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder gave up a few pressures each and Ryan Wendell whiffed on a block, leading to a Brandon Bolden fumble.

With the entire starting offensive line, plus some key reserves, coming back from last season, this unit should only improve in 2013 (as long as there is no regression from Wendell and Vollmer stays healthy). But their struggles give some insight into why New England struggled to get many points on the board in the first half.

Brady actually had a nice game, but he wasn’t given enough time to carve through the Detroit defense. It should be worth noting that the Lions have one of the best defensive lines in the league, so while New England didn’t pass with flying colors, this was a big test for them.

2. Rob Ninkovich, Patriots’ starting defensive line excels: Ninkovich has steadily improved throughout his NFL career, and at 29 years old, it doesn’t look like he’s done developing. The defensive end had a huge game against the Lions, stopping the run and rushing Stafford. After my rewatch, I have Ninkovich generating four pressures in the pass game while also blowing up the backfield numerous times.

Ninkovich never gives up on a play. He’s often in on tackles downfield because he continues to track the ball. Ninkovich’s teammate, Chandler Jones, continues to be consistent in the pass and run game, as well. He generated three pressures and was setting the edge in the run game very well throughout the first half.

Tommy Kelly continues to impress, rushing the passer from the middle of the defense. So far, it looks like the Patriots want to use a defensive end in obvious passing situations in that three-technique defensive tackle spot, but using Kelly would make far more sense if the Patriots can keep his snaps down in run plays.

Kelly is good against the run, but he’s also the team’s best pass rushing defensive tackle. Vince Wilfork sat and Joe Vellano played OK in his stead. Vellano, Marcus Forston, Cory Grissom and Anthony Reshad White all failed to stand out. Vellano had one very nice play on a Reggie Bush run to keep containment while getting a push, but he has a tendency to disappear. Forston struggles to maintain his gaps while playing the nose and overpursues as times. Grissom got hurt and only played 12 snaps, while White continues to impress playing the nose but only got 15 snaps himself.

3. Still no one stepping up at second safety spot: It seems many people are down on Adrian Wilson after Thursday’s game. Perhaps their expectations were too high in the first place. Wilson was benched in the Cardinals’ sub package last year, and that might be the move this season with the Patriots. Wilson is still a solid run defender, but he has lost a step in coverage.

Unfortunately, no one is really stepping up at safety beside Devin McCourtyDuron Harmon had his second rough game in a row, Tavon Wilson appears to have tumbled down the depth chart and Steve Gregory continues to find himself in the wrong place.

At this point, I would expect to see McCourty and the elder Wilson as the starters, with Gregory coming in on nickel and dime situations. At some point we may see Harmon in with the sub defense, but the last two games have proven he’s not ready for that role just yet.

In the last two years, the Patriots have signed two free agents and spent second- and third-round draft picks on the position. Yet, no one appears to be stepping up yet.

This brings up another issue, and that’s the idea of a physical presence at strong safety might be an outdated concept with so many spread and option offenses popping up. Sure, a player like Rodney Harrison could scare teams from sending receivers over the middle, but with the new NFL rules, those hits that made opponents think twice are now banned.

It’s nice to have a safety who can help out in the run game, but the Patriots already have a stout front seven that can defend running backs. A safety’s first duty in today’s NFL is to cover. If the Patriots still had an excess of healthy cornerbacks, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to convert a player like Kyle Arrington or Logan Ryan to play next to McCourty. Arrington and Ryan both fit in the McCourty mold as cornerbacks who are better in zone when they can keep the ball in front of them. Both players are also solid run defenders.

With so much money and draft picks invested in safeties, and a lack of health at cornerback, it’s unlikely we see the above concept instituted, but I’ve been a longtime advocate of converting cornerbacks to safeties in the NFL. It’s certainly worked with McCourty.

4. Ryan Mallett struggles despite decent performance from second-team offensive line: For three games in a row now, Mallett has really struggled with his accuracy, but the reserve linemen are not to blame. Sure, they’re going up against backup defenders, and they’ll give up a pressure here and there, but for the most part they have been solid.

Mallett, on the other hand, can’t seem to get comfortable despite having time to throw. He overthrew Aaron Dobson, got too close to the sideline on a pass to Thompkins and threw a couple more passes in the dirt. He finished 11-for-22, and all 11 of those incompletions were on him.

5. Logan Ryan, Patriots’ cornerbacks stand out: With Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling out, Ryan has had more time than anyone to improve in game situations. He has 208 total snaps on defense this preseason, according to Pro Football Focus. Harmon is next up with 194.

Ryan played his best game in a Patriots uniform Thursday night (yes, even better than last week’s, when he took an interception to the house for a touchdown). Ryan allowed one reception on three targets for 14 yards while playing outside and in the slot. If Dennard isn’t healthy enough to get back into the defense Week 1, the Patriots should be fine with Aqib Talib (who has quietly been one of the defense’s best players this preseason) and Arrington at corner.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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