Patriots’ Defensive Line Held Up Well Without Vince Wilfork, But Losing Tommy Kelly Would Expose Lack of Depth

Joe Vellano, Chris JonesBecause negativity trumps all after a tough loss, there is not much focus on the Patriots’ improving defense right now.

While key injuries have ravaged the offense, they did not seem to knock the defense off track late against Cincinnati. After Tommy Kelly went down with a knee injury, things got so bleak that linebacker Dane Fletcher got three snaps at nose tackle. Surprisingly, Fletcher held up pretty well in the middle of New England’s short-yardage defense — all 245 pounds of him.

In those three plays, the Patriots had a defensive line that consisted of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edge, with Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, Jake Bequette and Fletcher in between. They allowed one yard (a touchdown) on three carries. That’s not bad for three defensive ends, a linebacker and two undersized rookie defensive tackles.

That line had a key stop with less than two minutes left in the game as Cincinnati was trying to put the game away. They held BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain.

In all, the Patriots sent out nine different combinations against the run on their defensive line. Check out how they stacked up below.

3-4, Kelly, Vellano, Chandler Jones: 4 carries for 23 yards, 5.8 yards per carry
3-4, Chris Jones, Vellano, Chandler Jones: 8-49, 6.1
4-3, Ninkovich, Kelly, Vellano, Chandler Jones: 1-2, 2.0
4-3, Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Vellano, Chandler Jones: 3-5, 1.7, fumble
4-3, Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Kelly, Chandler Jones: 1- -3, -3.0
Nickel, Ninkovich, Vellano, Kelly, Chandler Jones: 9-31, 3.4
Nickel, Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Vellano, Chandler Jones: 4-38, 9.5
Nickel, Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Kelly, Chandler Jones: 2-9, 4.5
Goal line, Ninkovich, Bequette, Fletcher, Vellano, Chris Jones, Chandler Jones: 3-1, .3.0, TD

The Bengals averaged 3.6 yards per carry when Kelly was on the field, 5.1 when Vellano was in and 5.1 when Chris Jones was playing. Kelly allowed 62 yards on 17 carries, Vellano let up 148 on 29 rushes and Jones gave up 92 yards on 18 plays. The Bengals ran for 93 yards on 18 carries for 5.2 yards per carry when Kelly was out of the game.

Vellano and Jones did not look great while they were playing against the run. Neither player is a prototypical nose tackle. Due to lack of size and strength, they will probably struggle against tougher offensive lines. Cincinnati has a stout offensive line.

The Patriots’ linebackers played a huge role in limiting Cincinnati’s rushing game. Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes all excel against the run. Spikes and Mayo had massive games in the middle of the defense. Hightower and Ninkovich did a nice job of setting the edge on the outside.

It has been difficult to find information on the seriousness of Kelly’s knee injury. It was a non-contact injury that kept him out initially for six plays. He went back in for one play, a four-yard carry by Andy Dalton in the red zone, then left for the remainder of the game.

The injury looked serious when Kelly went down. He immediately grasped his knee, but walked off under his own power. If Kelly misses any time, it will fully expose an issue that was obvious during training camp: the team’s lack of depth along the interior defensive line.

The team cut Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love back in May. They signed Armond Armstead from the CFL, but he’s out after undergoing an undisclosed surgery to treat an infection. The Patriots entered the season with Wilfork, Kelly, Vellano and A.J. Francis. Francis, Vellano’s former teammate at Maryland, was cut before the season started. He and Marcus Forston, a 2012 undrafted free agent, are on the practice squad.

If Kelly is out for a prolonged amount of time, it may make sense to sign both Francis and Forston off the practice squad or bring one of them up to the active roster and see what’s available in free agency. The team made no moves after they knew Wilfork would be lost for the season.

New England elected to go into the game against Cincinnati with eight linebackers and just three defensive tackles. After Kelly went down, Vellano and Jones were the only healthy defensive tackles left on the field.

The Patriots have held up in two games now without Wilfork, but things could quickly change without Kelly. The rookie receivers have been a main storyline through the first five weeks of the season. It might be time to shift the focus onto the rookie defensive tackles.

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

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