FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots have suffered their fair share of injuries this season, but one aspect of the team’s defense has not suffered: the pass rush.
Compared to last season, the Patriots are getting after the opposing team’s quarterback at an increased rate. And while they still don’t stack up favorably to the rest of the league at generating pressure, it’s still nice to see an improvement over last year.
The Patriots have 171 total pressures this season, according to Pro Football Focus. New England’s defense has been on the field against the pass for 399 plays. Spread across all players, that’s 1,714 snaps.
The Patriots have generated pressure on 42.9 percent of plays and 9.98 percent of total snaps this season. That’s up from 35.5 percent of plays in 2012 and 8.38 percent of total snaps.
2013: 171 pressures, 399 passing plays, 1,714 passing snaps, pressure in 42.9% of plays, 9.98% of snaps, 29 sacks
2012: 246 pressures, 693 passing plays, 2,934 passing snaps, pressure in 35.5% of plays, 8.38% of snaps, 37 sacks
Part of that increase is due to an uptick in blitzes, but the Patriots are also putting better pass rushers on the field in more advantageous situations to succeed. It helps, of course, that the Patriots’ secondary is playing at an extremely-high level.
New England’s defense as a whole is playing better this year. And that’s partially due to the fact that the Patriots have been willing to take some hits against the run if it means bettering the pass defense. That’s a trend that has progressed over the past three years.
Back in 2011, Shaun Ellis and Brandon Deaderick — better run defenders than pass rushersm — were starting defensive ends in the team’s 4-3. Mark Anderson was brought in on third down, but there was very little pressure generated from the left defensive end spot on first and second down.
The Patriots lost Andre Carter and Anderson in 2012, but drafting Chandler Jones and moving Rob Ninkovich from strong-side linebacker to left defensive end gave New England some hope in the pass rush. The team still lacked a third-down rusher and interior penetrator, though. And once Jones hurt his ankle, his production dropped off.
Jermaine Cunningham was expected to serve as the team’s third-down interior pass rusher in 2012 after looking solid in the preseason, but once the calendar turned to September, the former Florida defender generated just 25 total pressures in 12 games, according to Pro Football Focus. The Patriots obviously felt the need to increase pressure from that interior role. They signed Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead during the offseason and cut Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love and Cunningham.
Losing Vince Wilfork hit the Patriots hard in their attempts to stop the run. But Wilfork never generated much pressure from the nose tackle position, nor did Love or Deaderick from the three-technique role last season. Wilfork pressured the quarterback on 4.83 percent of pass rush snaps, while Love was at 5.99 percent (with just 1 1/2 sacks) and Deaderick was at 3.5 percent.
This season, Wilfork generated pressure in 3 percent of snaps while Chris Jones is at 5.29 percent (with five sacks), Joe Vellano is at 5.65 percent and Kelly was at 10.8 percent before going out for the season with a knee injury. Signing Kelly only paid off for the five games he was healthy and Armstead looks like he won’t play this year, but New England still found some productive interior rushers in Jones and Vellano.
Chandler Jones has also been rushing from the inside at times, as have Michael Buchanan and Carter. Jones has already surpassed last year’s number of sacks (8 1/2 to six), and he has 40 pressures in nine games compared to last year’s 43 in 14 games. Ninkovich has just three sacks to last year’s eight, but he’s generating pressure in 12.1 percent of plays compared to last year’s 8.31 percent. Jones and Ninkovich have also had some help.
The Patriots blitzed on 24.2 percent of their pass defense snaps in 2012. This season, that number has grown to 28.1 percent of pass defense snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Dont’a Hightower has the most blitzes among New England defenders. He’s getting pressure on 23.1 percent of his pass rush snaps. That’s up from 19.7 percent last season. The Patriots have also shown more 3-4 looks while Wilfork has been out.
Against the Steelers, Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were the outside linebackers while Chris Jones, Vellano and Isaac Sopoaga were the down linemen. Against the pass, Ninkovich and Jones still rush the passer more often than they drop into coverage, but the team will likely be sending five rushers more often in the base as the season goes along.
It’s been a team effort in ramping up the pass rush and some improved coverage on the outside from Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard has gone a long way in forcing the opposing quarterback to hold the ball longer. New England can still improve its pass rush, and finding a solid third-down contributor could be the key.
Michael Buchanan started out the season as the third-down edge-rusher, but he’s generated pressure in just 7.37 percent of pass-rushing snaps. Carter took over that role since he was signed and he’s nearly doubled the rookie’s production, generating pressure in 14.3 percent of pass-rushing snaps.
Carter had an extremely productive game against the Steelers, and while it may not be wise to expect that kind of pressure every game, it did show that the veteran still has some juice left.
It’s definitely easier to run on this team. And Carolina will likely try to do a whole bunch of that on Monday night. But the Patriots are making it difficult for teams to mount a comeback with such a stout pass defense. The pass rush and pass coverage are working together nicely and the defense has a whole will get a boost when Aqib Talib makes his triumphant return.