FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots may be feeling pressure right now, but they are not bringing it.
Despite having two top-tier defensive ends, New England is still failing to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Patriots rank ninth in the NFL in sacks with 40, but that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
No matter what metric is used, the Patriots are struggling at rushing the passer. New England is 30th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, 31st in Pro Football Focus’ pass rush ratings and 22nd in MMQB.com’s pressure rate. The Patriots also don’t pass the eye test. Outside of the bookend pass rushers, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, no one else on the team is getting through the offensive line to disrupt the opposing passer at a consistent rate.
New England’s pass defense has faltered due to its lack of pressure, too. Once ranked in the top 10 of nearly every notable pass defense stat, the Patriots are now 18th in yards allowed, 18th in touchdowns allowed, 13th in yards per attempt and 22nd in first down percentage.
It doesn’t help that cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington and safety Steve Gregory have been banged up, or that New England has recently been introducing more zone-coverage looks, but the pass rush has to shoulder a heavy load of the blame. It appeared New England would finally be able to generate some pressure up the middle this season, too. Veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly was the piece the Patriots had needed in the middle of the defense for years. He was a stout run defender who could also bring heat up the middle. Kelly was so good in his five games with New England this season that he still ranks fourth in total pressures among Patriots defenders. He had 2 1/2 sacks, 12 hurries and two quarterback hits, according to my own charting.
Chris Jones has filled in admirably for Kelly, but the rookie defensive tackle’s production has slipped as the season has progressed. That makes sense, too — he’s being asked to play nearly every snap. Jones had 5 1/2 sacks and 13 total pressures in his first five games with New England. He has zero sacks and 14 pressures in six games since.
Ninkovich, who leads the team with 75 pressures on the season (six sacks, 53 hurries, 16 quarterback hits), understands the pass rush has been inconsistent this year.
“I think we’ve done a good job at times of bringing pressure, but, as well, other times there’s been times when we haven’t had the pressure that we need to get on the quarterback,” Ninkovich said. “But there’s a lot of things that go into it. It’s not just: line guys up and get after the quarterback. Everything works together. I’ve said it before. Pressure-coverage, coverage-pressure, that all works together. Certain blitzing situations, everything’s gotta marry up together nicely. You gotta have the coverage with the pressure, and it’s just the way it goes on defense.”
One thing that can be said for New England’s defense is that it has closed pressures well, and that’s obvious in the fact that it ranks ninth in sacks despite being low in every other metric. Chandler Jones has been especially successful in that regard. Jones has 11 1/2 sacks on 73 total pressures.
One area that still needs to be addressed, either from within or via free agency or the draft this offseason, is finding a third-down rusher. The Patriots have to decide whether Chandler Jones is going to be rushing from the outside at defensive end or inside from defensive tackle on third downs. If he’s going to be rushing from the inside, they need a Mark Anderson type whose sole responsibility is to get after the passer. If Chandler Jones will be rushing from outside, the Patriots need to find a player who can get consistent pressure from inside next to Chris Jones.
Some current players could potentially fill this role. Jamie Collins has mostly been used as a linebacker, but he did have 10 sacks his senior year at Southern Miss as a defensive end. He, or fellow rookie Michael Buchanan, could serve the role as an outside third-down rusher.
Armond Armstead was expected to play a big role this season, but he had surgery to clear an unknown infection this summer that landed him on the PUP list and ended his season when he could not get back on the practice field in time. Hopes will be high for Armstead again next season, but he’s still an unknown commodity despite how well he played in the CFL and in college at USC. Armstead was known for his interior-rushing ability in college.
The last time the Patriots were able to consistently get after the opposing quarterback, it was with names like Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green. Those players are long gone now, and guys like Chandler Jones and Ninkovich have taken their place. Now, the Patriots need to find some players who will help those two bookends in their pursuit of pressure.