An NFL linebacker probably would blitz on every snap if it was their choice.
That’s why it was no surprise to hear New England Patriots linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins express over the offseason their desire to rush the quarterback more in 2014. Head coach Bill Belichick granted their wish, and it paid off for his defense.
Hightower and Collins were the Patriots’ most productive pass rushers per snap this season, and they added a degree of deception that the team didn’t have in past years.
Hightower and Collins were needed this season, too, with starting linebacker Jerod Mayo suffering a season-ending injury in Week 6, Chandler Jones missing six games and 2013 starter Brandon Spikes departed to the Buffalo Bills.
Left defensive end Rob Ninkovich still led the team with 58 pressures, according to NESN.com’s charting, but he had 86 in three more snaps in 2013. Hightower finished second over fellow 2013 first-round draft pick Chandler Jones despite far fewer opportunities.
Hightower led non-defensive backs with a pressure on 30.1 percent of pass-rush snaps. Collins followed close behind with a pressure on 28.2 percent of pass-rush snaps. Ninkovich pressured the quarterback on 10.5 percent of snaps this season, down from 15.6 percent in 2013.
The Patriots struggled to get pressure from their defensive tackles this season, despite using a first-round pick on Dominique Easley. Tommy Kelly led Patriots interior defenders with a 13.1 pressure percentage last season. Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones also were more productive as pass rushers in 2013.
There are many excuses for Easley’s struggles — from a lingering knee injury to shoulder issues, a lack of playing time during his senior season with the Florida Gators (he tore his ACL on Sept. 30) and a jump to the NFL without any preseason snaps — but the No. 29 overall pick’s rookie season has to be categorized as a disappointment. Easley was supposed to fortify the Patriots’ pass rush, and it just didn’t happen, despite plenty of opportunities early in the season from all over the team’s hybrid defensive front.
Collins and Hightower both had predictably high sack percentages. It’s surprising to see Siliga have a higher sack percentage than any of the Patriots’ traditional edge rushers.
The Patriots will need to get after Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on Saturday if they hope to advance in the playoffs. They can be as dangerous as they want to be with a wide array of pass-rushing weapons, including midseason acquisition Akeem Ayers, but Belichick’s willingness to use Hightower and Collins creatively likely will dictate how much success his team has in bringing down Flacco.
Snap data via Pro Football Focus
Thumbnail photo via Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports Images