FOXBORO, Mass. — It took some convincing, but the New England Patriots proved it this preseason: Their pass rush will be a force in 2015.
The theory for years went that if the Patriots acquired another pass rusher, it would give Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich much needed rest, making their snaps more productive. The Patriots ignored their need for another premier pass rusher until this offseason, however, when they spent big bucks on Jabaal Sheard and high draft picks on Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers.
Now the Patriots’ depth and versatility along their defensive line should overcome most, if not all, shortcomings they have in their secondary after allowing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to leave in free agency and releasing Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard.
Jones impressed in the Patriots’ first three preseason games with two sacks and three hurries in limited action. Sheard was equally as productive with four QB hits and three hurries. He also caused a holding penalty.
The Patriots’ pass rush doesn’t end with Jones, Ninkovich and Sheard, either. Flowers and Grissom each shined as pass rushers and in the running game, and defensive lineman Dominique Easley showed what made him a 2014 first-round draft pick against the Panthers, when he had a sack, a QB hit and a hurry. Easley is primarily a defensive tackle, but he also can line up on the end.
The Patriots’ linebackers also are dangerous pass rushers. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, both of whom can rush from linebacker or on the edge, each finished top 10 in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rush productivity metric. Jerod Mayo, who played in just six games because of a knee injury, finished fifth among linebackers who played at least 180 passing snaps.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s most difficult challenge is finding a way to get all of his talented pass rushers on the field at the same time. Fortunately, they all have versatility.
“I think they’re all a little bit the same position, they play at the end of the line, but they’re all a little different because they can do other things besides that, so that gives them the added value,” Belichick said about Jones, Ninkovich and Sheard. “It also gives our defense more versatility. Whether that’s moving to inside positions or it’s moving to off-the-line or outside positions, or in Rob’s case the value he gives us in the kicking game, snapping against Green Bay last year. That was a huge role for us in that particular game.
“It’s great to be good at one thing, it’s also great to have flexibility and versatility from those players who have been helping us in other areas. It’s hard to play three guys on the end of the line. We only have two end of the lines. So, finding something for that third guy, where you have the potential to have all three on the field at the same time, or more — which I’d say there have been cases where we’ve had multiple defensive end types, if you will, doing different things — then that creates flexibility, and it can change the look for the offense a little bit, too, with the type of athletes those guys are.
“We try to build our repetoire with them. We try to build our wide base so we can use them in different ways so they can have more value to our team and also give our team more flexibility. It’s been a good position for us.”
Jones, Grissom and Flowers can play outside linebacker, defensive end or defensive tackle. Sheard can play outside linebacker or defensive end, while Ninkovich also has experience at off-the-line linebacker.
There are nearly endless possibilities for how Belichick can use his edge rushers, but the issue is finding them all enough snaps. One possibility to get them all on the field is one Belichick alluded to, and that’s the NASCAR package, with edge defenders making up the four D-line spots.
The Patriots showed this look Friday night against the Carolina Panthers on a first-and-10 play as the clock was winding down in the half — an obvious passing situation — and Jones, lined up inside, came up with a sack. Ninkovich and Sheard were playing on the edge, with Flowers joining Jones at defensive tackle.
It will be difficult for any offensive line to stop four such athletic and versatile pass rushers, and that means less time in coverage for the Patriots’ patchwork secondary.
For years, Patriots fans clamored for more pass-rushing help. It’s finally here. Now let’s see what Belichick can do with it.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images