It’s time to see if the New England Patriots’ contingency pass-rush plan can get the job done.
It appears the Patriots will be without their most consistent defender, Rob Ninkovich, who has logged 116 consecutive games, for the start of the 2016 season. Ninkovich reportedly tore his tricep during joint practice with the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday, and could miss the first month of the season.
That means the Patriots will be without their starting defensive ends from the past four seasons, Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, the latter of whom was traded to the Arizona Cardinals. Fortunately for the Patriots, it’s as if they’ve been planning for this event for the last two years. It’s not as if they traded Jones on a whim. And they clearly didn’t expect 32-year-old Ninkovich to play forever.
The Patriots signed pass rusher Jabaal Sheard and drafted Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers last offseason. They then signed two more pass rushers, Shea McClellin and Chris Long, in free agency this year. Prior to Ninkovich’s injury, the Patriots had so many edge defenders, it was possible one of Grissom or Flowers would be cut this summer.
So how will New England’s defense look without Ninkovich? Possibly not too different.
The Patriots were experimenting with playing Ninkovich at linebacker during the spring. Those experiments continued during training camp, because it appears the Patriots are heading back to a base 3-4 defense. Ninkovich, in the role of a 3-4 outside linebacker, would have two jobs in the passing game: to rush the passer and drop back into coverage.
McClellin, who has been lining up primarily with the Patriots’ second-team defense, likely would slot into Ninkovich’s role. McClellin was a college pass rusher who moved to linebacker in the Chicago Bears’ defense. That’s a similar career arc to Ninkovich, who also was a college pass rusher who began his career with the Patriots as a standup linebacker.
Many expected McClellin to play linebacker with the Patriots, but he has been mostly playing on the edge. In a 3-4, outside linebacker would fit McClellin well. The Patriots showed how much they like McClellin’s game by giving him a three-year, $9.05 million contract this offseason.
In the Patriots’ base defense, Sheard can either play defensive end or outside linebacker. If he plays on the edge, the Patriots would use a stout three-man front with some combination of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, Markus Kuhn or Vincent Valentine on the line. If Sheard plays on the line, then either Long, Flowers or Grissom would play on the edge opposite McClellin. It’s more likely Sheard plays on the edge, since Long is best suited as a pass rusher rather than a run defender. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are expected to play inside, but either can play on the edge.
The Patriots primarily will be in their nickel defense regardless, where Sheard and either Long or McClellin can serve as defensive ends. On third down, Long, Grissom or Flowers can rush from the inside.
So, unless Flowers or Grissom steals the show in the preseason, expect McClellin to do his best Ninkovich impression in September. It could be an audition for the future, since Ninkovich is in the last year of his contract.
Flowers has been impressive in training camp, so it’s possible he’ll also contribute in Ninkovich’s absence. Flowers brought the heat twice Tuesday against the Saints and also showed off impressive pass-rushing skills in the Patriots’ recent scrimmages.
Regardless, the Patriots’ pass rush should be fine. Hightower and Collins will be used as blitzers, and Ninkovich brought pressure on just 8.2 percent of passing plays last season, compared to Sheard’s 15 percent and Jones’ 9.2 percent. Ninkovich’s true value came in his run defense and consistency.
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