FOXBORO -- Faced with the chance of providing a defensive boost in the secondary or up front this offseason, it appears the Patriots chose the latter.
New England added cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, giving the Patriots instant credibility when it comes to the debate over who has the best secondary in the AFC. But when it comes to getting after the passer, the only signing in that department likely came when they added defensive end Will Smith, a veteran free agent who was acquired after 10 years with the Saints and 67.5 career sacks.
So why should people be encouraged about the state of the New England pass rush?
First, it bears mentioning that from a statistical perspective, the 2013 Patriots had one of the best full seasons in recent franchise memory when it came to rushing the passer. New England finished fifth in the league with 48 sacks -- 12 sacks behind the league-leading Panthers. (By way of comparison, the last time New England had more than 40 sacks as a team was when it finished with 47 in 2007.)
But it’s not just all about sacks. Pressuring the passer can be measured in a variety of ways. According to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots finished the 2013 season with 57 quarterback hits (16th in the league -- the Cardinals led the league with 217) and 178 quarterback hurries (also 16th in the league -- the Broncos led the league with 269 hurries). That represents the most quarterback hits for New England since PFF began tracking pass rush numbers in 2007, and the second-most quarterback hurries for the Patriots in that same span.
In the end, much of that was forgotten about in the wake of the AFC title game, a contest in which New England couldn’t get any sort of pressure on Peyton Manning as the Denver quarterback carved up the Patriots pass defense on the way to a 26-16 decision, a game in which Manning threw for 400 yards.
However, for most of the season, there was more good than bad. From an individual perspective, by our count -- according to NFL gamebooks -- Chandler Jones led the Patriots last year with 11.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits. As expected, Rob Ninkovich was second with eight sacks and 17 quarterback hits. (In the interest of fairness, PFF had Jones with 13 sacks and 14 quarterback hits, while it had Ninkovich with nine sacks and 14 quarterback hits.)
Provided health isn’t an issue, the pass rush should receive a boost in 2014 simply with the return of Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, all of whom went down with injuries relatively early in the year. While Wilfork and Mayo aren’t pure pass rushers, their presence on the field will allow individuals like Ninkovich, as well as Chandler Jones and Chris Jones (who ended his rookie year with the Patriots with six sacks) to operate against single blockers on most occasions. When it comes to Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, increased opportunities off the edge should result in greater dividends when it comes to pressure.
In addition, the presence of Revis and Browner will help out. The Patriots preach team defense more than just about anyone, and with the acquisition of the two cornerbacks, that should extend the cover time in the secondary. The domino effect should then result in more time for Ninkovich, Jones and the rest of the pass rushers to get after the quarterback and come away with more coverage sacks than they’ve had in recent seasons.
(History tells us that when it came to pass rush, Revis’ impact can be felt across the board. While his presence obviously wasn’t the only reason the sack numbers improved, in the first four years Revis was with the Jets, New York hit the 40-sack plateau twice, 2008 and 2010. Previous to that, the last time they finished with at least 40 sacks was 2000. Again, Revis wasn’t the only reason the sack totals improved, but it wasn’t completely coincidental.)
Ultimately, while others will contribute to the success or failure of the New England pass rush, much of it will boil down to Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. Jones has become one of the more talented young defensive ends in the AFC -- his 17.5 sacks in his first two years are third-best in franchise history, trailing only Garin Veris (21 in 1985 and 1986) and Chris Slade (18.5 in 1993 and 1994). However, he’s had issues with consistency -- he had just one sack after Thanksgiving last year -- and has struggled with elite left tackles over the course of his relatively short career.
One thing to look for when it comes to Jones and his style is the fact that he spent quite a few snaps last year at defensive tackle -- more often than not, those snaps inside came on third down and other passing situations. His long, lean frame gave opposing guards fits, and could bring another dynamic aspect to his game.
“I feel like it starts in practice, to be honest with you,” he said Wednesday when asked about the pass rush. “My biggest thing that I’m trying to emphasize this year is just going even harder in practice, try to win more one-on-ones, try to go harder in team [reps], try to get to the quarterback more often. I feel like if you do it in practice, it’ll come a lot more in games. That’s my biggest focus.”
On the other side, Ninkovich remains one of the most underrated defenders in the league -- the defensive end also has played outside linebacker and has shown a nice ability to drop into coverage as well as get after the passer.
“It starts with technique. It all comes down to playing your responsibilities and reading your keys,” said Ninkovich, who has 27.5 sacks in five seasons in New England. “If you’re running up the field and it’s a run play, you’re not playing your responsibility and it’ll cause problems on defense. First and foremost, it’s technique and playing fundamentally sound football.
“Defensive ends are tricky because you have multiple responsibilities -- you just can pin your ears back and get after the quarterback on every play. You have to be able to stop the run, too. First, stop the run and be physical. Then, the pass rush stuff, that’s when you know its 100 percent pass -- third-and-longs and things like that. That’s when you can get after the quarterback.”
Another one of the reasons why the pass rush could be better this year is the fact that it appears Ninkovich and Jones have appeared to find a nice balance. Working together in complementary roles can be a challenge, but now that Ninkovich and Jones have been paired at opposite defensive end spots for the better part of the last two seasons, they seem to have figured out each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
“You try and get as much work in training camp -- that’s when you put that time in and get a feel for the guys around you,” Ninkovich said. “Playing with Chan the last couple of years, we’ve kind of done a good job of playing off each other, and again, It just comes down to the fact that the more time you’re with somebody, the more success you’re likely to have.”
When you’re looking for defensive ends, finding complementary elements is one part of the team-building process. According to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a second -- and even more important part -- comes down to discovering two players who can effectively balance the line. If you have one terrific player at one of the line (whether it’s at tackle, corner, outside linebacker or defensive end) and a mediocre one at the other spot, there’s an imbalance, one that can be exploited by a good opponent.
“It’s good to have balance at those perimeter positions -- corner, outside linebacker, offensive tackle, however you want to look at it -- so there’s not an obvious imbalance to your opponent,” Belichick said. “[I] found that out at the Giants when we had Lawrence Taylor. Once he established himself pretty early in his career what type of impact he had, things started to tilt away from Lawrence or to him in terms of protection, however you want to look at it. When we picked up [Carl] Banks, then that really, there was now a much more of an equilibrium there and, ‘OK, you’re going away from Taylor but now you’re going into Banks. You’re going away from Banks, you’re going into Taylor.’
“For Rob and Chandler, there’s definitely an element of them complementing each other and knowing where the other guys are, especially in pass rush, so we don’t end up with both guys up or both guys under.”
While no one is going to confuse Ninkovich and Jones with LT and Banks anytime soon, ultimately there figures to be multiple reasons why the Patriots pass rush will be better this season than it was in previous years. The arrival of Revis and Browner, the continued growth of the Ninkovich-Jones combination and the search for balance along the line all figure to come into player sooner rather than later. In the end, how quickly all of those elements come together could ultimately prove to be the legacy of the New England defense for 2014.