Breaking Down Patriots' Pass-Rush Concerns: Where Is New England's Pressure?
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We previously broke down the New England Patriots' issues in the secondary, so today we're going to take a look at the pass rush and where the Pats have been effective and where they most need to improve.
In 2012 the Patriots pass rush is slightly off the pace of 2011. Sacks aren't the only way to measure how much pressure you're actually getting, but strangely, the Patriots have gone to the Super Bowl every time in the past 11 years that they've hit 40 sacks.
In 2011 they had 40 on the nose, but this year they're on pace for 34.
Despite the disparity, I believe the Patriots took a necessary half-step backwards this year in order to take a full two steps forward down the road. Can that translate to success later this season? Let's look a little deeper.
Shift to 4-3 front
Schematically, the Patriots shifted their defense to a lighter 4-3 front featuring Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love in the middle, two traditional nose-tackle types in the old 3-4. The advantage is that the Patriots now have at least five athletic linebacker types on the field at all times and in theory should be able to rush the passer on any down.
The key to this switch has been Rob Ninkovich, who despite being smaller than a traditional Patriots defensive end like Ty Warren, has been able to hold up in the run game. Ninkovich has been timely with his big plays, but the Pats still need a more consistent pass rush from him.
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Opposite Ninkovich is rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, who has been a major missing piece of the puzzle ever since the Patriots said goodbye to Willie McGinest. No one expected Jones to be the all-around stalwart that he's been thus far, having already recorded six sacks making him an early favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Jones is finally the young, true threat on the edge that the Patriots have needed that will give opposing offenses something to think about for a long time.
Issues in base and sub defenses
The evolution to this style of defense from the days of a heavy 3-4 is a smart one, but it hasn't entirely translated into results just yet. Not because of the edge rush, but because of the lack of interior rush in the base and sub defense.
In their base it's an unfortunate necessary weakness because of the kind of players you're playing inside, bigger space eaters. But in their sub defense is where they've had problems.
I've written on this extensively over the past two years, tracing many of their issues back to the lack of an interior presence ever since the days of Mike Wright, who was their last true penetrating lineman.
The Patriots tried to address this area by adding Jonathan Fanene this past offseason, but he was never healthy and was released, while Myron Pryor looks like he'll be missing another entire season after failing to come off the PUP list this week.
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Despite their moves to shore this area up last offseason, the Patriots are right back in the same boat they've been in the last two seasons, and they are struggling on 3rd-and-longs worse than they have in the last decade.
This has forced the Patriots to get creative by sliding Jermaine Cunningham, a former defensive end/outside linebacker, to the inside. Cunningham has flashed at times in this role but is still too often taken out of the play.
Still, Cunningham is an improvement over what we've seen since Wright and Pryor both went down, and he seems to be improving.
Perhaps the bigger problem is who lines up next to Cunningham on the inside.
What will the pass-rush package be?
Vince Wilfork is a dominant player, but in a role where speed and power are needed, he's not best utilized. Especially since the Patriots are somewhat over reliant on him already, though he's down to 81 percent of the snaps this year from 87 percent last year.
But he still just doesn't have the jump or bull-rush power to push the pocket consistently.
Perhaps Justin Francis will get more of a chance to help in this area. He saw a season-high 19 snaps in an all defensive end pass-rushing front against the Rams.
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The Patriots have been experimenting the last couple of games, and they'll continue to until they find a pure pass-rush package that they like.
Against the Rams they seemed to be employing more zone exchanges with the linebackers. This is a good, creative way to generate pressure, especially when you have three talented linebackers in Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower, who can all get after quarterbacks more than we've seen.
With a little more continued creativity from the coaches in both disguise and personnel, as well as a little more consistency from Ninkovich, Jones and Cunningham, the Patriots should be able to improve their pass rush in the second half of the season.
And some quality man coverage from Aqib Talib could certainly help as well.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist and also edits PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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