This is part five of an eight-part series.
The Baltimore Ravens performed the ultimate magic trick during the AFC Championship. They made a 350-pound man disappear.
That was Vince Wilfork, a 2012 All-Pro that wreaked havoc all season long. Wilfork was held to one tackle. As good as Wilfork was last year, he can’t be the only productive lineman in the biggest game of the season.
A priority for the Patriots in free agency last year was finding an interior pass rusher. They lost a good one in Mike Wright who was released due to post-concussion syndromes that curtailed his past two seasons.
New England thought they got a good one in Jonathan Fanene, but his knee injury was more serious than initially thought. He was cut early in training camp.
Myron Pryor has good pass rush ability, but he spent the 2012 season in injured reserve.
The Patriots wasted little time trying again to address the problem in 2013. They imported Armond Armstead from the Canadian Football League.
Armstead is an interesting story. Armstead would had been drafted last year, but a heart attack in his final collegiate season at USC made him a health risk.
Armstead is now suing USC because he claims medication given to him by the school triggered the heart attack. The alleged medication cost him money he could had earned as a possible NFL draft pick.
One year north of the border making quarterbacks' hearts race was enough to pique the NFL’s interest. Armstead had six sacks and, more importantly, a season free of any heart problems.
Adding the 6’5” 298-pound Armstead doesn’t solve the interior pass rush problem, but it’s a good start. Pryor is a free agent and should be affordable to bring back after a year on the shelf. His shoulder should make a full recovery.
If these two signings happen, what will happen to Jermaine Cunningham and Trevor Scott? They were decent situational pass rushers that often lined up at defensive tackle. Cunningham is under contract so he should be safe until training camp.
Scott, on the other hand, is a free agent and might be allowed to walk with Justin Francis’ rapid improvement, which would give 2012 third-round draft pick Jake Bequette a shot to make an impression.
What we do know is the Patriots might finally have a dominant pass rusher in Chandler Jones. Jones was better than expected in the first half of the season as he raced out to six sacks. But slowed down by ankle injuries, Jones failed to add to the first-half tally.
A healthy Jones for 16 games and a year of experience under his belt might lead to unreal expectations. The hope is Jones makes a huge jump from his rookie to his sophomore year.
The NFL is a passing league, but teams still must stop the run. Statistically, New England did that well. But they were aided by the big leads the offense gave the defense.
The D-line deserves some credit for allowing 102 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. But in games decided by 10 points or less, opponents averaged 113 yards per game.
Starting with Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick inside, they kept the linebackers free to make tackles or to make the tackle themselves. On the outside, Jones and Rob Ninkovich, whose versatility is underrated, did a good job of holding up at the point of attack on outside runs.
To be fair, Ninkovich had two sacks and eight tackles in the AFC Championship. Wilfork had help, but not enough. A few more consistent playmakers up front will make the defensive line significantly better.
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