If you were surprised that Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots passed on a pass rusher in the 2011 NFL draft, you probably shouldn't have been. Of course, you can count me among those that were, but after further review, it makes sense why they took a pass on a pass rusher.
Prior to the draft, anything you read about New England's biggest needs seemed to start and end with four words: "sub package pass defense." Rightfully so, as the Patriots were in their sub package 57 percent of defensive snaps in 2010, as opposed to just 40 percent of their defensive snaps in the base 3-4 defense.
The eye-opening stats that have surfaced over the past few weeks have been thus: New England gave up first downs at a rate of 47 percent when they rushed five or more, and gave up a passer rating of 103.2 in such situations, which was third-worst in the NFL.
Last year, the Patriots outside linebackers combined for 12.5 sacks. More than a few teams had a player or players with that many sacks on their own.
As a result, it was clear where the need was: the front seven, specifically off the edges. Yet with what Bill Belichick called a very deep class for prospects in the front seven, he didn't take a single one until the sixth round. That class could have been as deep as the Atlantic Ocean and I'd still have been puzzled as to why the Patriots waited that long for a pass rusher.
After further review, the puzzling part is why we thought he'd take one in the first place.
Make no mistake about my arguments. It's not as though I'm completely jaded to the fact that the Patriots need substantial improvement from a quarterback pressure perspective if the Patriots want to, oh, I don't know, win a playoff game?
The argument here is that drafting a "pass rusher" high may not necessarily be the only way to fix that.
Let's take a look at some numbers from their Super Bowl winning seasons as proof why. Put on your math cap, and I'll show you the total number of sacks, the number of players with a sack, the mean (average), median (middle point), range (difference between highest and lowest numbers) and the highest sack total for one player in each of the three seasons the Patriots won a Super Bowl:
Now, to put it in perspective, let's look at the numbers from the previous two years:
In retrospect, it's easy to see that 2004 was really the only dominant season for the Patriots pass rush.
What else is easy to see? The Patriots haven't had a double-digit sack specialist in any season in which they won a Super Bowl. It doesn't mean they can definitely get by without a top-flight pass rusher, but it does indicate that they're not doomed without one, either.
I included 2009 for good reason. I wanted to show the improvement in the pass rush toward what Belichick likes to see. The Patriots do better when the sacks are spread out over a larger group of players, as opposed to getting all their production from a "pass rush specialist". Nearly a third of all their sacks in 2009 came from one player, Tully Banta-Cain.
Last year, in comparison, the Patriots not only got more sacks, but they came from a wider group of players. It's hard to believe the Patriots pass rush improved between 2009 and 2010, but they made strides toward the defense they want to run.
Why would spreading them out be better? It's easier to neutralize the pass rush if all the production is coming from one player. Simply lock onto that "pass rush specialist" and boom, problem solved.
It's hard to project a pass rush specialist into the 3-4 system, but it's even harder to project injuries. Getting a pass rush from a group of players helps ensure that no singular injury will cripple the defense.
So in that respect, the pass rush improved drastically from '09 to '10. More sacks, more players involved. If they can get a little improvement from a group of guys, they'll be better off as opposed to putting all the pressure on a rookie to suddenly make this defense dominant.
And think about this: The Patriots drafted four players at defensive line and linebacker spots just last year (ILB Brandon Spikes, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, DT Brandon Deaderick, DT Kade Weston). Thus, passing on a pass rusher comes down to one word: Confidence. Belichick believes the guys he drafted will improve with another year in the system.
We should expect more from the pass rush this year even without the addition of a top-flight pass rusher. Still, we have every right to be critical if an improvement doesn't occur.