The return of Mike Wright from a concussion, though, could kill those two birds with one stone.
Pro Football Focus has been unveiling pass rush statistics like crazy, but one of the vastly underrated aspects of any pass rush are the guys in the middle. As always, these guys do a lot of the grunt work and get little if any recognition for it.
Wright was the team's leader in sacks with 5.5, and that was in just 10 games before sustaining a concussion that knocked him out for the rest of the season.
Admittedly, Wright's not that great in run defense (PFF's Khaled Elsayed makes sure to point this out). His gap discipline in the 3-4 is subpar and leaves openings for running backs to break through. In that sense, he may never be a three-down defensive linemen in the base defense.
With these stats from Elsayed, though, Wright gets his due as not just the best pass rusher on the Patriots defense, but the best interior pass rusher in the league on a per-play basis in 2010. His success spans at least three years back, though, as he ranks eighth in that category over the past three years.
So how, then, can the return of one player make such a big impact on the pass rush as a whole?
In the simplest of terms, I can break it down into two words: team defense.
To elaborate, Wright's presence eliminates the quarterback's ability to step into his throws, thereby forcing him outside of the pocket, where one of the outside linebackers will be waiting with open arms, and not the welcoming kind.
This also helps explain why the Patriots didn't go after a top-flight pass rushing prospect in the 2011 NFL draft. Quite simply, they felt they didn't need one. They felt that with the improvement of the current group of outside linebackers, and the return of Mike Wright as well as a few other defensive linemen (Ty Warren, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace among them), the pass rush would improve without needing a big-time addition.
The logic in and of itself makes sense. If the pass rush doesn't improve, though, many fans will look back on this draft and question that logic.
In that sense, Mike Wright's return won't suddenly fix the third-down woes of the Patriots defense. They'll need to get more from everyone to improve there.
One might see the Patriots' third-down conversion rate of 47 percent on defense and immediately say that quarterbacks had all day to throw. While that may be partially true, the problem on third down wasn't always that the quarterback had all day in the pocket. Mike Dussault of Pats Propaganda points out that three-step drops and quick throws on third and medium was what hurt the Patriots the most, specifically in the loss to the Jets.
The pass rush can't get there that quickly. At that point, part of the blame falls on the coverage. Thus, drafting Ras-I Dowling seems less crazy in retrospect. Better coverage should help the third down defense, at least in some respect.
In the end, they can't cover all day. The pressure has to get there at some point, and Mike Wright's return could help in that sense.
Thus, while Wright's return may be one step in the right direction, the Patriots defense has yet a long way to go before returning to the dominance of their days of prominence.