New England Patriots: When Will the Pass Rush Finally Deliver?
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Forget about the quotes—Rex Ryan didn't take the Jets job "to kiss Bill Belichick's rings," and Wes Welker is definitely not a "good little foot soldier"—we've come to expect those fireworks. The taunts, the gloating, the name-calling from both sides over the years? That's just divisional football; heated, tense, occasionally petty, ultimately compelling.
What remains with me, in glorious high definition, is the sight of Santonio Holmes in January's playoff loss, sitting in the corner of the end zone, arms aloft, having caught a pass from Mark Sanchez only he could reach. Sanchez got to the red zone on a chair-ride, with his offensive line allowing no sacks or significant pressure all game.
Consider this in contrast with the other side of the ball. Tom Brady was dropped five times, due to a heady mix of effective pass-rushing and tight coverage, making the more experienced quarterback work hard for his open receivers.
I whispered it quietly, but struck by Sanchez's impression of a mini-Brady I wondered if we had just witnessed his graduation from game manager to game winner. With time and further evidence, the real answer is that most quarterbacks in this league can throw under no pressure. Thanks to an anemic pass rush, for the past few seasons Patriots defenses have specialized in making ordinary signal-callers look like Pro Bowlers.
For the best part of his career, Belichick has been searching for his next Lawrence Taylor. In many ways his days as a New York Giants defensive coach during the '80s spoiled him; once you've worked with the best pass-rusher of all time, how can the rest hope to match up?
What is the Patriots' biggest problem this season?
Belichick has exacting standards. The prototype rusher must be big and tall, quick and clever. Willie McGinest had it; Mike Vrabel too. But an unproven rookie? Anything less than measurably perfect and the Patriots' draft goes in a different direction.
To some extent, Belichick's theory is sound. For every Clay Matthews that becomes a surefire hit, there's a cautionary tale called Vernon Gholston or Aaron Maybin. But if you live in fear of the first-round bust, your proven commodities better deliver. The Patriots have missed here too in recent times; Adalius Thomas was an expensive disappointment, and Tully Banta-Cain lacked the talent to deliver on a consistent basis.
The latest faces in Foxborough tasked with generating the missing rush have all done it elsewhere in the league. Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Shaun Ellis all have 10-sack seasons coming off the edge on their resumes, while interior man Albert Haynesworth once had 8.5 in a gap-rushing role in Tennessee. However a combination of age, injury and scheme-fit seem to be holding back the current crop and there are no signs of improvement.
Defensive line coach Pepper Johnson claimed to be satisfied with his charges following Week 4's 31-19 win in Oakland, but with no sacks and minimal pressure on Jason Campbell, his words fail to convince and fans have a right to wonder when the team's off-season moves will bear fruit.
With the secondary giving up more yards per game than any other team in the league, the sight of rookie defensive ends Ryan Kerrigan and Robert Quinn making plays for their new franchises puts Belichick's scouting policy firmly in the spotlight.
With a shortened preseason and a raft of personnel changes, the defense was always going to get off to a lethargic start, but any projections of improvement are based on hope rather than expectation.
Tom Brady is 34 now and the window is closing on his time at the top, hard as that may be to believe when you witness his eye-popping feats of the first quarter of the season. What a waste it would be to ignore the missing piece in the puzzle while a future Hall of Fame quarterback sits at the controls.
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