Vince Wilfork’s return helps Patriots’ defense, but pass rush still needs fixing

Last night’s news of the Patriots and Vince Wilfork coming to terms on a team-friendly contract extension that will likely keep him in New England for the remainder of his career seems to have been met with equal parts joy, relief, and satisfaction on the part of fans. And while keeping Big Vince in the fold (which from this angle always felt like a foregone conclusion, no matter what the Loud Voices might have you believe) was the right move both from a pure football standpoint and a sentimental one, there remains a fundamental question in regard to the Pats defense as a whole that continues to go unanswered.

The Pats have splurged, particularly by their standards, on that side of the ball since the onset of free agency a couple of weeks ago. Re-signing Wilfork and bringing in Brandon Browner and the great Darrelle Revis to revamp the cornerbacking corps will certainly help a unit that looked like it was ready to become the best Pats defense since the championship years of 2003-2004 prior to injuries ravaging it last season. But it is still more than fair to wonder why the Pats are so disinclined to beef up their pass rush, year after year after year.

If a defense can’t consistently pressure the opposing quarterback, it will eventually be doomed, as the Pats proved in both of their AFC Championship Game losses the past two years. It doesn’t matter if it’s Aqib Talib or Revis or even the great Mike Haynes back there in the secondary—if the QB has time to throw and a clean pocket around him, he will shred the defense. You can’t cover forever, no matter how good you are at it.

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The Pats have one pure star pass rusher in Chandler Jones. Jones has been at least solid from the moment he was drafted in 2012 and took a big step toward greatness last year. But if you neutralize him, as the Broncos did in January, the rest of the defense is finished. As good as Rob Ninkovich has made himself, as important as he’s been, he’s not a pure No. 1 or even No. 2 pass rusher on a great defense.

The Pats have never valued players like Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, and Julius Peppers, to name three veteran pass rushers who were free agents this offseason and signed elsewhere without garnering even a whiff of interest from Bill Belichick and his staff. It is bizarre to the point of almost mind-boggling that the Pats have been victimized time and again for years by their lack of consistent ability to pressure the QB in the biggest games, yet have done nothing to address it beyond drafting Jones two years ago and bringing a washed up guy like Derrick Burgess, clearly in the “Who cares?” phase of his career, in 2009. Even if the defense stays relatively healthy in the 2014 season and no matter how good Revis and Browner, and by osmosis, the rest of the secondary, plays, if QBs like Peyton Manning and even Joe Flacco are as unencumbered as they’ve been in dispatching the Pats from the playoffs each of the last two years, it ultimately won’t matter.

Bringing Big Vince back made sense for everyone and was certainly not only a helpful move but the right one. Still, if the Pats continue to avoid/ignore their biggest weakness on defense as they have for years now, Wilfork’s return and Revis and Browner’s arrivals may not wind up mattering as much as fans hope.