Part 6 in a 10-part series examining key storylines leading into Patriots' training camp...
The question: Will the pass rush be any better this season?
Three factors: If the lockout negates any of the usual improvement; whether the team adds any players; scheme.
Finding the answer: The short answer is none of us – along with the Patriots – has any clue.
Because of the lockout, there are so many variables at this point it’s hard to know exactly what will transpire.We do know two things. One, the Patriots ranked in the middle of the pack with 36 sacks, but 17 came in three games against the injury-ravaged Steelers, a backup quarterback with the Packers, and a Dolphins team that quit in the season finale. The Patriots also had, by a wide margin, the worst third-down defense (47 percent).
The other thing we do know is the Patriots opted not to get any help in the draft, which indicates coach Bill Belichick likes what he has. And he’s a little brighter than the rest of us about this game. Late-round pick Markell Carter is project and if he does help, it will be down the road.
We don’t know if free agency will bring any help as well, since it hasn’t happened yet. But you have to think the Patriots add at least one player, be it a Matt Roth, Manny Lawson, Antwan Barnes, Jason Babin, Mathias Kiwanuka or someone of that ilk. Keep in mind that the Patriots don’t seem to be looking for that every-down killer pass rusher. Or at least they probably won’t find one in this free-agent group. If a player can help the rotation and play a certain role, all the better because it keeps offensive coordinators and quarterbacks guessing with all the Patriots' assorted packages and personnel changes.
With so much up in the air, all we can do is look at the best and worst case scenario for a group that contributed to the team’s ultimate downfall: not being able to get off the field enough against the best competition and in the biggest games.
- Second-year OLB Jermaine Cunningham used the lockout to not only mature physically, but to learn the schemes like they're second nature. Better yet, he worked on developing pass-rush moves, something he lacked in his rookie campaign. Cunningham has promise – he’s a terrific athlete – but he has a lot to learn about pass rushing in the NFL, which often is more about smarts and techniques than agility and speed. Same goes for OLB Rob Ninkovich, who actually improved as the season went along.
- OLB Tully Banta-Cain is full healthy and back to his 10-sack form from 2010. He was hurt much more last season than he or the team let on (I know, shocking, right?). If Banta-Cain has his usual quickness, he will definitely be better than five sacks.
- DE Mike Wright makes a complete recovery from his severe concussion(s) and has no problems moving forward. This is almost a must because he WAS the Patriots’ pass rush before he missed the final six games of the season. Wright will command a lot of attention if he’s right. Ditto for Ty Warren. A health Warren, Vince Wilfork and Mike Wright will make things a lot easier for the guys on the outside.
- CB Leigh Bodden is in top form and effective. That would allow some of the cornerbacks, namely Kyle Arrington, to play more in the slot where they are dangerous as pass rushers. The Patriots really like Arrington’s pass-rush ability. They even used him at nickel on occasion at the end of the season. Another indication of how desperate the pass rush was.
- DE/OLB Eric Moore improves on the playmaking promise he showed near the end of the season as a nickel pass rusher. The guy showed a nose for the ball. Now that teams will know who he is, let’s see if that continues.
- The Patriots add a player like Roth, the former Cleveland Brown who was drafted by Belichick buddy Nick Saban in Miami, and he flourishes in a specific role.
- Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia used the oodles of downtime during the lockout to think up a scheme that revolutionizes the defensive side of the ball… OK, they’ll settle for a few different looks for each opponent on the schedule that they can whip out to confuse the quarterback and help get the defense off the field in crucial spots.
- For the moment, I’m not buying the thought out there that “Belichick is creating pressure by having an awesome secondary that will make the quarterback hold the ball and allow the pass rush to get there.” This is the NFL. At some point, usually in the biggest games, you just have to beat the other guy. And nobody can cover forever in this league. But I’m open to changing my mind on this once the Patriots actually get on the field and we can size up the roster.
- Wright gets dinged during training camp and is in and out of the lineup all season.
- Cunningham shows little improvement because the lockout took away the off-season practices and mini-camps.
- Banta-Cain shows that last season actually foretold the downside of his career at 30 and with injuries.
- Moore shows why he came from the UFL.
- Whoever the Patriots bring in during free agency shows exactly why their former team let them walk.
- The Patriots don’t master the new wrinkles put in by Belichick in time because the lockout cutdown on prep time.
So what will it be, the former or the latter? Probably a little bit of both. The question is, will it be enough to make a difference? Obviously we'll have to wait to find out.