The question: Can the defense find a way to generate a pass rush?
Three factors: Players at outside linebacker in the base, and rush end in the sub; Finding new creative ways to generate pressure; The ability of interior additions like Damione Lewis to collapse the pocket.
Finding the answer: This is by no means a new problem. Teams like the Colts, Saints and Dolphins could count the time their passers had with a sundial last year in wins over New England.
So the Patriots’ biggest edge-rushing addition would be … Second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham? Yes, that’s right.
Tully Banta-Cain returns after registering 10 sacks last year, as does fellow veteran Derrick Burgess. Rob Ninkovich and Pierre Woods will also be part of the mix, while it’s hard to expect much from Shawn Crable at this juncture.
The problem: All of those guys are complementary rushers, and none are the kind of threats that force a team to tilt its protection or keep an extra guy in to chip or double-team. And recent history shows that most championship teams have that dominant rusher that opponents have to account for.
As it stands now, those guys will need help in harassing the passer.
One place it could come is from the interior, where veteran addition
Damione Lewis is the type of upfield-pushing tackle who can help the
outside guys, and even Vince Wilfork could play more of a
Another place is through scheming, and we saw some of that with the
team’s “UFO” nickel and dime fronts (one linemen with undeclared,
roving hybrids hovering around the line) near the end of last year,
which can create free runs at the QB. With so many players back from
last year, the team could well be able to open the playbook more,
particularly if Belichick is more involved on defense.
All that is to say there are ways around this being a fatal flaw on the
team, and maybe Cunningham brings more than expected to the table. But
if this area isn’t better than it was last year, it’s going to be a
problem again, and in more ways than one.
Like here: The Patriots have a boatload of young defensive backs, and
the biggest piece of help developing players at those spots can have is
a strong pass rush. Absent that, you risk hurting those guys’
confidence, and confidence is vital for players charged with covering
The bottom line is that this facet of the defense could make all the
difference for a group that’s promising in a lot of other areas.