Tom Brady averted disaster with his left knee injury and returned to practice Thursday, so Patriots fans can stop worrying about their star quarterback.
Instead, when the Patriots take the field Friday night against the Buccaneers in the second exhibition game, attention instead should be focused on the side of the football that deserves scrutiny: the defense.
New England’s pass defense has finished 29th or worse in yards allowed in each of the past three years, but the secondary isn’t the top concern — not if Devin McCourty can stay healthy and Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling can get back from injuries to help out Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington at cornerback.
The area that needs the most improvement, actually, is the pass rush, which used to be Bill Belichick’s area of expertise when he coached Lawrence Taylor and the Giants defense to two Super Bowl titles.
The Patriots ranked in the middle of the pack last year in sacks — 37 in 16 games, tied for 15th in the NFL. When you factor in that they faced the eighth-most passing plays last year (631 dropbacks), they finished in the bottom third of the league in sacks per pass play.
The website ProFootballFocus.com, which analyzes every snap of every game, actually rated the Patriots as the eighth-best pass coverage team last year, but only 22d in pass rush.
Defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who led the Patriots with eight sacks last year (in 505 pass-rush snaps), said that it’s on the guys up front to help out the secondary.
“You can’t forget that coverage and the rush work together,” Ninkovich said. “Some of the best teams out there, if you have some of the best coverage, you have some of the best rushes, and if you have some of the best rushes, it helps the coverage.
“So we’re all working together to help each other.”
The Giants’ Super Bowl teams in 2007 and 2011 certainly illustrate that point. They didn’t exactly have any superstars in the secondary — solid but unspectacular players such as Corey Webster, Antrel Rolle, and Will Blackmon — but they shut down the Patriots’ high-flying offense twice because they got consistent pressure on Brady.
The Giants finished first in the NFL in sacks in 2007, and fourth in 2011, with stars up front such as Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Matthias Kiwanuka, and Jason Pierre-Paul.
And getting consistent pass rush with the four guys up front allowed the Giants to keep more linebackers back in coverage.
“It’s basic football,” Ninkovich said. “Let four guys get to the quarterback, and let the other guys cover.”
The Patriots aren’t there yet, where their four guys up front can cause consistent havoc in the backfield. Last week against Philadelphia, they did have three sacks and three quarterback hits. But two of the sacks came against third-team quarterback Matt Barkley; Michael Vick and Nick Foles completed 9 of 11 passes and had all day to throw against New England’s starting defense.
And the six combined quarterback hits came on 51 dropbacks. Put another way, the Patriots hit the quarterback on just 11.7 percent of passing situations.
The Patriots weren’t dialing up any exotic blitzes against the Eagles, meaning their defensive linemen weren’t winning many one-on-one battles. Belichick might have to get creative for the Patriots to get more quarterback pressure.
“You get a good pass rush however you get it,” he said. “I think there are very few teams that just rush four guys on every play. I don’t see very much of that from hardly anybody.”
Fair enough, and the Patriots might be able to get more sacks this year just based on the continued improvement of Chandler Jones, the addition of Tommy Kelly, plus the law of averages.
According to PFF, the Patriots actually finished 12th in the league in quarterback pressure — sacks plus hurries — with 197 in 631 snaps. That means the Patriots were getting some sort of pressure on 31 percent of passing plays, even if they weren’t getting the quarterback to the ground.
No player better exemplified that than Jones, who had just six sacks as a rookie but a respectable 28 quarterback hurries. PFF ranked Jones as the 16th-best defensive end out of 62 last year, and his sack numbers should increase if he just continues to do his job, as he said repeatedly Tuesday.
“My biggest goal is just to do better than I did last year,” Jones said. “It’s funny that I keep saying just do my job, but it’s true. If I just do my job and do what I’m supposed to do, we’ll be fine.”
The Patriots might have better personnel this year to apply more consistent pressure. Kelly, at 6 feet 6 inches and 310 pounds, had just one sack for Oakland last year, but had 7 and 7.5 in the previous two seasons and should help Vince Wilfork get interior pressure.
Ninkovich might be used more in a stand-up pass rushing role, which likely better suits his skills. The underperforming Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick have already been discarded, and Jermaine Cunningham may be on the way out, while newcomers such as Marcus Benard and second-round pick Jamie Collins have looked solid in camp.
The Patriots believe they can have a top-caliber defense if they can get more consistent pressure on the quarterback.
“Just look at all the defenses that have been great in the history of the game — they all had A-1 defensive lines,” Kelly said. “If you’ve got a great defensive line, you can put yourself in great second-and-long situations, or you don’t have to blitz all the time. That’s the starting point of any great defense.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin