Oct 28,2012; London, UNITED KINGDOM; St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (8) is pressured by New England Patriots defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich (50) and defensive end Chandler Jones (95) in the 2012 NFL International Series game at Wembley Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Rams 45-7. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

New England Patriots Midseason Forum, Part 5: Defensive Line

Chandler Jones is a project.

At least that’s what we were told by the “Experts” when he was drafted by the Patriots.  If this is true, then Patriots’ fans should be incredibly excited about what the kid is going to look like when he realizes his potential.

Drafted 21st overall in the first round, he is a  “project” with great size, speed, tenacity and the wingspan of a Turkey Vulture.  He is part of a draft class that may end up being the best of the Bill Belichick era.  Belichick concentrated solely on defense in this draft, which included fellow 1st round selection Dont’a Hightower plus Tavon Wilson, Jake Bequette, Nate Ebner and Alfonzo Dennard – and Jones is the crown jewel.

Already on track to becoming the defensive rookie of the year, which would be the second award in five years for a New England player and third overall in their history, his stat line looks like anything but what a “project” would produce: Starting all eight games thus far, he has 6 sacks, 37 total tackles, three forced fumbles and even 2 passes defended.

Protracted over the entire season, his numbers would be in line with the production from that spot in 2011…and with Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham asserting themselves in the pass rush, this year’s production should at least mirror what we saw from the ends last season.

From top to bottom, New England’s defensive line is huge – and any conversation to be had about this unit will alawys begin with Vince Wilfork.

At 6′ 2″ and 325 pounds, you will not find a more athletic big man.  He anchors the interior and always demands double teams, whether in pass protection or in the running game.  In the past two seasons, Wilfork has really begun to show his range, falling back into coverage on occasion and lining up as an end.  He has a nose for the football and routinely sniffs out screens…not bad for another player labeled a “project” coming out of the University of Miami 9 years ago.

With this being the case, the question looms:  Why do opposing quarterbacks still seem to have all day to throw the ball?

It’s a matter of scheme.  Belichick always game plans to concentrate on the opposing offenses top three threats, with the running game always being priority one – and with Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love as the starting tackles, they anchor one of the best rush defenses in the NFL.   Opposing offensive coordinators know this and utilize the play action to try to neutralize the interior pass rush and, as a result, neither are really collapsing the pocket up the middle.

So on obvious passing downs we’ve seen Cunningham lined up as a tackle, teaming up with Wilfork to attack the “A” gap – utilizing his speed to beat the girth on the inside – while Ninkovich and Jones set the edge in the running game and put pressure on the quarterback, and the results have been promising.

As have the results when the Patriots blitz.  With linebacker Dont’a Hightower coming back from injury, we should expect to see more blitz packages – nothing exotic, as he is a straight forward load with the size of a down lineman and the speed expected of an outside linebacker, and he was a terror blitzing the quarterback from both positions in college.

The pass rush should also benefit from the presense of newly acquired cornerback Aqib Talib.  If he comes as talented as advertized, his coverage skills should give the pass rush another split second to get to the quarterback as well.

In General, this is as solid a unit as you will see, given their athleticism, size and propensity for making the timely big play.  In a way, this is a unit that is so young that it could be considered a project in itself – benefiting from veteran leadership and youthful exuberence.

Patriots’ fans should be excited to see what this front four, as well as the rest of the defense, looks like coming out of the bye – because it’s going to look like a championship defense.

And it all starts up front.

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