New England Patriots: Dominating Defensive Line Is Going to Get Better

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The Defensive Line is Going to Get Even Better

Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

With the massive turnover at cornerback there were many questions about how the Patriots could slow their opponents’ passing attacks. A common theme was the improved pass rush keyed by the defensive line and it has paid off with 26 sacks in 7 games.

Last year New England had explosive pass rusher Chandler Jones who was hurt a good chunk of the season and was not the same when he came back. The pass rush was anemic at times in 2014 and although Jones was fully healthy after a hip injury slowed him last year and they still had steady, run-stuffing veteran Rob Ninkovich at defensive end, it was clear the pass rush needed a boost.

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The Patriots imported Cleveland defensive end Jabaal Sheard in the offseason and immediately realized that they had a versatile young player capable of generating a ferocious pass rush and a strong run defender. Sheard was a multi-purpose threat on the defensive line through the first five games of the season before suffering an ankle injury.

Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The loss of Jabaal Sheard for the last two games could have been crippling to the New England defense. He was second on the team in sacks, their best run defender, and brought speed and explosive big plays to the defensive end position. Instead, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones stepped up improving their pass rush and run defense and helped shut down the Dolphins rushing attack on Thursday night.

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The defensive tackle group in New England is deep and bring different skills and talents. That was on display against Miami as the Patriots rolled out their run-stuffers Sealver Siliga and veteran Alan Branch to stuff Lamar Miller. They also had their last two first round draft picks Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown getting more playing time inside as the season progresses.

Easley is finally healthy after being shut down last season. His explosive first step and strength is evident as he has been a weapon penetrating inside to disrupt the running and passing game. Brown has improved each week and is getting more comfortable in the defense as he adapts to the speed of the game.

Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Akiem Hicks is a huge and penetrating defender on the defensive line and his role has grown as he integrates into the defense. He has steadily improved since coming over via trade with the Saints. Hicks has great size and deceptive penetrating quickness for a mammoth interior lineman. His ability to run down the line of scrimmage and help on outside runs has impressed.

As good as this defensive line has been, there are reinforcements coming. New England also used the 2015 NFL Draft to upgrade their pass rush. In the third round they grabbed Oklahoma defensive end Geneo Grissom and Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers in the fourth round.

Third round draft pick Geneo Grissom had an explosive pass rush against the Dolphins and should have had his first sack but could not wrestle Ryan Tannehill to the ground and Jones picked up the clean-up sack.

Fourth round draft pick Trey Flowers was explosive and hard to block in the preseason and has been buried on the depth chart due to multiple injuries. His return could be a second half boost to the pass rush.

In addition, Chris Jones has been on the PUP list and is eligible to begin practicing. He was a starter in 2013 as a rookie and brings the ability to push the pocket from the inside of the defensive line. Jones had six sacks as a rookie in 2013 and last year added three more to his career total as he often came in on passing downs to pressure the opposing quarterback.

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New England has been strong up front and pressured opposing quarterbacks in 2015. With the potential return from injury of Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers, and Chris Jones in the coming weeks the pass rush that harassed Ryan Tannehill on Thursday night shows no sign of slowing down in the second half of the season.