Offense – not defense – typically comes to mind when the Patriots are in the discussion.
But while the team’s secondary leaves something to be desired, the defensive line has been respectable – despite a lack of pass rush – and is improving.
Last year, the Pats gave up a stingy 3.9 yards on the ground per carry, good for sixth fewest in the NFL. In the four years prior to that, they didn’t rank lower than 13th in the NFL in yards allowed per carry.
All-Pro Vince Wilfork has anchored the d-line since he entered the NFL in 2004. The 6-foot-2, 325-pound Wilfork remains one of the best nose tackles in the game, often commanding double-teams by the opposing team’s offensive line.
Wilfork has forced three fumbles and recovered seven fumbles over the last three seasons and he’s as close to an every-down lineman as it gets.
This season he may have more help than ever.
The Patriots drafted defensive end Chandler Jones last season, and by all accounts Jones had a stellar rookie season.
The Syracuse product made 45 tackles including six sacks and three forced fumbles last season. He’s already considered a top 20 edge rusher, and should crack the top 10 – or top five – in the next couple of seasons. It should be a big second season for Jones.
On the opposite edge is Rob Ninkovich. While Jones was a first round pick, Ninkovich was drafted in the fifth round back in 2006 by the Saints, and didn’t show his worth until he joined the Pats in 2009.
Ninkovich is versatile. He played linebacker when the Pats were primarily a 3-4 defense, and now plays defensive end in the 4-3. He had a career-high eight sacks last season and forced five fumbles, recovering four of them. He also has four interceptions dating back to 2010.
But the big addition to the line is Tommy Kelly, who will look to clog the middle right next to Wilfork. Kelly signed a two-year deal with New England over the offseason, and the 32-year-old has looked impressive in camp and in the team’s first preseason game.
The Pats also signed CFL star Armond Armstead, but he’s been out of action due to surgery for an infection. A healthy Armstead is important due to the Pats’ lack of d-line depth. Marcus Forston, Justin Francis, Jake Bequette, and Jermaine Cunningham hope to make an impact in backup roles this year.