The Patriots defense isn’t looking for sympathy. It isn’t making excuses when it probably could make a big one: it can barely start 11 healthy, capable players on a week-to-week basis.
A quick recap: Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly – two gigantic men who made up the middle of the Patriots defensive line – are done for the year. Jerod Mayo – who was arguably the glue of the defense – is done for the year. Aqib Talib – who was having a Defensive Player of the Year-type season – has missed the last three weeks. And on Sunday, both Rob Ninkovich and Steve Gregory left the game with injuries and did not return.
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Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones shared his thinking on that matter after the Patriots’ 55-31 win over the Steelers.
“Like I say in every interview, it’s not who we don’t have, but it’s who we have.”
So that begs the question, who do they have? They signed an old friend in defensive end Andre Carter two weeks ago, and traded for Eagles defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga at the deadline last week. While those two didn’t fill up the stat sheet, both made marks on the game in the relatively short preparation time.
“Isaac and Andre, they went in there and competed well,” Bill Belichick said Monday. “I think [there’s] a long way to go with both of them. There are a lot of things they can do better. They showed up, made a few plays for us.
“Andre had a couple good pass rushes, hit the quarterback. Isaac was a factor on those short-yardage plays, short-yardage stops, knocked down a screen pass. But overall, there’s still, I think, a lot of work and improvement they can have but one thing about those guys is they’re willing and even though they’re veteran players, they’re very willing to spend the extra time, do the extra work.”
Players like Sopoaga and Carter aren’t the first to step in on defense. Fellow linemen Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have answered the call in perhaps a bigger role than anybody imagined at the beginning of the season.
On the year, Jones has recorded 30 tackles and five sacks. Vellano has 33 tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery. The Patriots run defense as a whole could still use improving, though.
“I think they are guys that are really trying to learn the game from the ground up and learn the techniques and the things we are asking them to do,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “Certainly we’re pleased with their progression. We’re going to look for better and want better for them.”
Just when you think the Pats have taken a step back, they take two steps forward.