One of the major question marks as the 2014 season gets rolling for the Patriots is how the defensive line will rebound from a mediocre 2013 campaign. Injuries hit the team hard last year, with veterans Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both lost to injury during the season. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones stepped in, showing flashes of strong play, but lacked the consistency demanded of the position. The team fell to 30th in the league against the run in 2013, allowing 134.1 yards per game on the ground, compared to a 9th place ranking in 2012 when they allowed only 101.9 rushing yards per game.
Interior run defense, in particular, was a sore spot, with the team repeatedly struggling against power running games throughout the year. However, Jones did show some ability when rushing the passer, racking up six sacks on the season. So far in 2014, the team has had a mixed report card against the run. They were gashed by the Miami Dolphins for 191 yards on 38 carries before rebounding with stronger performances against the Vikings (54 yards allowed) and Raiders (67 yards allowed).
Despite the interior line struggles there were bright spots elsewhere, most notably the continued growth of Chandler Jones who notched 11.5 sacks in a solid sophomore campaign. Rob Ninkovich started opposite Jones, finishing with eight sacks for the second year in a row. Jones has looked very strong to start the season, in particular during his 2-sack performance against the Vikings. It remains to be seen whether he can gain the consistency needed to be a star at the position, but there is no question he has the talent. Another part of the equation here is the scheme the Patriots choose to run, as Jones has the skillset to be most effective in a 4-3 edge role rushing the passer rather than the 3-4 end role the Patriots have employed at times throughout the season.
New England enters the 2014 campaign with a healthy Wilfork ready to resume his role as interior run-stopper, while Vellano and Chris Jones return in supporting roles with a year of experience under their belts. Also in the mix is 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley, who missed significant time throughout his college career with knee injuries but has the athleticism and potential to provide a new dimension to the Patriots’ interior defense. Easley also provides flexibility to employ a number of different fronts, but it remains to be seen whether his health and strength will allow him to consistently compete at the pro level. In limited action through three games Easley has already proven he has the ability to make spectacular plays, such as this diving interception against Minnesota where he was a good five yards upfield rushing the passer when the ball was tipped and he still managed to reverse direction to make the pick.
The early returns in 2014 have been mixed so far. In their first game against Miami, the Patriots appeared unable to generate much pressure facing the Dolphins’ passing game, and displayed little gap control or push along the line of scrimmage against the run. Wilfork, coming off surgery, was driven out of position on a number of inside runs, and Vellano, Easley, and Sealver Siliga all appeared to have issues with controlling the interior of the line as well. On the outside, Jones was able to get to Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill several times, but unfortunately drew two penalties for roughing the passer and was ineffective for stretches throughout the game. In the two games since, the defensive line has been much tougher against the run, but – outside of Jones – has still struggled to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Greater production from this unit will be the key to this team making a deep playoff run, especially if the offense continues to struggle putting points on the board.