FOXBORO — During training camp and the preseason, it was easy to hype the Patriots’ pass rush, with outside linebackers Matt Judon and Josh Uche primed and ready to harass opposing quarterbacks.
Given how terrific both players looked early on, they figured to provide a necessary spark for a remade defense, flying in off the edges.
Now add in Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Chase Winovich and Christian Barmore, and expectations soared for the front seven. Then came Sunday’s game against the Dolphins.
All the Patriots could manage was two sacks and four quarterback hits. That wasn’t terrible, but still underwhelming given all of the buildup, not to mention all the money spent to rebuild the front seven.
The Dolphins also don’t boast a particularly good offensive line. With starting left tackle Austin Jackson out all week on the COVID-19 list, the Fins started rookie left guard Liam Eichenberg at tackle in his place. It was a makeshift line.
And yet, Tua Tagovailoa was often comfortable in the pocket, especially during critical drives.
With the Jets on tap, fielding an even worse offensive line than the Dolphins with left tackle Mekhi Becton sidelined, the Pats’ pass rush needs to come alive.
If the Patriots can’t get to rookie Zach Wilson, there’s something wrong. The Panthers sacked Wilson six times last week, swinging the door open for more impactful takedowns. How much more aggressive can the Patriots be this week?
“You don’t want to be passive about anybody you’re playing,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said during his press conference Thursday. “Obviously, you want to respect your opponent, but also at the same time, I feel we have a good defense … we have guys that can win one-on-one in the pass rush, and guys just in the front seven all around who can get pressure on the quarterback.
“Carolina did that very well throughout the game,” Hightower went on, referring to how the Panthers used Wilson as a tackling dummy. “So hopefully, we can do that and get pressure on him.”
During Sam Darnold’s run, the Jets gave up an average of 32.6 sacks the past three seasons. Having little to no protection is part of the reason why Darnold, now with Carolina, failed after being the third pick of the 2018 draft.
It’s also the reason Wilson is going to have trouble succeeding his first year, and the reason he’ll be vulnerable once again on Sunday. Against the Panthers, he didn’t handle the early pressure particularly well, going 0-for-7 under duress in the first half. He was also 0-for-4 on third down.
He was better in the second half dealing with the pass rush, finishing 20-for-37 with two TDs and a pick, but still got rocked by the Panthers at every turn.
It’s on the Patriots to take advantage.
If they don’t, the Jets rookie is likely to pick them apart, and the Pats will face more questions about the unit. Wilson has a decent group of weapons around him with former Titan Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder, ex-Jaguar Keelan Cole, Denzel Mims and rookie Elijah Moore. So it behooves the Patriots to do what they usually do to rookie quarterbacks in New York — make them see ghosts.
“As far as getting him rattled and stuff, he’ll stay in the pocket. I think he’s comfortable there,” said Hightower. “He doesn’t mind getting hit, which is something we know a lot of young guys typically try to run away, or get outside the pocket, but he doesn’t mind staying in there and throwing, even if it’s on a scramble. We have to do a good job being on him, inside the pocket, outside the pocket, whatever he does.”
The Pats didn’t blitz Tagovailoa all that much on Sunday. They weren’t overly aggressive, perhaps due to not having Stephon Gilmore on the back end shutting down one side of the field.
Without Gilmore, Bill Belichick & Co. aren’t as inclined to take that many chances, sending linebackers or safeties on blitzes. The Dolphins have that luxury because they boast two Pro Bowl corners playing on the outside.
Is it time to panic? No, but showing they can get to the quarterback will ultimately help the secondary.
“We just did not execute and didn’t perform the way we needed to perform,” Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said Tuesday. “Obviously, it’s something that we need to get fixed going forward.”
If they don’t, there will be even more trouble ahead.