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Words With Frenz mailbag: Patriots defensive line ready to make a big impact?

Posted by Erik Frenz  August 23, 2013 12:06 PM

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We're just over two weeks away from the start of the 2013 NFL season, and fans could not be more ready, but everyone wants to know what to expect from their teams this year.

There seems to be a great amount of focus from Patriots fans on the defensive line, with a lot of movement in terms of whose stock is up and whose stock is down since last year, and even since the start of training camp in some cases.

Meanwhile, Bills fans would be happy to just get some pressure on Tom Brady for once, and Dolphins fans are still wondering who's going to pick up the pieces at tight end after Texans safety D.J. Swearinger shattered tight end Dustin Keller's knee.

Let's get to all that and more in the return of the Words With Frenz mailbag.

Tom, there's little doubt in my mind that the Patriots think highly of Marcus Benard. He is getting reps with the first-team defense in nickel packages as an interior linemen, in the role Jermaine Cunningham had carved out for himself in 2012. With Cunningham absent from practice and Benard looking fantastic in one-on-one pass-rush drills, it made sense to try him there.

He's made some noise already, with a sack in the first preseason game against the Eagles where he used his quick burst to split the guard and center to get quick pressure.

That being said, from the look of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich Thursday night, the Patriots may not be in as dire need of extra pass-rushing help as they've been in years past.

If there's one name to single out, it's Cunningham. The former second-round pick enters his fourth year in the league, and while he's certainly had his moments, he has yet to develop into a reliable presence on their defensive front.

The problem for him now is an injury that has kept him off the field for much of training camp and out of the team's first three games. He has practiced, so he is not eligible for the physically unable to perform list. With Cunningham, the Patriots would have to commit the roster spot to a player that may not be available to them.

With the aforementioned emergence of Benard as the interior rusher in the nickel, Cunningham has become a bit more expendable.

Armstead joined the Patriots with much fanfare. We marveled at his size and athleticism, and wondered about the different ways the Patriots could use such a versatile player on their defense.

The problem with Armstead was always his health. The concerns stemmed from a heart attack in March 2011 while at USC.

The Patriots released a statement on his status in late July, saying, "Armond Armstead had surgery to treat an infection. Armond is in good condition and is expected to make a full recovery. A timetable has not been set for his return." Since then, mum's the word.

Armstead is currently listed under the non-football illness category, and could be shelved until Week 6 at the earliest if he remains on that list.

Well, Imran, if it was, it won't be anymore.

Kelly was part of a Patriots defensive front that created pressure on a consistent basis on Thursday against the Lions. He contributed half a sack, joining Rob Ninkovich for a takedown of quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The Patriots lack depth at defensive tackle, where only three names stand out as locks for the roster: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Marcus Forston. Kelly could be shouldering a big load this season. He's been lining up next to Wilfork in four-man lines, coming off the field at times for either Benard or Forston.

Last year, the second defensive tackle was Kyle Love, and he played just 556 snaps, with Brandon Deaderick playing 379. If Kelly and Forston can play as much as Love and Deaderick did, respectively, the Patriots should be fine with their depth. Kelly has played over 750 snaps in each of the past five seasons, so that should be no problem.

That said, it's a dice roll in terms of the health, and if one of them goes down, the Patriots aren't left with a lot of options.

Matt, it looks like it could be by committee. Rookie tight end Dion Sims was getting reps with Keller in two tight end sets, and while he's a better blocker than a pass-catcher, he could see more of a role in the passing game with Keller gone.

Charles Clay was the team's second-leading tight end last year behind Anthony Fasano, now with the Chiefs. He has been classified as more of an H-back than a true tight end, but the Dolphins may look to get him more often to create favorable matchups against linebackers and safeties.

Just last week, Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin came out in support of the progress tight end Michael Egnew has made this offseason. We heard about it in OTAs back in May, so to hear it again means the coach must be satisfied. We know the Dolphins coaches weren't stopping short of criticizing Egnew last year.

It's unclear which of the three wide receivers (Brian Hartline, Mike Wallace or Brandon Gibson) will line up in the slot, but the burden of production will be spread between the tight ends and receivers.

The player with the best likelihood to take Keller's spot, in my opinion, is Clay. His skill set is similar, and if the Dolphins already designed their offense to feature Keller, they'll want someone who can play a similar role. Does that mean Clay will be featured from Week 1? Probably not, because he's not quite on the Keller's level as a receiver. Could it happen over time, or in individual games? Of course.

The Bills are hard to predict, because it truly could be anywhere from 9-7 to 4-12.

Is the defense ready to execute an aggressive hybrid style of defense purveyed by Mike Pettine, who loves to blitz the quarterback and play man coverage? Can the offensive weapons master the rhythm and timing element of the West Coast offense being installed by Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett?

The team doesn't have much time to waste getting on the same page. A tough early stretch has the Bills facing the Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Saints and Steelers all by Week 10.

We'll know by then whether the Bills will have anything to play for in the final month of the season. If they can come out of that stretch at .500, though, a winning record isn't out of the question, but that requires them beating all the teams they should beat, and that hasn't been a hallmark of the Bills in recent years.

They certainly have all the tools to do it, Rich.

The main reason the Bills had trouble creating pressure was a vanilla defensive scheme, but "vanilla" is anything but the name of the game for Mike Pettine. The Bills blitzed just 17.5 percent of the time in 2012, while the Jets blitzed 39.1 percent of the time. Pettine will bring some of that aggressiveness with him from New York to Buffalo.

Defensive linemen Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Mario Williams create a solid foundation for a pressure defense. Jerry Hughes has added his name to the mix as a standout pass-rusher in the preseason, with three sacks and two hurries through two games. Alex Carrington looks poised to make an impact as well, and has caught the eye of his coaching staff for his overall improvement and professionalism. He has also shown up with three hurries and a hit in 40 snaps.

If the two of them can continue to build off their preseason and live up to the billing as a former first- and third-round pick respectively, the Bills front should have no problem getting after Tom Brady.

As we saw against the Lions, though, the best weapon to stopping the Patriots offense is a solid interior rush that takes away Brady's ability to step into his throws. For that reason, it will be up to Dareus and Kyle Williams to create consistent push up the middle of the pocket. Pettine will probably not shy away from sending his speedy middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso, on A- or B-gap blitzes right up the gut.

Adding linebackers like Alonso and former 49ers/Bengals linebacker Manny Lawson brings a necessary level of athleticism to the defense that should allow the Bills to generate more pressure than in years past.

Got room for one more.

Very interesting question, Oz.

It seems like a long shot that Mark Sanchez will be successful this year. That conclusion is not just given his recent history, but also the string of tough games to start the season. In the first nine weeks of the season, the Jets face the Patriots twice, the Saints, the Steelers, the Bengals and the Falcons.

The Jets could easily be 3-6 by their bye week, but if Sanchez finds a way to be successful against those teams, how could the Jets possibly bench him? It would be the worst kind of indecision, and I could only imagine what the headlines in New York would be.

That would create quite the interesting scenario next offseason, when Sanchez's contract finally makes him cuttable. How would the Jets handle their quarterback situation: would they allow Sanchez to walk after a successful season and roll the dice with the unknown in Geno Smith, or would they bring him back and allow Smith to continue to grow on the sideline?

Thanks for some good questions, everyone. Further questions can be directed to me at Twitter, or in the comments.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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