Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

(Pass) Rush to Judgment: Losing Chandler Jones Could Not Have Come At A Worse Time

If timing is of the essence, then essence just hocked a big loogey at the New England Patriots.

Not like there’s necessarily a good time to lose your most significant pass-rushing threat, but Chandler Jones’ hip injury couldn’t have come at a worse possible stretch of the season. According to the Globe, the Patriots defensive end will miss the next month with the injury, which he presumably suffered during last week’s nail-biter against the New York Jets.

Jones has had some memorable moments this season, including a blocked field goal that he returned for a touchdown in Minnesota. He delivered his best Lawrence Taylor impersonation in a strip sack of quarterback Kyle Orton in Buffalo 11 days ago. He’s blocked a pair of passes at the line of scrimmage, leads the Patriots with 4 ½ sacks, and has 21 total tackles on the year. He was named AFC defensive player of the week after Week 2 against the Vikings, against whom he recorded eight tackles, two sacks, and the aforementioned field goal block.

But his absence comes not only in the wake of New England’s defense getting steamrolled by the Jets to the tune of 423 total yards in the Patriots’ 27-25 win last Thursday, but with the most difficult portion of the 2014 schedule on tap, including the NFL’s No. 6 (Jay Cutler, 1,866 yards), No. 9 (Peyton Manning, 1,848 yards, with a bye), and No. 1 (Andrew Luck, 2,331 yards) passing quarterbacks to deal with and lacking at pass rush.

In other words, the gravelly road the Patriots were set to face just got remodeled with some immoveable boulders.

No, Jones’ absence isn’t as significant as losing linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season, if only because he’ll potentially return for the Nov. 23 game against the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium. That would give him one game of action prior to New England’s test in Green Bay the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as well as the Dec. 7 showdown in San Diego against the Chargers.

But the Patriots are – without a doubt – worse defensively for the next three games, two of which come against AFC opponents – the Broncos and Colts – that could indeed iron out future playoff seeding, first-round byes, or home-field advantage.

No biggie.

In order to shore up its defense, the Patriots traded for Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers, who had 104 total tackles and six sacks in 2012, but only 49 tackles and 1 sack last year, when he dealt with knee injuries for which he underwent offseason surgery. In 2014, he’s played in two whole games with three total tackles. The 2011 second-round draft pick could be a diamond in the rough based on the Patriots’ defensive schemes. According to Pro Football Focus, Ayers was actually ranked the No. 4 outside linebacker playing in a 4-3 defense.

Bill Belichick is also going to reportedly take a flier on Alan Branch, a 6-6, 324-pound defensive lineman who was cut by the Buffalo Bills in August following a DWI. The 29-year-old was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft. The Bills signed him to a three-year, $8.5 million deal with a $3.1 million bonus in 2013, a year after he recorded 29 tackles and three sacks with the Seattle Seahawks.

Branch was on the Bills’ bubble even before his arrest. He didn’t show up for voluntary workouts during the offseason, and failed his training camp conditioning test in July. Seems like a peach.

Clearly the Patriots may not currently have the personnel to effectively deal with quarterbacks in the realm of Cutler (a tool, granted, but a tool with offensive weapons), Manning, Luck, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, and Philip Rivers, which is where the offense comes in. Perhaps that’s the scariest part of all this.

If the Patriots allow the likes of the Bears, Broncos, and Colts to control the ball the way they allowed the Jets to do last week (40 minutes of possession vs. New England’s 20), they’re screwed. They’ll emerge from this Jones-less stretch with at best a 1-2 record and looking ahead at Denver and Indy for the conference’s best overall record. Barring what happens in San Diego Thursday night between the 5-1 Broncos and the 5-2 Chargers, the AFC title game could very once again go through Mile High.

Much of this is going to land in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel’s lap in order to devise a plan in which the Patriots can win the time of possession battle, a significant factor that the team has shown little promise it can handle, particularly with its lackluster and confusing approaches to this season’s initial drives.

“We’ve got to do a better job staying on the field, making the plays, executing the plays on first down, second down, third down so we can stay on the field and keep our defense off the field,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said after the win over New York. “If the defense is out there as much as they were tonight, it’s going to be tough for them. We’ve got to help them out by playing a lot better offense.”

First Mayo, now Jones. Enter Ayers and Branch.

Maybe the Pats won’t miss a beat.

But there couldn’t be a worse time to find out.

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