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Patriots’ pressing training-camp issue: Pass rush

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Posted June 29, 2010 @ 11:19 a.m.
Updated Oct. 06, 2010 @ 7:27 p.m.
By Eric Edholm

It’s a bit like beating a dead horse, but the Patriots need to find some people to sack opposing quarterbacks. Some wonder whether they have adequately addressed that.

The Patriots had one or two sacks in eight of their final nine regular-seasons games, and none in the playoff loss to the Ravens. Ten of the Patriots’ 31 sacks came in two games against the Bills, and that almost doesn’t count in my book.

OLBs Tully Banta-Cain had a nice season with 10 of those sacks. He went from being a part-time player (which some folks believe he should be) to being a critical piece, one of the few players who could generate pressure. This might be contrarian, but I think Banta-Cain might return to a one- or two-down role at some point this season.

But who will step up then? I foresee a group effort. OLBs Pierre Woods, Rob Ninkovich, Shawn Crable and rookie Jermaine Cunningham are all big unknowns, really. Is any one of them a standout? No, not right now, but they could each chip in with pressure, along with Derrick Burgess, who is more comfortable as a 4-3 defensive end.

The Patriots right now are a 3-4 defense, but they always have been multiple and it wouldn’t shock me to see more 4-3 alignments. The strength of this defense is on the line, and there’s so much depth that I think one of those veteran free agents — Burgess, Gerard Warren or Damione Lewis — could be cut. But even without one of them, the four-man lines could provide more punch now.

And besides, Bill Belichick always seems to go against the grain in terms of what the league as a whole is doing, so right as more teams than ever are toying with 3-4 schemes, the Patriots might go retro.

Plus, the back end should provide better support, which could lead to half a dozen coverage sacks.

Right now, this is the most heated issue, though people certainly are going to be talking about WR Wes Welker’s knee, the RB position and OLG Logan Mankins’ expected holdout, too. But the Patriots have a way of making lemonade from lemons, embodying a “this too shall pass” mentality that has been critical to their success the past decade.

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