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Patriots positional playoff preview: Defensive line

01.08.12 at 1:32 pm ET
By

Gerard Warren and Vince Wilfork. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a weeklong, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’ve already looked at the offensive side of the ball. Now, we take a look at the defense, starting with the defensive line.

Depth chart: Shaun Ellis, Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, Mark Anderson, Brandon Deaderick. (Myron Pryor, Andre Carter and Mike Wright have all landed on season-ending injured reserve.)

Overview: It’s been an eventful season for the New England defensive line, which has run several new bodies through the system. Some have worked (Carter), while some haven’t (Albert Haynesworth).

In the end, even though the numbers may not suggest it, the New England defensive line was able to have a relatively productive season in 2011, thanks in large part to the work of Wilfork. The 30-year-old had one of the finest seasons of his already impressive career, finishing with a career-high in total snaps played and doing his best to hold together an occasionally unsteady defensive line that spent most of the first half of the season learning how to play together. His Pro Bowl nod — the fourth of his career — was well deserved. (In addition to his traditional work in the trenches, he’s added a pair of interceptions this season.)

As for the rest of the defensive line, Ellis has struggled with age and injury, while Warren has been a relatively solid presence as a rotational player along the interior of the defensive line. When it comes to the young guys, Love has flashed some talent (he appears to be a very good complementary piece at defensive tackle next to Wilfork). It also appears that Deaderick (who has some good positional versatility) will bear watching over the course of the next year.

Carter suffered a quad injury in a win last month over the Broncos, and with him on injured reserve, the Patriots have struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Anderson (who finished tied with Carter in quarterback sacks with 10 and second to Carter in quarterback hits, 22 to 14) continues to get lots of reps as a situational pass rusher, but those pass-rushing numbers must improve if the New England defense wants to slow down opposing offenses in the postseason.

An opposing scout’s take on the New England defensive line heading into the postseason: “Big and hard to move inside, which may bode well in cold weather games against running teams. Don’t create a lot of pressure on the passer, but can push the pocket inside. Will miss the steady play of Andre Carter against the run and pass. Mark Anderson will flash some ability to create some pressure. They struggle to get pressure when rushing four, and will leave secondary on an island.”

Best Moment: In the Nov. 13 win over the Jets in New Jersey, the Patriots’ defensive line controlled the action most of the night. They were able to finish with five sacks of Mark Sanchez (four of them from Carter) while limiting the Jets to a relatively meaningless 110 rushing yards and 16 points (two touchdowns and a safety).

Worst Moment: Statistically, it hasn’t been the best year for the New England defense, but it’s hard to argue with its performance (across the board) in the fourth quarter against the Colts. In that one quarter, Indianapolis put up 21 points, and turned a blowout into a close game down the stretch. (The Patriots won 31-24, but if Deion Branch didn’t recover an onside kick with less than a minute to go, who knows what would have happened.)

In that single quarter, the New England defense allowed 266 yards and 16 first downs to an offense led by backup Dan Orlovsky. And even though Indianapolis was throwing to get back into the game, the Patriots didn’t record a single sack in the second half.

By the numbers, courtesy of Pro Football Focus: Even though he did not go wire-to-wire in a game this season, Wilfork played in 978 of his team’s 1,134 defensive snaps this season, a remarkable 86 percent.

Money quote: “No matter what the outcome may be, this team will play their butts off for a full game, and that’s all you can ask at the end of the day. The passion for the game, we have it. The love for the game, we have it. We have guys that love to play football and [we] have guys that love to be here. When you have those [qualities] you can win with guys like that. So, we have a bunch of guys in that locker room like that, so I’m very excited about this postseason. I can’t wait to get started.” — Wilfork on the 2011 Patriots

Read More: Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter, Brandon Deaderick, Dan Orlovsky
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