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Bye-week breakdown: Defensive line

11.11.13 at 12:57 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend, we’€™ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at special teams and offense. We open on the defensive side of the ball with the defensive line.

Overview: At the start of the season, the one rock-solid defensive position for the Patriots was defensive line. Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich were bedrocks for New England, while Chandler Jones flashed positively enough at times as a rookie to be considered a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, and new defensive tackle Tommy Kelly was so enthused about the idea of playing on a team that had a chance to just finish above .500, he told anyone who would listen he was simply happy to be in New England.

Fast forward to November, and no position has undergone more drastic personnel changes than the Patriots front four. Wilfork and Kelly are done for the year, the victims of season-ending injuries (Wilfork suffered an Achilles’ injury, while Kelly injured his knee). In their place, the Patriots have turned to rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. The two have played about as well as could be expected — both have held up well when it comes to working as pass rushers (Jones in particular has shown a nice ability to get after the passer with five sacks through nine games), but have struggled at times against the run — New England’s numbers against the run have taken a sizable hit with Wilfork out of the middle, as they have gone from 105 rushing yards per game allowed (13th in the league) after four weeks to 128.2 rushing yards per game (30th) entering the bye week.

To help bolster the front four, two veteran faces were added to the mix: New England swung a deadline deal for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, a former Eagle who is known for his stoutness against the run. The Patriots also reacquired pass-rush specialist Andre Carter to provide depth at defensive end. Last weekend against the Steelers, both appeared to hold up well, and both figure to be a sizable part of the mix going forward.

While the group as a whole isn’t necessarily the rock-solid position that many thought it was at the start of 2013, the continued high level of play from Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, as well as the infusion of talent from Chris Jones, Michael Buchanan and Sopoaga and the veteran leadership of Carter, it’s in good shape to this point. An increased focus on stopping the run will serve them better down the stretch.

Depth chart: Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich (46 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles), Chandler Jones (53 tackles, 8.5 sacks), Andre Carter (two tackles, one sack), Michael Buchanan (two tackles, two sacks) and Jake Bequette; defensive tackles Chris Jones (29 tackles, five sacks), Joe Vellano (33 tackles, one sack), Marcus Forston, Isaac Sopoaga (Wilfork and Kelly on season-ending injured reserve).

Best moment: Late in the Patriots 30-27 win over the Saints, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees attempted to pick up a few extra yards with a naked bootleg, but he was met by Chandler Jones, who tripped up Brees for a 5-yard loss. It was a relatively simply play, but Jones later acknowledged that Ninkovich tipped him off to the fact that the play might be coming. It’s impressive on two levels: one, it speaks to the level of film study that Ninkovich engages in every week. (That’s not to suggest that every player doesn’t do it — just that it rarely pays off in such a timely fashion.) And two, is displays a level of communication between two teammates that can’t be faked — it takes time to be able to acquire that level of trust, and it’s clear that Jones and Ninkovich have arrived at that point.

Worst moment: The losses of Wilfork and Kelly on back-to-back weeks. Wilfork went down with his season-ending Achilles injury in a Week 3 win over the Falcons, while Kelly was lost for the year the following week in a loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

By the numbers: Chris Jones has five sacks through the first nine games of the season. That’s more sacks than Osi Umenyiora, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Jared Odrick or Clay Matthews. Jones, a 6-foot-2, 302-pounder out of Bowling Green, was a sixth-round pick of the Texans this past spring, but cut loose in the spring. After a cup of coffee with the Bucs, he was claimed off waivers by the Patriots, and has been one of the unsung heroes of the 2013 defense to this point in the season.

Money quote: “You just don’€™t replace Vince Wilfork. We’€™ll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he’€™s great at. On the field, we’€™ll miss him, but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we’€™re all going to have to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that. It’€™s a big loss, but we’€™re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’€™re going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’€™re all going to have to pull together. There’€™s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.” — Coach Bill Belichick on the loss of Wilfork, Oct. 2.

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