NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots have been without Chandler Jones for only one game thus far into the 2014 campaign.
That one game saw the front seven send three different players out to succeed the role of one.
Dominique Easley, Akeem Ayers and Zach Moore – each of whom brought their own traits to the defensive rotation. Each of whom brought forth their own third to replace the snaps of a player who had logged 417 through seven contests, per Pro Football Focus.
Only it hinged on more than volume for them in Week 8 against the Chicago Bears; it hinged on how they encountered their alignments, and how they left their impact within them.
First in was Easley, New England’s first-round defensive tackle, who got the start at right defensive end.
The 6’2”, 290-pounder, perhaps best known for his suddenness from one-technique at Florida, set the edge. He did so without the length or long strides Jones often used to carve around it, and he fell short on a sequence of tackle attempts as a byproduct. Yet over the duration, he played a career-high 42 snaps and was in on his first career sack.
Then there was Ayers, who was acquired via trade five days prior and predominantly stood up wide in his Patriots debut.
The 6’3”, 255-pound former UCLA end straight-lined into the backfield. He did so without the lower-body strength Jones often used to withstand the arc, and was pushed to the turf on handful occasions in which he tried to. Yet the 39th overall pick in 2011 draft ultimately played 22 more snaps last Sunday than he had played this season with the Tennessee Titans, notching one sack.
And then there was Moore, one of New England’s sixth-round selections in May, who worked both sides of the line from the inside out.
The 6’6”, 275-pound physical standout via Concordia-St.Paul shot the gaps across from him. There were times when he was stifled in his attempts to do so against Chicago, without the scheme-flexible experience Jones had gathered as over his three NFL seasons. But there were also times where he broke through over the course of his 21 snaps, tallying his first NFL half-sack and forced fumble along the way.
The utilization of an unproven trio spoke to Jones’ ability to play both outside linebacker along a three-man line, as well as defensive end and tackle along a four-man line. It spoke to the Patriots’ lack of solidified pass rush on the outskirts of the defense. But it also spoke to the notion that the 6’5”, 265-pounder’s absence was not realized in the 51-23 box score versus Chicago.
Moving forward, however long Jones is sidelined with the hip injury suffered versus the New York Jets in Week 7, it likely will be.
Jones remains New England’s sack leader with 4.5. He remains seventh on the defense with 26 tackles. And he remains the most multifaceted edge defender on the roster, having faced centers at the nose as well as tight ends at the nine-technique.
His purpose isn’t interchangeable. But, as defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots showed against the Bears on Oct. 26, it can be manageable.
Sometimes, that means one at a time. And sometimes, that means all three stepping in to handle a given assignment at one time.
Easley, Ayers and Moore will each get their opportunity to be part of Jones once again this Sunday when the Patriots host the Denver Broncos. With them will be 6’6”, 325-pound Alan Branch, who officially signed Oct. 29 and is expected to get his moment as an interior clogger and 3-4 bookend.
None of whom are No. 95. None of whom are expected to become him. But in New England’s fluid defensive front, their fractions will have to become the whole number.