AFC East: Chandler Jones
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
For Jones, that means the opportunity to play against his older brother, Art, a fourth-year defensive lineman for the Ravens who is enjoying his best season as a pro.
"I haven't spoke to him actually," he said of any communication this week. "That's not abnormal that we haven't [spoken]. We usually don't have time to catch up a lot."
Art and Chandler are just two of three athletic Jones brothers, as Jonny, the middle of the three, is the current light heavyweight champion in UFC.
Jonny will be in attendance this Sunday with his fiancee, as will the Jones parents and Art's fiancee, too.
This will mark the third time that Chandler Jones has played in front of his parents this season, as they've previously attended one home and one road game.
But despite the extra attention from his family, Jones' focus remains on his job, which includes finding a way to generate pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
In order to do so, he'll need to find his way around Eugene Monroe, acquired via trade earlier this season to replace Bryant McKinnie, who Jones has played against multiple times during his career.
"They're both good players, they move their body well for their size," Jones said in comparing Monroe and McKinnie. "They're very mobile. My job is just to work 'em, keep working 'em."
The second-year pro is hopeful to continue his strong season (he's fourth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks), and do something to Flacco that the Patriots were unable to do at all in last year's AFC championship -- bring him down via a sack.
The door should be open for Jones, as the Ravens' offensive line has endured struggles this season, surrendering 42 sacks of Flacco, the third most among NFL quarterbacks.
The moves didn't come as a major surprise, as the Patriots had two open spots on the practice squad to fill, and each player provides depth and insurance in the event of an injury to an active roster player.
Below is a snapshot of the team's practice squad:
OL Braxton Cave
LB Ja'Gared Davis
S Kanorris Davis
OT Jordan Devey
OT Patrick Ford
DL Marcus Forston
DB Justin Green
RB Cierre Wood
Now, for some "cleaning out the notebook" thoughts.
On Wednesday's episode of NFL Insiders, the Patriots were a team of interest in a couple of segments that I wanted to pass along, highlighted below.
Jones' rise: In discussing players that are receiving less attention than their play merits, one personnel man expressed that Chandler Jones fit the bill. As he put it, it's not that Jones isn't receiving notice at all -- 10.5 sacks through 11 games is tough to ignore -- but more that he deserves to be in the conversation among the best young pass-rushers in all of football. As highlighted by Mike Reiss on Wednesday, Jones has gotten the job done from a number of alignments. He's clearly a cornerstone of this defense.
Thankful for coaching staff: When asked the question of what the Patriots are thankful for this season, my answer was simple: Bill Belichick and his coaching staff. Belichick has long been regarded as a top coach in this league, and has the hardware to show for it, but one could make the case that his work this season rivals almost any other in his career. Given the slow start on offense and decimated defense, the fact that the Patriots are 8-3 speaks volumes about his work. That extends to his coaching staff, which has done superb work in developing young players and keeping this team competitive in every game this season. A runner-up pick would be wide receiver Julian Edelman, who has been the most consistent receiving option for the team this season. His efforts do not deserve to go overlooked.
And finally, some thoughts as it relates to the Steelers-Ravens game tonight: Both are on the outside looking in on the playoff chase in the AFC, but each is within striking distance of the sixth-place Titans (all three teams have a 5-6 record). The Patriots have the inside track on the AFC East and could potentially face Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the playoffs at some point, so this game is both an enjoyable and informative way to digest turkey and stuffing later tonight. The Patriots are also scheduled to travel to Baltimore in Week 16 for a Sunday night showdown, but the NFL could opt to flex that game based on the teams' records. Should Baltimore fall out of the playoff chase, it could be that the NFL would shift the time slot in favor of one of the other potentially intriguing matchups (Indianapolis-Kansas City, Chicago-Philadelphia, New Orleans-Carolina, etc...)
Stephen Gostkowski -- Kicker hits from 44 yards with 16 seconds remaining to tie the game at 27.
Chandler Jones -- Right defensive end creates pressure while working against D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
Devin McCourty -- Safety breaks up a pass in the end zone and draws an offensive pass interference penalty in the end zone.
Kyle Arrington -- Cornerback struggles early against receiver Jeremy Kerley and is replaced by Marquice Cole.
Tom Brady -- Quarterback throws a pick-six early in the third quarter that helps the Jets, trailing 21-10 at the time, get back into the game.
Dont'a Hightower -- Linebacker appears to struggle in coverage.
Nate Solder/offensive line -- Breakdowns in protection, highlighted at left tackle, contribute to the Jets taking control of the game in the third quarter.
1. Pass rush getting it done. Seemingly picking up where it left off last week, the Patriots' pass rush has been productive thus far, generating three sacks. Defensive end Chandler Jones has been a factor, registering two separate half sacks, with defensive tackle Tommy Kelly helping out for an opening drive sack to stop a Bucs drive.
2. Vollmer banged up. Starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was replaced on the team's first drive of the second half by Marcus Cannon, with Vollmer spending time at the start of the half speaking with members of the team's medical staff. The Patriots announced that he is questionable to return with a foot injury. For the Bucs, star wide receiver Vincent Jackson is questionable to return with a rib injury.
3. Brady picked in the end zone. The Patriots had a razor-sharp drive going before an uncommon mistake from Tom Brady in the end zone: He threw an interception right into the hands of safety Mark Barron, resulting in a touchback. Brady and rookie receiver Aaron Dobson couldn't connect on what should have been a score just two plays earlier.
4. Defense tightening up. The Patriots defense has really settled in after allowing the Bucs deep into their own territory to open the game. They've forced two turnovers on downs and intercepted Josh Freeman on another play. Doug Martin has been held in check, limited to just 78 yards on 18 carries.
5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties in the third quarter: right tackle Marcus Cannon (false start) and defensive end Chandler Jones (neutral zone infraction).
One of the considerations when facing a hulking offensive line is to dress four defensive tackles, which the New England Patriots did not do last week against the Jets after they had acquired Chris Jones just the day before.
At the same time, even if the Patriots do dress four defensive tackles to provide depth for starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, one intriguing changeup the team could turn to on Sunday would be an extended use of their three-defensive-end package, something we've seen during each of the first two games.
With Rob Ninkovich and rookie Michael Buchanan manning the edge, the Patriots have reduced Chandler Jones into a “3 technique” role that aligns him on the outside eye of a guard, rather than at the end of the line of scrimmage where he is normally accustomed to playing.
The results against the Jets were particularly impressive, as Chandler Jones and Buchanan totaled three sacks for the evening just four days after the Patriots were shut out as a team from a sack standpoint against Buffalo.
There isn’t a week where the Patriots rely on just a single front or scheme to generate pressure against an opposing offensive line, but when taking on a powerful group like the one the Bucs present, it’s important to attack their strength with a strength of your own.
It could be that the Patriots turn to their conventional pairing of Wilfork and Kelly on first and second downs in anticipation of a steady dose of Doug Martin. But if the team is able to generate a lead or deploy its sub packages, perhaps the three-defensive-end group will provide the right touch to work through – or around – the powerful Bucs line.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The tables have officially turned for the New England Patriots.
The team known for its lethal passing offense, which in a record-breaking season six years ago was accused by some of running up the score, could hardly generate any positive momentum Thursday night. It was about as ugly as we’ve seen since Tom Brady became the team’s starting quarterback in 2001.
So the Patriots needed the defense to save the day, and the unit delivered in a rain-soaked 13-10 victory over the New York Jets. That hasn’t happened too often around these parts.
“We know that this year, whatever situation we’re in, it might have to be the defense that’s going to have to win the game for us,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “We welcome that. A 13-10 win sounds good to me.”
It might not sound good to Patriots fans who crave another Super Bowl championship and are wondering what happened to a once-unstoppable offense led by a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback. That’s the big issue facing the team at the moment, and there’s no overlooking it.
Just don’t tell that to Patriots defenders who left Gillette Stadium late Thursday night feeling especially good about themselves after producing four turnovers -– the 29th consecutive game in which they’ve forced at least one -- while coming up with a final stop late in the fourth quarter to preserve the result.
“Over the years our offense has bailed us out so many times. It’s good to get a win like this,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo, one of the team’s captains.
“I think we’re building toward something that can be pretty good for us,” added defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, another captain. “It will be good for the defense to take the field and guys have the confidence around us, on the other side of the ball and special teams, knowing that we’re going to close out games. There’s a lot of confidence being built right now.”
It has obviously helped that they’ve gone against rookie quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Geno Smith, who have been generous at crucial points in the first two games. The Patriots haven’t been doing too much out of the norm schematically, playing either a base 4-3 or 4-2-5 nickel, with a big focus in the opening weeks on keeping both athletic signal-callers in the pocket.
After failing to produce a sack in the opener against the Bills, New England rung up four on Thursday night, two by defensive end Chandler Jones and one apiece from rookie Michael Buchanan and Tommy Kelly. Meanwhile, the secondary was at its ball-hawking best, with cornerback Aqib Talib notching two interceptions and forcing a fumble, while cornerback Alfonzo Dennard added a pick.
As it turned out, Smith completed three passes to the Jets in the fourth quarter, and three to the Patriots.
“The defense stepped it up and did what we had to do to win the game. That’s the way it has to be sometimes,” said Ninkovich, the Bill Belichick-declared “Jet Killer” who had six tackles and a forced fumble Thursday.
It just hasn’t been that way in New England very often. And a lingering question is how long the Patriots might be able to sustain if things continue down this path.
As Brady talked about wanting “to do a better job on offense and carry our end,” defenders were happy to pick up the slack.
"We have guys banged up, we have some young guys over there, and we know it's going to take time for them to learn and develop," safety Devin McCourty said. "That's how a team works. There will be nights, maybe next game, where we don't play as well and we'll need them to step up and they'll do that. We just need to keep playing off each other.
“We have all faith in our offense. Right now, it will probably be a huge deal and everyone will want to talk about it,” he continued. “[But] we have no concerns with those guys. We know they’re working hard, we’re all getting better as a team, and it will work out.”
Wilfork echoed those thoughts.
“Tom’s been around the game for a while, so he knows how to handle the situation that he’s in. Those guys work their tails off, so it’s not a lack of effort,” he said. “It’s just getting the confidence and being able to make those plays, and once those guys start developing and getting more experience, I think you’ll start seeing a different ball club.”
Until they get there -- assuming they actually do -- they’ll need the defense to keep them in games. The tables have indeed been turned.
1. The rain has arrived. After a dry first half, the skies opened up to start the third quarter and all of a sudden the elements have become a factor. A steady pouring rain has persisted throughout much of the half, adding an extra layer of intrigue as it relates to ball security and ball handling.
2. Kelly logs first sack as Pat. The Patriots' pass rush has acquitted itself well tonight, logging four sacks already, including two from Chandler Jones. Veteran Tommy Kelly got in on the fun, logging his first sack with his new team. We've seen Kelly work effectively as an interior rusher thus far, but tonight's sack came on an edge rush.
3. Jets narrow the gap. The Jets made it 13-10 with a long drive that was capped off by running back Bilal Powell's 3-yard score. The drive was aided by a scramble from Geno Smith and some difficult coverage execution by the Patriots' linebackers.
4. Offense sputtering. There's no two ways about it, the Patriots' offense has been dreadful in the second half, with receivers dropping makeable catches, Tom Brady being off-target on throws and the running game being unable to get things going. We anticipated this would be a difficult test, and the Patriots find themselves very much in the middle of a tight game entering the fourth quarter.
5. Penalty box. No Patriots were flagged for penalties during the third quarter.
1. Offense starts fast. No Amendola, Gronk and Vereen? No problem, at least to start, as Tom Brady found rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson for a 39-yard touchdown on the team's opening drive. Dobson was untouched and uncovered on the play, taking his first career catch for a score. The offense started with two backs and two receivers on the field, with fullback James Develin getting some early offensive run.
2. Talib forces Hill fumble. The Jets looked to have a big play on their hands when quarterback Geno Smith hooked up with Stephen Hill up the seam, but New England cornerback Aqib Talib saved his defense by forcing a fumble that was scooped up by Devin McCourty and returned deep into Jets territory. The end result: a chip-shot field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to put the Patriots up 10-0.
3. Jets claw back. The Jets, briefly, cut the lead to 10-6, though a touchdown throw from Smith to Clyde Gates was called an incompletion after a video review. Smith deserves credit for putting together an impressive drive, standing tall in the pocket and delivering a couple of solid throws.
4. Connolly, Gregory each banged up. Both eventually returned to the game, but right guard Dan Connolly and safety Steve Gregory had to receive medical attention during the first quarter. Hard to tell specifically what they were dealing with, but it looked like a left-hand issue for Connolly. Marcus Cannon stepped in for Connolly, while rookie Duron Harmon took Gregory's place.
5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: offensive tackle Nate Solder (holding; declined) and defensive end Chandler Jones (roughing the passer).
Amendola’s groin injury and his availability: Receiver Danny Amendola left Sunday’s game at the end of the second quarter with a groin injury before returning in the third quarter. His gutsy, clutch performance drew raves. But after the game, Amendola was guarded about his condition and whether it might affect his availability for Thursday's game. “Right now, I just feel good about the win; that’s all that really matters to me,” he said. “We’ll figure everything else out later.”
Brady and the inconsistent passing game: For those used to seeing an explosive Tom Brady-led passing game, Sunday’s struggle was a bit of a culture shock. The inexperience of undrafted rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld showed up at times, and when Amendola wasn’t on the field, Brady didn’t look as comfortable as Amendola has quickly developed into his Wes Welker-type security blanket. On a related note, second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson (hamstring) didn’t dress for the game, and given some of the struggles in the passing game, his status on the injury report figures to be watched closely.
Can never have enough pass rush: Part of it might have been the Patriots’ willingness to concede extra rushers to keep running back C.J. Spiller and the scrambling ability of quarterback EJ Manuel in check, but the pressure with the standard four rushers didn’t seem to disrupt Manuel enough when he was in the pocket surveying the field. The starting defensive line of left end Rob Ninkovich, defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork and right end Chandler Jones can’t be thrilled with the zero in the sack column on Sunday.
There are also several connections between the two organizations -- including former Patriots players now with the Bills, who are highlighted below.
Tight end Lee Smith. Smith, a 2011 fifth-round pick of the Patriots, was released by the team at the final roster cut-down that year, and the feeling was that the Patriots wanted to sign Smith to the practice squad. The opportunity never presented itself, as he was claimed by the Bills off waivers. He has eight catches in 26 games for Buffalo.
Offensive tackle Thomas Welch. Another former Patriots draft choice, Welch has kicked around among four organizations, eventually landing in Buffalo. He started one game for the Patriots in 2010 and played in three for Buffalo last season.
Other connections of note
Patriots linebacker Chris White. White, recently claimed off of waivers by the Patriots, was traded from Buffalo to Detroit in exchange for quarterback Thad Lewis in August. White, 24, was a sixth-round pick of the Bills in 2011.
Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones/Bills head coach Doug Marrone. The Patriots may rely on Jones for some scouting reports this week, as Jones was a star for Marrone at Syracuse when Marrone was head coach there. Said Marrone of Jones on Wednesday, "Obviously we were very proud of Chandler at Syracuse and I’m very proud of him now. I’ve seen him get better and better. I’ve seen him really step it up and really be a good professional. He’s one heck of a football player and we’re going to have our hands full with him."
Cunningham has been hurt for most of the preseason and didn't play in a game. The move is considered a minor surprise, and also reflects some of the ups and downs the team has had in the second round of the draft, as Cunningham was a second-round pick in 2010.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer are two solid second-round picks, but the list of second-rounders that haven't panned out is quite longer, and includes receiver Chad Jackson (2006), cornerback Terrence Wheatley (2008), safety Patrick Chung (2009), defensive tackle Ron Brace (2009), cornerback Darius Butler (2009), Cunningham and cornerback Ras-I Dowling (2011).
The jury is still out on safety Tavon Wilson (2012).
At defensive end, the Patriots currently have Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Justin Francis, Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette.
Pro Football Talk first reported the news on Cunningham.
This is a mild surprise as Benard had been playing a top backup role, while also coming onto the field in sub situations as an interior rusher.
The five-year veteran had a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2010 with the Browns before injuries derailed him the past two years. After signing with the Patriots on Jan. 24 this year, he flashed some pass-rush explosion in training camp as he seemed to be making the most of his fresh start.
With starting ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich entrenched atop the depth chart, Benard had been competing for a reserve role against the likes of Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan. In recent weeks, Cunningham and Francis were both sidelined with injury, so the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Benard seemed like he might have had some security.
But as we've learned on an annual basis with Bill Belichick, the Patriots often have their fair share of surprises as cutdown day approaches.
Current defensive end depth chart
CB Kyle Arrington -- 36 of 36
S Steve Gregory -- 36 of 36
DE Chandler Jones -- 36 of 36
DE Rob Ninkovich -- 36 of 36
CB Aqib Talib -- 36 of 36
DT Tommy Kelly -- 26 of 36
LB Dont'a Hightower -- 23 of 36
LB Brandon Spikes -- 23 of 36
DT Joe Vellano -- 23 of 36
CB Logan Ryan -- 19 of 36
S Duron Harmon -- 18 of 36
S Devin McCourty -- 16 of 36
S Adrian Wilson -- 15 of 36
DE Marcus Benard -- 13 of 36
LB Jerod Mayo -- 13 of 36
LB Jamie Collins -- 11 of 36
DT Marcus Forston -- 10 of 36
LB Dane Fletcher -- 6 of 36
QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: The biggest personnel notes on defense were with starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork being held out of the game, which gave the coaching staff an extended look at rookie free-agent Joe Vellano. Also, starting linebacker Jerod Mayo only played in the dime package, so rookie Jamie Collins started alongside Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower and Dane Fletcher also came on for two series in the base defense. ... Against a strong vertical passing offense, it's probably not a coincidence that Steve Gregory got the start next to Devin McCourty at safety as they are considered the team's best cover safeties. It will be interesting to see if that changes against teams who aren't as threatening in that area of the game, which could open the door for a bigger safety (e.g. Adrian Wilson) to step in to that role. Wilson played solely in the dime package in the first half, in a linebacker-type role. That bumped Tavon Wilson out of that spot. ... Rookie Logan Ryan served as the fifth defensive back in the nickel. ... McCourty's playing time was limited as it was his first action this preseason as he's been managed closely after offseason shoulder surgery. ... Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, as expected, are the top ends and they won't come off the field often. ... Tommy Kelly looks like a difference-maker at defensive tackle and the type of player who would never leave the field, but the Patriots probably want to find some time to give him a breather at times, which is what we saw Thursday night. ... Marcus Benard came on in sub situations as an interior rusher, which was the niche that Jermaine Cunningham (currently injured) had carved out for himself early in 2012.
Here are some of the main things we will be watching for:
1. Protecting Tom Brady. Remember the 2011 preseason game in Detroit when Brady was ripped to the ground by defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh? Similar to this time around, it was also the third preseason game and the teams were getting after it. Patriots guard Logan Mankins called the Lions' defensive line the strength of the team so it's a good test for the top offensive line of Nate Solder (left tackle), Logan Mankins (left guard), Ryan Wendell (center), Will Svitek (right guard) and Sebastian Vollmer (right tackle). Svitek, the eight-year veteran who had never played guard in the NFL, has been pressed into action because of injuries to others.
2. Aqib Talib vs. Calvin Johnson and the big play. When it comes to top receivers in the NFL, Johnson might be No. 1 on the list. While this isn't a regular-season type situation in terms of game-planning -- where the Patriots might have Talib follow Johnson wherever he lines up -- there still figure to be plenty of times that the two are matched up (assuming Johnson follows through on his plan to play after missing last week's game with a bruised knee). In terms of getting a good feel for how Talib and the secondary are equipped to defend the big play, this is a good matchup. Let's also watch the safeties closely, with Devin McCourty possibly set to play his first preseason game after missing the first two as part of his management coming back from offseason shoulder surgery.
4. Can the pass rush duplicate its strong performance? Patriots coaches had to be encouraged with the pass rush in the team's preseason victory over the Buccaneers on Friday. Linebacker Brandon Spikes was a tone-setter and ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich brought heat off the edges to record sacks. The Lions have a strong vertical passing game and they are transitioning to a new left tackle in Riley Reiff, the 2012 first-round pick who takes over for longtime blindside protector Jeff Backus. There should be opportunities to rush the passer.
5. Still a competitive situation at punter. When asked if he has seen any separation in the battle at punter between incumbent Zoltan Mesko and rookie Ryan Allen, Bill Belichick said Tuesday that he still views it as a competitive situation. Allen looked like he had an off night last Friday against the Buccaneers. Ford Field is often a friendly venue for punters, so it is another chance to gather information on what has been a notable training camp storyline.