EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 1, 2013

Good or great? Jones holds key to Patriots season

Disruptive Jones holds key to Patriots season, future

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

---- — FOXBORO — “Any play that I have my hand in the ground, ready to charge into that backfield, in my eyes, is a good one.”

From Chandler Jones’ lips to Matt Patricia’s ears. ... Hopefully, for New England Patriots fans.

Forget Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski or anyone else in this home locker-room. The 2013 Pats season hinges squarely on this football team’s ability to pressure the opposing quarterback.

Not against the headless Bills, inept Mark Sanchez and the Jets or even the Miami flash, Ryan Tannehill. The Rob Ninkoviches of the world have those misfits covered.

To climb to the pinnacle in this NFL, you need an impact defender, a game-changer against the best.

And in his second year, Syracuse’s Jones has to be that guy. Patricia, the Patriots defensive coordinator, has to turn him loose, and Jones has to inflict pain. A freakish athlete at 6-foot-5, 247 pounds, Jones offers the Patriots more than any other player on the team.

Yes, more than Brady.

“He definitely understands how to use his physical attributes but like any player, he’s in his second year. There will be things that he can learn and improve on and refine and develop as we go forward,” said Bill Belichick. “That’s part of the natural progression of any player, is to take advantage of his skills. As you study more, learn more, different techniques, train, you’re able to utilize your strengths more effectively in time than you were before you did all that. I think he’s in that process.”

In an NFL, where defensive backs are saddled with more rules and restrictions than a 16-year-old driver, defenses have one chance.

Get to the quarterback and put him on his back.

If past seasons, the preseason and recent individual performances are the measuring stick, Jones is all the Patriots have. And if the 2012 season was any indication, the Pats’ money rides on a good one. Well, at least the first half of the 2012 season anyway.

Through eight games, Jones rode the Pro Bowl express with six crunching sacks. He was the disruptor, the “Manhandler” this team has craved.

Just as sudden as his blazing start was how Jones’ season and the momentum were snuffed out. Word of an ankle issue leaked out.

Was this another soft rookie not ready for the 16-week NFL grind?

Apparently not.

Sources close to Jones validated the severity of the ankle injury. And he gutted out 14 of the 16 games. But Jones was not himself and went sack-free over the final eight games.

“Last year is last year. The ankle, and all that are behind me,” Jones says now. “I’m not going backward, and I’m not even going to think about it.”

MAN AMONG MEN

When the Patriots defensive front lines up for snap one of the 2013 campaign, chances are that Jones will be one of six Patriots in the front seven that was drafted in either the first or second round. For the record, we’re talking Jones, Wilfork, rookie Jamie Collins out of Southern Miss, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower. Overall, Belichick has used 14 of his last 19 picks in the top two rounds on defenders.

Up front, it’s a unit poised for success — if somebody (presumably Jones, the 21st selection overall in 2012) can agitate and harass in the pocket with regularity. The other pieces are in place to give Jones every opportunity.

“Everyone has to do their job consistently,” said Jones. “It’s the only way this thing works. I can’t help saying it. Guys have to do their job and make plays.”

Don’t expect teams to double-team Jones, dedicate a back or a tight end to play him.

Between Vince Wilfork eating up offensive linemen and Brandon Spikes’ ability to carve things up inside, teams have to stack it up in the middle. Add in the fact that none of the starting rotation of linebackers — Spikes, Mayo or Hightower — has shown the skills to cover in the middle of the field. Teams will attack them. And how do you do that? With the tight end. Do not expect teams to keep the tight end in to block, not with the damage guys like Dennis Pitta, Jake Ballard, Dustin Keller and many others have done to this team in recent big games.

Jones vs. fill-in-the-left-tackle. It is the reason you see so many left offensive tackles drafted so highly, this one-on-one collision at the edge. And for the first time since the days of Willie McGinest and/or Mike Vrabel, New England will hold the upper hand athletically in this head-to-head matchup. It’s a promising situation.

That is, it’s a promising situation if Patricia finally loosens up and lets his athletes run free, taking chances when he has to.

For too long now, since the Dean Pees days here, Belichick’s once-attacking defense has been the ultimate punching bag, one that rarely swings back.

Asked early in camp about the vanilla nature of his defenses in recent years, and the bland results in the pass rush, Belichick sounded a little more testy than usual.

“We’ll try to teach everybody what to do, develop some versatility on defense or flexibility so that we have different players that can play similar roles based on need or based on matchups,” said Belichick, when the complexity of the Pats’ schemes were questioned. “Then we’ll select from those when we get into game plan situations.”

The coach can read numbers. His clubs haven’t approached the 40-plus sack seasons during the title years, despite the decrepit current state of things in Miami, Buffalo and the Meadowlands with the Jets.

Uncharacteristically, you can almost hear Belichick, in public, challenge a guy like Jones to help change all that.

“The second year is an opportunity for a player to take all of his experiences in the first year – on the field, off the field – having in our case, a second year in the same system and be able to build on that, know what to expect, know how different situations or things apply in various situations, what they’re used for,” said Belichick. “Just having a better overall knowledge of overall what we do and specifically from play to play what things are involved. It’s a great opportunity for them. That’s where a lot of players, I’d say almost all players make a big jump.”

Can Jones make that “jump?” And will his body hold up for it?

When you’re talking the difference between good and great, New England’s football future depends on it.

A TALE OF TWO SEASONS As a rookie, Chandler Jones looked destined for the Pro Bowl with six sacks in his first eight pro games. An ankle injury and the rookie wall stopped him cold in the second half, though, as he played in 14 games and finished with those same six sacks.