Trio of high draft picks revives Patriots defense
FOXBOROUGH, MASS. (AP)
Chandler Jones had one primary goal when he joined the New England Patriots' shaky defense as a first-round draft choice.
He wanted to gain the respect of the veterans.
He and fellow rookies Dont'a Hightower and Tavon Wilson did that
throughout training camp, then made big plays in the Patriots' 34-13
win over the Tennessee Titans in their season opener on Sunday.
Now, defensive end Rob Ninkovich said, ''they have to do it again.
That's the key.''
Ninkovich was part of a defense that gave up 411.1 yards per game last
season, second most in the NFL. Bad turned to worse when the Patriots
lost their two leading pass rushers - Andre Carter, who wasn't
re-signed, and Mark Anderson, who signed with Buffalo - after they
combined for 20 sacks.
On Sunday, the 6-foot-5 Jones notched his first sack as a pro - and
what a sack it was for the No. 21 pick from Syracuse with the height
and long arms that help him swim by offensive linemen.
The defensive end got around left tackle Michael Roos with a swim move
and knocked the ball free. Hightower, drafted four spots later, scooped
it up and ran 6 yards for a touchdown as the Patriots took a 14-3 lead.
''I didn't even know it was a strip sack,'' Jones said. ''I thought it
was just a normal sack. I got up and Dont'a was in the end zone,
jumping up and down. So that was good.''
Titans coach Mike Munchak was impressed with Jones.
''Good football player,'' he said, ''and (he) made a good play on us.''
Jones cares more about impressing his teammates. He spent three
outstanding college seasons disrupting offenses, but he hadn't done
anything yet in the pros.
''My expectation was to get respect from these vets. You've got Vince Wilfork over here to my right,'' he said, nodding at the 330-pound
defensive tackle dressing in a nearby locker. ''Just earn his respect.
For him to be out there and to trust in me that I'm going to do my job
is just my goal.''
The best way to gain that respect? By ''making plays, not have any
mental errors and just going out there and just being a professional,''
Hightower also had plenty of college experience, at Alabama - three
seasons plus a redshirt year in which he played four games. Playing in
a system under coach Nick Saban, coach Bill Belichick's buddy, was a
good prep course to play outside linebacker in the NFL.
''Dont'a has a lot of responsibility at his position, relative to
formations and adjustments, pass coverage, run responsibilities and all
that,'' Belichick said. ''He did a lot of those things at Alabama and
played a couple different spots at Alabama in their defense, which has
some similarities to what we do. I think he was very well-coached and
-schooled when he got here. He's a smart guy. He's picking things up
Wilson also was an experienced standout at a big-time school. In four
years at Illinois, he played in 49 games, starting all 38 in his last
three seasons, splitting time between safety and cornerback. In New
England, he's a backup safety at a position that has improved so much
this year that the Patriots released James Ihedigbo, who started 12
games there last season.
At 210 pounds, his size allows him to take on bigger blockers. At
times, Belichick has used him closer to the line than safeties usually
''He's got good size. He's a physical player. He runs well, I think
he'll mix it up in the running game and can blitz,'' Belichick said.
''It's kind of a new position for him, but he's picked it up OK.''
Against the Titans, Wilson notched an interception in the end zone on a
deep pass that deflected off the helmet of teammate Kyle Arrington. He
had to hustle to make the catch.
''I just kept running. That's all,'' he said. ''If you run to the ball,
great things will happen for you.''
But he didn't need a big play in his first game to boost his confidence.
''I try to go out there and play with a lot of confidence regardless,''
All three rookies bring exceptional size, skill and maturity. Jones and
Hightower started on Sunday and figure to be valuable players for
years. Wilson is contributing as a backup. But all received plenty of
repetitions in training camp.
''A lot of our young players have had an opportunity to do that,''
Belichick said. ''They've been on the field. They've practiced. They've
made mistakes. They've gone back out and done them right the next time
and been able to move on to something else. That's been a positive.
Those two guys (Jones and Hightower), they've done a good job.''
Good enough to impress their teammates? Has Jones earned the respect of
Wilfork, a four-time Pro Bowl selection?
''I feel like I have,'' he said with a smile, ''a little bit.''
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