Trio of high draft picks revives Patriots defense

Associated Press Modified: September 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm •  Published: September 11, 2012

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," Jones said.

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 pretty well."

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