FOXBOROUGH — Before beginning his interview with the media on Friday, Chandler Jones had one question for reporters.
“Do I have anything on my face,” New England’s defensive end said with a grin while staring into a sea of cameras and microphones focused solely on him. “I appreciate it, guys.”
The Patriots certainly are grateful for everything they’re getting out of him, too.
Halfway through his first season, Jones leads all NFL rookies with six sacks and has bolstered a defensive line that now ranks among the league’s best at stopping the run.
One year after finishing 17th in the NFL, yielding 117.1 yards rushing per game, New England (5-3) is tied with Pittsburgh for seventh this season, surrendering just 88.6 yards a contest.
Jones is a major reason why.
The 21st overall pick out of Syracuse leads the Patriots in sacks and has recorded 33 tackles, good enough for fourth on a defensive unit that is struggling to defend against the pass.
That’s hardly all, though.
His three forced fumbles have New England atop the AFC in turnover ratio at plus-13, trailing only Chicago (16) and the New York Giants (14) in the NFL.
And his emergence couldn’t have come at a better time, either, as the Patriots lost their top two pass rushers from a year ago to free agency. Defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson recorded 10 sacks apiece last season before signing with Oakland and Buffalo, respectively.
“I think, number one, your job as a defensive lineman is to help stop the run and he understands that. And we’ve made that clear in our room, from Day 1, that’s going to be part of your role and your job,” New England defensive line coach Patrick Graham said of Jones. “He’s done a good job doing that and I think he has room to improve.”
So does Jones.
During his first bye week as a professional player, Jones worked even more on his pass rushing and run-stopping techniques.
“From quarterbacks to kickers, self-scouting is huge,” Jones said. “You can only critique yourself. If you can critique yourself, then you’re doing a good job. Self-scouting is very valuable.”
It may be even more crucial now as first-place New England opens the second half of its season Sunday at home against Buffalo (3-5). The Bills boast the No. 6 rushing attack in the league. Led by C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, the Bills are running for more than 140 yards a game, but were slowed the last time they played the Patriots, totaling just 98 on 27 carries in a 52-28 loss Sept. 30. Hampered by injuries earlier in the year, Spiller had just 33 yards that game.
Jones, however, knows what the speedster is capable of.
“C.J. Spiller is a great player. He’s a good running back,” he said. “It’s our job as a team to contain him, but he’s a great player.”
Buffalo coach Chan Gailey attributed the Patriots’ stingy running defense to their physical play up front.
“They are hard to run (against) in between the tackles the way those inside guys play and the way those linebackers play. It makes it hard,” Gailey said. “You get those defensive ends coming off the edge with good pass rush and playing the run as well as they have. They make it hard overall to run the football.”
Jones remembers his first meeting with the Bills. In fact, Sunday will be the first time in his entire football career that he will play a team for the second time in one season.
He can hardly wait.
“That’s pretty exciting,” Jones said. “Actually, when you play a team twice, I feel like, I have personal notes and I’ll look over them again, definitely.”
While he still has eight regular-season games remaining in his rookie season, Jones is well aware of what is at stake this week.
“This is another conference game,” he said. “It’s a must-win game and we’ve got to go out there and execute.”
Just like he has his first eight games.
NOTES: Patriots RB Brandon Bolden has been suspended by the NFL for four games without pay for violating its policy on performance-enhancing substances. The league’s announcement Friday did not specify the substance. The Patriots had no immediate reaction. … The Patriots and the New England Revolution of MLS will dedicate an empty seat at Gillette Stadium “to honor servicemen and servicewomen who have been listed as prisoners of war or missing in action.” … Buffalo Bills DE Chris Kelsay (neck) is questionable for Sunday. “It’s not major, but I don’t know if he can get ready for this week,” Gailey said. “We have to wait and see how the treatment goes.”