FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The ever-changing New England defense, still searching for answers, hopes to build on last week’s effort when the Patriots visit the New York Jets on Sunday.

The Patriots sacked Colin Kaepernick five times – all in the first half – in a 30-17 victory against the San Francisco 49ers after totaling 16 sacks in the previous nine games.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to do all year is get after the quarterback, continue to put pressure on him to make bad decisions,” said defensive lineman Trey Flowers, who leads the team with four sacks. “Last week was definitely a step forward in the right direction.”

Rob Gronkowski returned to practice Wednesday after missing the San Francisco game Sunday with a chest injury and Tom Brady missed practice for an undisclosed reason. Though some reports have Gronkowski expected to sit out again Sunday, the contributions of their two top stars haven’t been in question.

It’s the defense that, since the end of last season, has been in transition. It started in the offseason when the Patriots dealt sacks leader Chandler Jones to Arizona. Then Rob Ninkovich, second in sacks in 2015, was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s drug policy.

During the season, Jamie Collins, who was the AFC defensive player of the week earlier this season, was exiled to Cleveland. Last week, Jabaal Sheard, who started the first eight games and had 3½ sacks, second on the team, was left off the traveling squad and was at the Celtics’ game Friday night while his team was on the West Coast.

Then this week, a report surfaced that Alan Branch, seventh on the team in tackles, was about to be hit with a four-game drug suspension and was appealing. He was still at practice this week.

The Patriots’ 21 sacks are 10 off the league lead and they have forced just seven turnovers, none in the last three games, four in the second game of the season against Miami.

The constant changes led to Kyle Van Noy making his Patriots debut last week, almost a month after he was acquired from Detroit. He had a sack, matching his two-plus season total with the Lions.

“I was happy to play, happy to contribute,” Van Noy said Wednesday.

Fellow linebacker Shea McLellin, a free-agent signing in the spring, made his first start with the team. And rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts, a sixth-round draft pick, is getting all kinds of playing time and has 26 tackles.

The secondary has been torched too often. The Patriots have five interceptions, two by the departed Collins.

On his regular Tuesday conference call, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia bristled at a question concerning frustration over Collins and Sheard, and looking for answers this late in a season.

“It’s getting toward Thanksgiving,” he said. “We’re going to try to play our best football here moving forward with whoever is out there and try to get better no matter what. I certainly, me as a coach, I’ll answer that one, always look at myself first, and I’ll always try to make sure I’m doing everything I can to help our team prepare to win, and do the best job I can week in and week out, which is what I really try to do.”


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