Patriots Continue to Focus on Defense, Predictable Strategy Paying Off With Playmaking Additions

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Patriots Continue to Focus on Defense, Predictable Strategy Paying Off With Playmaking AdditionsFOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick's draft room breeds unpredictability, almost to the degree of cruelty.

But the Patriots have run through the first three rounds of the draft with a necessary urgency on defense that should have been apparent when the preparation process intensified in recent months. The offensive superpower needed to focus on the defensive side, and that's how it's all gone down at Gillette Stadium on Thursday and Friday.

For that, they've added a level of predictability to their process in 2012, even if the method broke from their traditional mold. They've used all four of their picks on defense, adding Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones (No. 21), Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower (No. 25), Illinois safety Tavon Wilson (No. 48) and Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette (No. 90).

Of course, the Patriots traded up twice in the first round — doubling Belichick's opening-round jumps in his 13 drafts — and added a huge unknown in Wilson, so it hasn't all happened according to the draftniks' collective tarot cards. On the whole, though, Belichick's defensive-minded approach has been anticipated since the team finished 31st in yards allowed in the regular season.

The Patriots have used their first four picks on defense for the first time since 1967. It's a stark contrast to 2011, when they opened the draft by spending six of their first seven selections on offense.

The message has been delivered. Jones, Hightower and Bequette should compete for starting-caliber reps after they all displayed legitimate playmaking abilities in their college careers, and Wilson will add depth to the secondary.

And by replenishing their defensive ends — Mark Anderson departed for Buffalo, and Andre Carter's future is uncertain — it's obvious the Patriots know they've got to keep sending pressure from the outside as the league continuously shifts to the passing game.

"It seems like every year, the game is getting a little more spread out for us," Belichick said Friday. "We're in nickel defense more and more every year, over 50 percent last year. Some of that's being ahead. Some of that's the teams in our division — Buffalo, [we're] pretty much in nickel all day against them, so that's two games. It's a high percentage of our defense, so that's part of the reason for why we feel like we need that. It's hard to be in our base defense as much as we were in the past."

The Patriots' preferred base in 2012 is still an unknown, but Hightower figures to be an upgrade in many areas, including the nickel formation, whether he's dropping in coverage or rushing from the edge. Belichick also complimented Wilson's work in nickel and dime formations at Illinois, so the trend is prevalent.

Belichick's Patriots have thrived on unpredictability, which has driven opponents mad on the field and draft nuts crazy every April. That formula has taken on a new variable in this year's draft, and the focus to upgrade the defense will surely pay off when they get to the field.

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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