It may be difficult to remember now, but the Patriots’ defense was once one of the best in the NFL.
Of course, that was before losing Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel, Jarvis Green and Ellis Hobbs in the span of just three years. Since then, the Patriots have been in rebuild mode on defense with the offense good enough to carry them into the playoffs.
During the 2007 undefeated season, New England was fourth in total yards and points against. In the lost 2008 season, the Patriots were 10th in total yards and eighth in points against. The defense was strong again in 2009 as the team was 11th in total defense fifth in points against.
The Patriots saw a steep decline in 2010 though, after losing that laundry list of players in the years prior. They ranked 25th in total defense and eighth in points against in 2010, 31st and 15th in 2011 and 25th and ninth in 2012.
But it’s time for the defense to shine again, and if injuries creep up on offense, they may have to. The Patriots have almost completely re-built their defense since 2008. The only defensive players that remain from that team are two of the best on the current unit — Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork.
The current defense is full of first-rounders and proven contributors. Mayo, Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty were all first-round picks, and veterans Adrian Wilson, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes have all played at a high level in the NFL.
Continuity goes a long way in pro football, as well. And this unit has been slowly built up. The 2013 team brings back 10 starters from the 2012 unit, and there are many more on the 2013 team that started at some point in 2012.
The Patriots are chock full of talented players, and at this point, it’s about putting all of those pieces together to create a successful unit, which they haven’t been able to do the past few years. Players that were drafted from 2010 to 2012, like McCourty, are now stepping up as veteran leaders on the team. Due to the team’s experience and intelligence, putting the pieces together should be no problem.
That’s why it’s likely we see the most complex defense in Foxboro since 2010. The young players and veterans have had time to learn the intricacies of Bill Belichick‘s system, and now it’s time to show some of those looks.
In 2011, the Patriots had to change their defense to make it easier on newcomers after a lockout-shortened offseason. The team went back to a 4-3 base, which carried over into 2012. In 2013, it’s likely New England starts to show 4-3 and 3-4 looks again.
I wrote about this back on May 5 after Kelly was signed and Jamie Collins was drafted. Kelly has experience in both looks and Collins is best served to play outside linebacker in a 3-4, though he can also play linebacker or defensive end in a 4-3. Jones may be the only player along the front seven that’s better suited for the 4-3 than 3-4, but he also bulked up considerably this offseason and could likely take on the role of a five-technique defensive end in a three-man front.
A switch to a base 3-4 alone wouldn’t mean a return to the dominance that the Patriots’ defense showed from 2007 to 2009, but showing multiple looks may. The different formations the Patriots show along their front seven will be difficult to predict from play to play. Remember the old looks New England would show with just one down lineman? We may see that that again with so many players that can stand up or put their hand down along the line (even Armond Armstead stood up at times in the CFL).
It helps, too, that this should be the best Patriots secondary since Harrison and Samuel were roaming the field. Talib and Alfonzo Dennard should have no problem defending the sidelines, McCourty proved to be an elite safety during the second half of the 2012 season and a combination of Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory can patrol the shallow middle of the field.
Kyle Arrington will be able to play to his strengths defending the slot and having Collins in at linebacker should help the team cover tight ends and running backs easier. New England certainly doesn’t have a talent deficiency on defense. There are great players all around, and it seems they have finally found the happy medium between trying to stop the run and defend the pass.
There are still big bodies up front, like Wilfork, Spikes, Hightower and Mayo, who are better at defending the run. But Jones, Collins, Kelly and Armstead should have no problem getting after the quarterback. And while core linebackers Hightower, Mayo and Spikes aren’t elite in coverage, they’re all among the best pass rushing, non-edge linebackers in the league when given the chance to blitz.
Through two weeks of media availability at OTAs, it’s easy to see that the defense is ahead of the offense. It obviously helps that so many pieces are back on defense, but this is a rare sight in New England.
The team has depth to spare, too, and there should be a number of competitive battles throughout camp. The best player will emerge at strong safety among the two Wilsons, Gregory and Duron Harmon, Ras-I Dowling could push Dennard for a starting role at corner, Collins and Dane Fletcher will put some pressure on the starting linebackers, Armstead and Kelly could compete for the starting role along the defensive line and Ninkovich could be pushed by a number of players at defensive end/outside linebacker.
Sure, the team still has some holes. Unless Jones can make the jump, they may not have an elite pass rusher. Collins helps in coverage at linebacker, but his role is still undefined at this time. And while the competition at strong safety will be fun to watch, it would be nice to know exactly who’s playing that role.
But with an ability to be creative this season, those should be small issues. The Patriots should get a much better push along the defensive line, and Mayo, Hightower, Spikes and Collins all have versatility to spare.
It may not be wise to put expectations as high as the 2007 unit, but the 2013 defense should be a drastic improvement over the 2010-2012 teams that struggled to find the balance between defending the pass and attacking the run. The defense has finally had a chance to grow together and the results should show that.
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