Patriots’ Young Defense Must Mature in 2013 With Potential Struggle Coming for Offense After Volatile Offseason

Justin Francis, Chandler JonesIt’s time for the Patriots defense to grow up.

There are no more excuses. The 2013 Patriots will have a full offseason together, unlike the 2011 team. There should not be any rookie starters, unlike the 2010 and 2012 teams. They have 10 of 11 starters coming back, which is actually a good thing (for once) since they are also chock full of talented players. They aren’t even that young, with a mean (and median) age of 27 among the projected starting 11.

The defense must step up this year because they may not have the safety net of a Top 10 offense, which the Patriots have had every year since 2006 (they finished 11th that year). So they also won’t have the built-in excuse that so many yards and points are piled up against them because teams are constantly coming back from behind.

Maybe ridding itself of that safety net is exactly what the defense has always needed. It’s like in The Dark Knight Rises when Batman fails to make a leap of faith once climbing to the top of the prison to escape because he’s attached to a rope. The Patriots defense needs to have the fear that if they fail, the entire team fails. As the other prisoner in Batman’s cell tells him, “How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.”

For the Patriots’ defense to scale the wall, escape the prison, somehow travel to Gotham (seriously, how did Batman do that?) and save the city (all metaphorically, of course), perhaps the promise of an elite offense has to be shed. The offense has always been there to catch them on the next drive, the next half or the next game.

None of this is to say the Patriots’ offense will even be average this season, as opposed to great. But it should be obvious that an offense without Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and (most likely to start the season) Rob Gronkowski won’t be as good as they were with those players. If the Patriots see any major injuries on offense (and Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen, Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins have had injury issues in the past) or if no second wide receiver emerges as easily as Brandon Lloyd was able to last year, the offense will drop even further.

Luckily, New England should have all the pieces in place to have a top-tier defense. Devin McCourty was playing at an All-Pro level at safety last season. Jerod Mayo is one of the best 4-3 linebackers in the NFL. Vince Wilfork is one of the best interior linemen in the NFL. Aqib Talib just earned himself a one-year, $5 million contract (which would have been higher without off-the-field concerns), Alfonzo Dennard, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower all had impressive rookie years, Brandon Spikes is one of the best downhill linebackers in the AFC, Tommy Kelly is an pass rushing upgrade over Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love and Rob Ninkovich and Adrian Wilson should be able to contribute just as well on the field as they do in the locker room.

The right players are in place. They’re talented and experienced. They have had time to gel. And most importantly, they’re well balanced this year. Prior to this year, they were so heavily built to stop the run that the right quarterback could either exploit safeties deep or linebackers over the middle of the field. But added pressure inside from Kelly and Armond Armstead, and the steady play of McCourty back deep should improve the pass defense without harming the run game too much. If Jamie Collins can contribute either in coverage or as a third-down pass rusher, that should be a major upgrade from last season, as well.

There should be no problem with this unit maturing, either. McCourty has emerged as a true leader in the secondary, and Jones and Hightower are smart, young players. There is no concern about Wilfork or Mayo, who are the veteran leaders of the defense, and the rest of the pieces can fall in line, including Kelly, who has shown effort issues in the past, and Dennard, Talib and Spikes, who have had maturity concerns in the past.

While the offense will almost certainly be worse in 2013, it’s a near guarantee that the defense will be better, if not significantly better. The pieces just have to come together.

If the offense falls a little in 2013 and the defense improves, it could make the Patriots stronger, since they’ll have a better overall balance.When the Patriots lost the past few years, it was because the offense had failed them and the defense hadn’t been able to pick up the slack. If the defense knows it can’t depend on the offense every game, they will face real pressure to carry the team on their own.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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