New England Patriots: Defense Must Be Fixed Going into 2012 Season

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIFebruary 11, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 05:  Victor Cruz #80 of the New York Giants hauls in a two-yard touchdown against James Ihedigbo #44 of the New England Patriots in the first quarter during Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Take a quick look, and the New England Patriots' defense aced its Super Bowl final exam.

The New York Giants scored 21 points, but only 19 were allowed by the defense. And only 12 were given up unintentionally.

Impressive. But numbers don't always tell the story.

Some of the old themes came back for this defense. Again, the Patriots struggled in coverage. Again, they let a quarterback, this time Eli Manning, drive down the field on them.

The rallying cry in Foxborough while the Patriots were the 32nd-ranked defense was that yards don't matter. Points matter. If you're giving up 70 yards on every drive and no points, you're doing your job.

That can be true, but it's a dangerous way to live. Super Bowl XLVI proved it. The Giants were on the field for more than 37 minutes out of 60. The Patriots were saddled with drives in the shadow of their own end zone, and were forced to drive the length of the field over and over again.

"Bend but don't break," when you don't get the turnovers that go with it, becomes an easy way to put yourself at a disadvantage.

You can win a game that way, but it's hard to win a Super Bowl like that. The Patriots need to get better on defense. They need to find players who can cover better, or rush better. Players that can come up with a third-down stop before being pushed near the red zone first.

The defense that showed up in Indianapolis certainly gets an "A" for effort. Given the ominous feel of November, when the Patriots had no set rotation at corner or safety and were painfully thin at both spots, the fact that the patchwork defense held Eli Manning and his bevy of weapons under 20 points is truly remarkable.

But while the game was an example of defensive resiliency, it also showed the value of having a defense that goes above and beyond damage control. There's a reason that most Super Bowl champions have won with defenses that force three-and-outs, disrupt the passer or cover throughout the play.

The Patriots aren't far away from having a defense of that caliber. A major reason for that is that question marks were solved during the season.

Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes became a legitimate inside linebacking corps. The interior defensive line, led by Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, was steady and, at times, excellent. Kyle Arrington blossomed into a solid coverage corner.

Sterling Moore was a "too many men" penalty away from owning probably the two best defensive plays of the season, and will be a name heard aplenty next year.

Some areas, however, need reinforcements. The Patriots have a glaring hole at safety, as James Ihedigbo and Sergio Brown lack the talent to be full-time starters in back. There is also the need for another strong corner, given Devin McCourty's sophomore slump and Ras-I Dowling's susceptibility to injury.

New England could also use a game-changer at outside linebacker (assuming the team makes a definitive move back to a 3-4) or defensive end. Mark Anderson and Andre Carter (10 sacks apiece) were finds for the Patriots, but they don't keep AFC offensive coordinators up at night.

There's also no guarantee that the players who are free agents this season will be in the fold in 2012.

It sounds like a lot to add and replace, but the Patriots are in a good spot. That's the advantage of being a conference champion. The core is still Super Bowl-caliber, and with four draft picks in the first two rounds and plenty of cap room, the Patriots are armed and in perfect position to make whatever moves they want.

The Patriots are already a top-notch team. But a few tweaks in key areas would make them even harder to beat.