The New England Patriots pass defense took significant strides in the second half of the season.
That being said, if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. The Patriots were not good enough to afford to take any steps backward.
This is an important offseason for the crystallization of the defense.
Several key free agents are coming up for new contracts, and the team has several holes to fill in addition.
How do the Patriots improve their defense?
Here is my template.
Franchise Tag Aqib Talib
Word is the Patriots don't feel too comfortable giving Talib a long-term deal. According to a report from CSNNE.com's Mike Giardi, the Patriots have questions about Talib's work ethic and would rather have him play a year on a "make-nice deal."
If they can't get him to agree to a one-year deal, they could lock down the lockdown cornerback with the franchise tag. The tag designation of over $10.6 million for 2013 may be a bit more than the Patriots had hoped to pay, but solid cover corners aren't easy to find at any price.
Talib joined the Patriots and dramatic change immediately followed. The question is, can he be counted on to play a full 16 games? He has at least three separate incidents with his hip and hamstrings before joining the Patriots; he has been limited by both in separate instances with the Patriots. Injuries such as Talib's are more reflective of a legitimate durability issue.
For 2013, the Patriots can get as much as possible out of Talib, and hope to find a long-term answer between now and then.
Find Out What the Bleep is Going On with Ras-I Dowling
Speaking of finding an answer, they could have it on the roster. That is, if Ras-I Dowling could stay healthy for more than six games in a year.
The Patriots have a recent track record of bad draft choices in the second round at defensive back, including such high-profile names as Terrence Wheatley and Darius Butler. If Dowling wants to avoid becoming the next on that list, he needs to stay healthy for more than, oh, five games this year.
At 6'1" and 198 pounds, the goal has always been to have Dowling play cornerback even though he has the versatility to play safety, as well.
He hasn’t played safety, but I think he has the size, ball skills and tackling ability that you could probably make an argument that he could project in there if you wanted him to. I think for right now, we’ll play him at the corner, but he is big. He does tackle well. He’s tough. He’s got good range, good ball skills.
He hasn't played anything very much over the past two years, with just 176 combined snaps in eight games in 2011 and 2012.
If Dowling is the player they thought he would be when they drafted him with the 33rd overall pick in the 2011 draft, he could be a long-term answer at cornerback. He won't be a long-term answer to anything unless he can stay healthy, though.
Draft a Cover Linebacker
The Patriots have not been able to cover tight ends well since 2008; in each of the past four years, they have ranked 21st or worse against tight ends in coverage, according to Football Outsiders. They've been their worst of late, and have ranked 29th against tight ends in each of the past two years.
Jerod Mayo is serviceable in coverage, but there are limitations and question marks regarding the other two starting linebackers.
Brandon Spikes is great against the run and when he's playing downhill, attacking the line of scrimmage against the run or pass. He is essentially a two-down player, though, with 72.4 percent of the defensive snaps according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Here's another interesting trend: Spikes lined up for over 75 percent of the snaps in each of the first nine games of the season, and dropped into coverage at least 25 times in five of the team's first nine games. He only lined up for 75 percent of the snaps in one game over the final seven, and didn't drop into coverage more than 25 times in a single game.
Dont'a Hightower only played 58.2 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie, and also served far more in run defense (314 of his 667 snaps) than in pass coverage (258 snaps).
In addition, Spikes is 6'3" and 250 pounds, while Hightower is 6'2" and 265 pounds; both linebackers are a bit bigger than modern day coverage linebackers.
There are a few players that could help the Patriots in this year's draft. One name drawing a lot of interest is Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree. He was arrested for DUI in February, which has some questioning his draft stock, but there's no denying his capabilities in coverage.
He could play in a hybrid set, and you can move him around, but what Ogletree really brings to the table is an athletic ability and fluid style of play that allows him to make plays between the hashes. Ogletree will be a rangy, fun, energetic inside linebacker no matter the scheme.
Ogletree was a highly recruited safety out of high school and played strong safety for Georgia as a freshman, so his experience dropping into coverage isn't just good, it's the reason he made it to a big-time SEC program.
His interviews at the combine were highly anticipated as people expected him to be asked about the DUI charge, and other off-field transgressions, by numerous teams. If the Patriots are comfortable with his off-field issues, they could get a great player for their defense.
Find an Interior Pass-rusher
Brandon Deaderick. Ron Brace. Kyle Love. Myron Pryor. Jermaine Cunningham. Revolving door is revolving.
They hope that the door can stop spinning once CFL defensive linemen Armond Armstead makes his debut for the Patriots. It's unclear exactly how he'll fit into the defensive scheme, but he will most likely make the majority of his contributions on the interior of the defensive line.
Regardless of who fills the gap, the Patriots need to find a way to generate pressure up the middle. It's a role they've been trying to fill since 2010, defensive tackle Mike Wright's final year with the Patriots. Vince Wilfork has been the team's leader in defensive snaps on the interior of the defensive line, but behind him, it's been an ever-changing sea of names:
- In 2010, it was defensive tackle Gerard Warren (543 snaps) and Wright (320). Ron Brace (285 snaps), Brandon Deaderick (258) and Myron Pryor (242) supplied a rotation of defensive tackles in what was considered a "specialist defense."
- In 2011, second-year defensive tackle Kyle Love played 696 snaps. Behind him was Shaun Ellis (421 snaps), Deaderick (up to 383), Warren (371) and Albert Haynesworth (134).
- In 2012, Wilfork (1,041) and Love (591) once again led the way. Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham (487) was an interior pass-rusher in nickel packages. Deaderick (467) once again saw his snap total increase. No other defensive linemen had more than 35 percent of the team's snaps.
As we can see, over the years, the Patriots' options on the interior defensive line have been dwindling.
The Patriots' edge pressure was not always consistent, but a steady push up the middle will only help the rest of the defensive line get to the quarterback. It's clear that interior rush has been what's missing over the past few seasons.
Armstead, Pryor and Deaderick could all battle it out for that spot in nickel packages, and the Patriots could look to add depth through the draft or maybe a top-end defensive tackle in free agency—though Jets defensive tackle Mike Devito and recently released Eagles defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins are the only names that come to mind.
Add Depth at Safety
People can't seem to agree on whether it was the addition of Talib or the moving of Devin McCourty from cornerback to safety which served as the catalyst for their dramatic improvement. As we've outlined here, though, it's clear those are not the only issues to solve.
Either way, the Patriots could settle that dispute by keeping both in their respective spots for 2013.
Beyond that, the Patriots should be thinking about whether Tavon Wilson or Steve Gregory should be the starting safety.
If the answer is "none of the above," perhaps the Patriots look to add a starting-caliber strong safety. They could look to recently released Bills safety George Wilson, who allowed just 13 throws and one touchdown to be completed into his coverage. If the Falcons do not re-sign starting safety William Moore, he could be on the radar, as well. He recorded four interceptions this year, including two off Drew Brees and one off Peyton Manning.
Considering their limited cap space and the money that could be tied up in a franchise tag for Talib, though, they may choose to address the position through the draft.
One name they could look into is South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger.
According to Chris Price of WEEI.com, Swearinger likes the Patriots style of defense.
“I like the New England style of defense and I like coach Belichick and how he does things and how disciplined he is,” Swearinger said Sunday at the combine. “They win championships, and I think I can help them be a part of that.”
The Patriots may like his style of defense, too.
Swearinger has some work to do, but we're very impressed with how he developed during the 2012 season. He's a man getting better on the job and NFL teams should fall in love with his ability to make big plays in the back seven, whether that's locating the ball or knocking receivers onto the ground when they try to come into his zone.
Hey, locating the ball, there's a little something the Patriots secondary could use more of!
But it's certainly not the only thing they need. The defense did improve over the course of the 2012 season; the numbers don't lie there. If they follow this template, though, their pass defense should make significant strides in 2013.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.