The New England Patriots' 2012 defensive unit has undergone a massive overhaul and, as a result, will surprise many with it's improved play. They certainly have had their struggles recently, leaving plenty of room for said improvement.
The Patriots ranked 31st in passing yards allowed and 28th on third down in 2011.
But it's not like there weren't pieces to build around though, as this squad did lead the league in interceptions in 2010 and finished second last year. They've really rallied when it's mattered most, ranking eighth in points allowed in 2010 and 15th in 2011.
With such a high-powered offense, this defense has rarely been tasked with winning ball games. Yet on the rare occasions that Tom Brady is shut down, the defense has largely failed to come through.
Here's a closer look into why that will no longer be the case moving forward.
The Patriots' top three picks have been seeing consistent reps with the starting units throughout camp. The work that Tavon Wilson, Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones have been putting in is notable because it wasn't possible for the 2011 draft class.
With the lockout throwing off the schedule for the majority of the offseason, incoming rookies had an even tougher time acclimating themselves to the NFL. This year things will be much different.
New England may be fortunate enough to have four or five instant contributors from its 2012 class considering how deep it is. Jake Bequette and Alfonzo Dennard also stand a solid shot at earning some playing time as the youth movement is in full effect in Foxboro.
The more time the Patriots' rookies spend around each other, the coaching staff and their veteran teammates, the better. Learning the "Patriot Way" is a whole lot easier when you're allowed to communicate with the franchise.
Defensive leadership is the back end of the secondary and is paramount to consistent success. The Patriots' Super Bowl runs sported the likes of Rodney Harrison and Lawyer Milloy, but recently that veteran presence has been missing.
The Patriots' former duo of Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders is a difficult one to sum up concisely. Both players had their moments and were rarely the only reason why the defense was struggling.
With that said, Sanders was rather inept in the playmaking department. Still, Bill Belichick has gone on record praising his smarts, and there's a reason Falcons GM Thomas Dimitrioff, the Patriots' former head scout, nabbed him once he became available. This is one move that still boggles my mind a bit considering the context.
Meriweather always reminded me of a designated hitter with an awful average and tons of strikeouts. He would often utilize his own body as a weapon, sometimes connecting for big hits. He'd also completely whiff at times, putting the defense in a compromised position.
Their games were flawed, but so was New England's contingency plan in 2011.
I'm still not sure why they thought Josh Barrett could remain healthy, and once he went down, the options dwindled.
An undrafted player out of a Division I-AA university, James Ihedigbo, eventually took the reins next to Pat Chung and settled the position carousel down a bit.
The 2012 defensive unit won't have the same troubles. New England brought in two very capable veterans in Will Allen and Steve Gregory, who project to have large roles in the secondary rotation. For good measure, an early pick was spent on Tavon Wilson as well.
Many offseason debates have taken place regarding which defensive scheme the Patriots will install as their primary. Though they've had a traditional 3-4 unit for much of the past decade, Belichick has slowly but surely morphed his squad into something much different.
New England will align in many more sub packages in 2012 than we've seen in previous years. This alignment gives the defense faster, more athletic and coverage capable personnel. With five or more defensive backs on the field the defense can properly match up with the ever evolving spread offense. Via ESPN.com, Belichick said:
It seems like every year, the game is getting a little more spread out for us. We're in nickel defense more and more every year—over 50 percent last year. Some of that is being ahead; some of that is teams in our division. Buffalo, you're pretty much in nickel all day against them. That's two games. It's a high percentage of our defense, so that's part of the reason we feel like we need that. It's hard to be in our base defense as much as we were in the past.
With six of their seven picks in April's draft going in the defensive direction, it's clear Belichick has upgraded with a scheme change in mind.
If New England can neutralize their opponents' passing attack with this alignment and still put pressure on the quarterback, the team is in for a significant improvement.
I'm quite aware that Mark Anderson is gone and Andre Carter may not return either. I'm also privy to the fact that the duo combined for 20 sacks in 2011.
I examined Anderson and Carter's body of work in a piece earlier this offseason:
It was a feat only accomplished twice before, and no Patriots team had had two rushers with double-digit sacks since 1985.
I was negative seven years old when it last happened, so to call the work of those two impressive seems like an understatement.
Beyond these two, the Patriots haven't lost much, though. Gary Guyton took his services to Miami, and Mike Wright retired with Shaun Ellis probably soon to follow.
Other than that, the defense stands to gain a bit heading into the new season.
Ras-I Dowling, Jermaine Cunningham, Josh Barrett and Myron Pryor all return from injury-shorted seasons, and the Patriots absolutely loaded up during free agency and the draft.
Anderson won't be what he was with New England, and even if he is, I don't think it's wise to hand out $20 million contracts to 29-year-old one-year wonders. Enjoy that investment, Buffalo.
As for Carter, the door is still open, but one has to wonder if it'd be smarter to just invest in Chandler Jones. Carter could hinder his development if there aren't enough snaps to go around.
They may be better off without every player they lost this offseason.
Does the act of naming a defensive coordinator have an on-field impact? Probably not a big one, but it certainly can't hurt to have Matt Patricia stepping up fully into the role.
Patricia, 37, has called New England's defensive plays since 2010 after the departure of Dean Pees. Nevertheless, it took until this offseason for Belichick to put the GM hat on and offer the promotion.
It's a title change more than a duty alteration, but I don't take it lightly.
Patricia has been a part of the Patriots' coaching staff since 2004 and has done nothing but climb the ladder. His ascension to role of coordinator should inspire confidence if nothing else, and that's never a bad thing for him or his players.