Since roughly 2008, the New England Patriots have slowly been rebuilding their defense, and after a breakout performance on Sunday, we saw the Patriots reap the rewards.
It was only one performance, but it was a convincing one.
The Patriots often draw comparisons to the Galactic Empire of Star Wars fame. From head coach Bill Belichick's hooded visage to their reign of dominance over the NFL, that seems it will only come to an end when Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are no longer in power.
In that case, just call the defense the Death Star.
Bill Belichick was given the foundation for a great defense, and while his coaching surely had an impact, the veteran group didn't hurt. But that veteran group grew old.
They blew it up from '08-'09, as they waved goodbye to linebackers Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Junior Seau, defensive lineman Richard Seymour, cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, and safety Rodney Harrison.
Drafting linebacker Jerod Mayo with the No. 10 overall pick in the '08 draft laid the foundation for the rebuild. Over the five-year stretch from 2008 through 2012, the Patriots have slowly picked up the pieces of the defense.
In fact, the only piece on the defense that remains from before '08 is defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
So how did the Patriots get from point A to point B? Let's take a look at a year-by-year breakdown, starting from the '08 offseason.
The two most notable moves in the 2008 offseason are still being felt today by the Patriots defense.
The first was the team failing to re-sign No. 1 cornerback Asante Samuel. The Patriots have been looking for help in the secondary, specifically at cornerback, ever since. We'll see just how desperate that need would become in 2009.
Adding linebacker Jerod Mayo was a preemptive strike on the eventual retirement of Tedy Bruschi, which would come the following year. We saw Mayo fill a Bruschi-like role at linebacker, although he is a much better outside linebacker in the 4-3 than Bruschi was.
The subtraction of Junior Seau gets an asterisk because he came back for the stretch run, only to leave once again following the '09 season when the Patriots were hit hard by injuries at linebacker.
In all, the Patriots only added one player who would prove to be any value to the defense. Deltha O'Neal? Fuhgeddaboutit.
The year of the mass exodus, this is arguably the year Belichick knew was coming, but was probably hoping would never come.
The Patriots took the volume approach at cornerback in 2009, after two offseasons which saw them lose their top three cornerbacks in nickel packages (Samuel, Gay, Hobbs). Out of the five cornerbacks they brought in that year, only one—Kyle Arrington—remains on the roster. Shawn Springs was a one-year addition, and was quickly jettisoned when he became upset with his role.
Despite all the subtractions and failed additions, this offseason wasn't a total loss. The Patriots ended up with Patrick Chung and Kyle Arrington, both of whom remain important components in the secondary, and linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who has been a valuable and underrated component of the defense for his versatility. All three are starters in the base defense.
Leigh Bodden and Darius Butler (kinda-sorta) provided answers at cornerback, if only for a couple of years. Same could be said for linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who gave the team 15 sacks in two years as a pass-rusher, including a team-leading 10 sacks in 2009.
Defensive tackles Ron Brace and Myron Pryor have both flashed potential in limited time, and though Brace looks like a possible breakout candidate in 2012, Pryor has yet to make any impact felt farther than Brett Favre's chin.
Ty Warren was on the roster for one game in 2010 before he went on injured reserve with a torn tricep. Getting rid of Adalius Thomas was a locker room move as much as it was a lack-of-production move. Derrick Burgess performed well down the stretch in 2009, but couldn't make the switch to the 3-4 defense.
Meanwhile, the Patriots' trend of spending high draft picks on defense continued with the selection of Devin McCourty in the first round, followed by Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham in the second round.
We have yet to see how the picks of McCourty and Cunningham pan out; McCourty played well in 2010, but poorly last year, and is a starting cornerback once again in 2012. Cunningham is loaded with untapped pass-rushing potential that has yet to consistently show up on the football field, but it looks like he'll get a chance to make it happen this year.
All-in-all, the haul wasn't bad. The Patriots got a starting cornerback who remains a question mark, a starting linebacker in Spikes and two talented specialist defensive linemen in Cunningham and Deaderick. Undrafted free agent Kyle Love may be one of the better additions thus far, and could be a starter in the Patriots defense after playing a significant role last year (51.2 percent of snaps, according to Pro Football Focus).
2011 was an odd year; whether it was because of the lockout or for some other reason, the Patriots didn't take nearly as many shots at the board on defense as they had in recent years through the draft. In fact, they only took one defensive player through the first five rounds and three in their nine picks total.
The selection of Dowling raised a lot of eyebrows at the time because the Patriots had already spent so much on the position through the draft. In hindsight, the Patriots were probably aware that this was a make-or-break offseason for Butler.
They also knew that pass coverage needed improvement, with the pass defense having been victimized at times in 2010 and showing the inability to cover even the shortest of patterns in their playoff loss to the Jets.
In all, the 2011 additions played their part (minus Haynesworth, Carter and Ellis) but the loss of so many players in the secondary was a key talking point as the Patriots gave up big yards week after week and finished 31st in the league in total pass defense.
The Patriots lost their two dynamic pass-rushers, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, less than seven months after acquiring the two via free agency. The loss of linebacker Gary Guyton is noteworthy if only because the Patriots had been developing him unsuccessfully, and have yet to replace his role as a cover linebacker.
The Patriots responded to losing their best pass-rushers by adding one of the better pass-rushers in this year's crop in the draft: Chandler Jones. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is yet another of those movable pieces at the second level that the Patriots love. He is a similar player to Spikes, but offers more athleticism.
The addition of Tavon Wilson is clearly a response to the faster, more athletic breed of tight ends that have taken over the NFL.
Overall, the number of subtractions up against the number of additions, as well as the astonishing youth on defense which makes this the youngest unit in the league, has many thinking this is the capstone year in the rebuild.
In summary, here are the major noteworthy losses and their corresponding additions in today's defense. This is not done for the sake of comparison (see: Jones listed next to Seymour), but more for a point of reference to how the Patriots have plugged the holes.
The only spot where the Patriots haven't had to make a move is at nose tackle, where Wilfork remains.
Whether the moves are "upgrades" or "downgrades" relative to the dynasty defense of '01-'04 will play itself out in time, but it is clear that the Patriots have turned over nearly every spot on the defensive roster. The rebuild is complete.
So after all this, what have we learned?
That Bill Belichick turned in his veteran defense for a shiny new unit. In fact, Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe points out that this is the youngest defense the Patriots have fielded under Belichick.
The fact that this process has been five years in the making may have left Patriots fans pulling their hair out over some bad defenses in year's past, but the bright side to that is that because it began back in 2008, the Patriots have developed new veteran leadership in Wilfork, Mayo and Chung specifically.
Sports work in cycles. When we first met Tom Brady, he was being aided to Super Bowls by a New England Patriots defense among the stingiest in the NFL.
When we last saw Brady—in the 2011 season—the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl in spite of their defense, not because of it.
If the defense is finished, the two could finally balance each other out.
But either way, this defense is built in Belichick's image. The outcome is on the players, but also on him and the rest of the coaching staff to teach these guys the right things to do.
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.
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