The biggest knock on the New England Patriots in 2011 was that their defense couldn't stop anyone. On their way to the Super Bowl, the Pats offense overcame their 31st-ranked defense on a weekly basis by putting up enough points to get the win.
While that ranking did not tell the whole story—they ranked 15th in points per game—there was no denying that their shortcomings on defense were holding them back. The Patriots made a concerted effort in the draft to improve the defense and through two games, it looks as though those changes have taken hold.
Through two weeks of the 2012 season, the Patriots defense is ranked fourth in points allowed and second in yards allowed. While they may have played two weak offenses in Tennessee and Arizona, the proof of improvement is there and it is hard to ignore.
One position that the Patriots have always made a commitment to on that side of the ball is the linebacker position. Players like Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer and Roosevelt Colvin were centerpieces to the Patriots' defensive units during their three Super Bowl championship seasons. Since Bruschi's retirement and Vrabel's departure following the 2008 season, the linebacker position has been in need of some love.
Enter Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower.
Beginning in that 2008 season with Mayo, the Patriots have made an effort to draft players at the position who fit into what Bill Belichick likes to do defensively. Mayo made an instant impact playing alongside those veterans in 2008, earning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year with 98 solo tackles and 28 assists.
Since then, Mayo has had just one season approaching those numbers (he racked up 114 solo tackles en route to a Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors in 2010), mostly because a lack of talent around him forced him to play more of a central role on defense as opposed to his preferred weak-side position.
Enter Brandon Spikes.
A crazy-talented, crazy-big middle linebacker from Florida, the two-time consensus All-American dropped to the Patriots in the second round of the 2010 draft. Spikes has been limited by off-field issues and injuries through two seasons, but when he's playing in the heart of that defense his talent consistently shines.
What makes Spikes so valuable is his ability to play that middle linebacker position, allowing Mayo to be a playmaker on the weak side. It is no coincidence that Spikes' rookie year in 2010 was also Mayo's best season as a pro.
With Spikes and Mayo set and healthy coming out of 2011, the strong-side position was all that was keeping this unit from being one of the best in the league.
Enter Dont'a Hightower.
A 2011 consensus All-American and two-time national champion from Alabama, didn't it almost make too much sense that Hightower fell to the Patriots at the 25th pick of the first round? At 6'4", 270 lbs., Hightower has been strong against the run and offers the Patriots the versatility to play as a down lineman.
As a unit, the linebackers have been the most productive members of what has become a top-flight defense. Mayo leads the way with 21 total tackles while Hightower has 10 tackles, a fumble recovery and a defensive touchdown. Spikes comes in at fifth on the team with eight tackles, but his hard-hitting style jarred the ball loose from the Cardinals' Ryan Williams on Sunday, setting up what probably should have been the game-winning field goal (cut to Patriots fans nodding their head woefully).
When talking about the Patriots in terms of best teams in the NFL, the defense has always held them back from being hailed as the league's No. 1 team. As long as these three men are in the front seven, that conversation has changed a bit.