As the saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Nowhere has this been more true than with the New England Patriots secondary, where a revolving door of cornerbacks and safeties have been shuffled through each position over the course of the last four years.
Invariably, the results were always the same; they gave up a lot of yards, forced a lot of turnovers and ultimately just weren't good enough to bring home another Lombardi Trophy.
But with Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington re-signing, it looks like the Patriots will finally have some continuity for the back end of their defense, and instead of searching for who can play where, they can build off of the strides they made in 2012.
While it's incredibly hard to track, since injuries in the secondary are all too common, the Patriots will enter 2013 with the potential of starting the same secondary they ended the previous season with for the first time since 2007.
This doesn't mean it will be the same secondary that starts; second-year safety Tavon Wilson and newcomer Adrian Wilson will compete with Steve Gregory, and one will likely supplant him. There's also Alfonzo Dennard's sentencing that could make him unavailable for an unknown length of time, though speculation is that he should avoid extended jail time, if any.
However, who wins the position battles is not what matters.
The competition should be fierce, and ultimately propel the starters to a high level of performance, and that is what matters. For the first time in over five seasons, the Patriots have a returning secondary that won't have to start from ground zero yet again.
At safety, the Patriots now feature three players who have started for them, along with a fourth who is a five-time Pro Bowler. At cornerback, they have Dennard and Talib, their starters from the AFC Championship, along with Kyle Arrington who has started over 40 games over the last three seasons. 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling could be in the mix to contribute as well.
The Patriots pass defense has been much maligned over the last three seasons, but the second half of the 2012 season was the first glimmer of hope since 2009. Once Talib arrived, Dennard began starting and McCourty moved full time to safety, the Patriots defense was markedly better.
From Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders:
With Dennard and Talib starting, the Pats could move Kyle Arrington to the slot, where he fits much better, and use McCourty strictly at safety. With that lineup, the Pats went from the 31st best pass defense in the league by DVOA to the 15th best pass defense.
In 2013, the Patriots will have that lineup as their baseline, and with the level of familiarity already established, their play should only continue to improve. Add in a talented rookie or additional free agent and the Patriots pass defense could be headed toward the top 10 in the NFL.
Fans often think the only way to make a team better is to add better personnel, but in cases like this, especially in a cerebral system like the Patriots' that are based on communication, simply keeping the same pieces in place can have a significant impact.
Maybe this year a lack of change will make all the difference.
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