For years, the New England Patriots' championship aspirations have lived and died on the right arm of Tom Brady. While Brady and the offense put up record-breaking numbers, the defense often felt like it was playing in survival mode. Rather than contributing to victory, the goal was to stay competitive and give the offense enough chances to score.
However, that narrative must change in 2013 if the Patriots hope to harbor serious championship aspirations. The offense's offseason turmoil is well-documented, leaving many talking heads and players to call out the team as vulnerable. Though Brady's presence will probably keep the unit afloat, Pats fans shouldn't expect the offense to continue operating at historic levels.
Unlike the offense, the defense has largely experienced stability this offseason. The unit will return at least nine of 11 starters from last season, depending on how Alfonzo Dennard's situation unfolds. The combination of youth and continuity has led many to predict great strides for the New England defense.
While expectations are undoubtedly higher than in recent seasons, here are a few reasons for both optimism and pessimism when considering the defense's chances for a breakthrough.
Breakout Possibilities on the Front Seven
Bill Belichick has invested heavily in rebuilding the front seven, spending nine draft picks in the past four drafts. For the most part, the Pats have hit on those selections, leaving them with a tantalizing array of potential breakout stars.
The two potential game-changers are 2012 first-rounders Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Jones has been working out this offseason with his MMA star brother Jon "Bones" Jones, focusing on adding muscle to his long frame. As of May, Jones' weight was 270 pounds, way up from his 2012 playing weight of 247 pounds.
However, in an interview with Patriots Football Weekly, Jones said he is not worried about slowing down, as the deadly combination of speed and length remains his greatest strength:
I had a great offseason. I put on a lot of weight, a lot of muscle actually. My biggest thing wasn't just putting on weight. Some guys will put on weight, and they'll run slower. I feel like I really haven't missed a step with the 10 pounds added. The weight was good. It's muscle mass.
Indeed, most of Jones' sacks last year in 2012 were based on quick swim moves against slower tackles and utilizing his speed to chase down the quarterback. If he can develop a more complete arsenal that also involves power rushes, Jones could become the elite pass-rusher the Patriots have missed since trading away Richard Seymour in 2009.
Hightower offers a little more versatility and steadiness, if not the single top-notch skill that Jones possesses. The former Alabama linebacker was one of just two rookies last season with at least four sacks and 40 tackles, highlighting his well-rounded abilities against the pass and run. Notice in this highlight reel how Hightower does everything from chasing down ball-carriers in space to penetrating the backfield to interior- and edge-rushing:
The one area where Hightower needs improvement is pass coverage. It's a little surprising how much he struggled in that area last season, as scouts like Mike Tanier of Yahoo.com described him as "smooth, disciplined and decisive" in pass coverage before the Pats drafted him. If he makes strides, Hightower could join Jerod Mayo to form a fearsome three-down duo.
Rookies Jamie Collins and Armond Armstead bring the intrigue of athleticism and the unknown. Younger veterans like Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette and Dane Fletcher may become useful niche players. But Jones and Hightower are the two that could propel this defense back to its early-2000s levels.
Too Much Reliance on Youth?
The flip side of so much draft investment is the necessity to rely on unknown commodities. Pats fans have probably been overoptimistic because of all the potential, but for every pick that pans out like Mayo and Devin McCourty, there have been busts like Terrence Wheatley and Shawn Crable.
Indeed, a look at Belichick's recent defensive-draft selections shows an extremely spotty record. You could even argue that all those misses between 2007-09 are the reason why the Patriots have been rebuilding their defense for years now.
The 2013 defense is a little different because there are more established veterans and players with higher upsides. But using the depth chart at Patriots.com (including Dennard for now), the projected defensive starters still strongly skew towards the younger end:
For all the praise Belichick gets as a defensive wizard, fans forget that the championship units were largely composed of veteran free-agent signings. Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Ted Washington were among the critical players poached from other teams.
Of course, that angle is not entirely fair, as Belichick did draft and develop studs such as Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Asante Samuel and others. But he's had to literally build this defense from scratch, a daunting task for any coach. It's telling that Wilfork and Mayo are the only remaining starters from 2009—just four years ago.
And for all the breakout possibilities mentioned in the front seven, what if a few starters go down? After Jones' ankle injury in Week 11, the Patriots mustered just 19 sacks in eight games, which looks OK until you remove their fluky seven-sack performance in Week 17 against the Dolphins. And if Wilfork ever missed time (knock on wood), that would wreak total catastrophe in both run and pass defense.
This does not mean the defense will never develop, or that it is too young to become championship-caliber. But Brady will be 36 this season, and the Patriots do not really have time to wait around. If and when the defense rises, it must coincide with one of Brady's few remaining elite years.
Strength Up the Middle
In baseball, a good defense usually starts with strong fielders in the middle. Football holds similar principles. In the run game, the defensive tackle and middle linebacker are vital to anchoring the line of scrimmage and pursuing the ball-carrier, while the free safety acts as a security blanket in pass coverage.
In that regard, the Patriots are as set as any team in the NFL. The trio of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty comprises the heart of the New England defense—offering consistency, durability and leadership. It's no coincidence that the three were the defensive captains last year and figure to earn that distinction again in 2013.
Wilfork is arguably the best run-stopper in the NFL, as his combination of size and athleticism allows him to line up along the entire line while playing smart two-gap defense. Oliver Thomas had a great breakdown that encapsulates Wilfork's game-changing impact on both the run and pass. Wilfork may not have Hall of Fame statistics, but he is absolutely indispensable to the Pats.
Mayo, meanwhile, has earned some criticism for not having many tangible statistics beyond tackles. But as the Patriots' sole three-down linebacker the past several seasons, Mayo's ability in both run and pass coverage has allowed the Patriots to pursue specialists like Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham. As Pro Football Focus notes, his sideline-to-sideline dependability has plenty of value in itself:
Over the years, Mayo hasn’t developed into the kind of playmaker maybe he was expected to be. However, he has got better year after year since being drafted, and he does have a habit of influencing plays regardless of what is asked of him. Missed just five tackles all season and was well worth our second-highest grade for any 4-3 outside linebacker.
McCourty is easily the most divisive of the three. After a promising seven-interception rookie season, McCourty was, by all accounts, a disaster in 2011. But much of that stems from the role the Patriots asked him to play, sticking him on an island against top receivers. Predictably, McCourty's smaller frame could not hold up against tall vertical threats like Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson.
At safety, McCourty's ball-hawking skills fit in much more naturally. As noted by Pro Football Focus' Nathan Jahnke, opposing quarterbacks had a league-low 10.1 rating when throwing at McCourty the safety, illustrating his instincts in open space. As much as Aqib Talib's arrival aided the secondary, McCourty's safety play was the most important factor in stabilizing the Patriots' defense in 2012.
Secondary Depth Concerns?
Of course, McCourty can only play safety if the team has enough cornerbacks, and therein lies an underrated issue. While the Patriots' defensive-backs corps looks solid on paper, Joe Flacco and the Ravens exposed the secondary's dangerous dependence on McCourty and Talib in the AFC championship last season.
And lest you think that was an isolated incident, the same thing happened in Week 16, when Chad Henne and the hapless Jaguars torched the Patriot defense after Talib played just eight snaps. While Talib can provide credible one-on-one coverage, the talented corner has never played 16 games in a season.
So who can the Patriots trust if he goes down, and what happens if the team releases Dennard?
Veteran Kyle Arrington is probably best suited to stay in the slot, where his agility and 5'10" frame fit best. Marquice Cole is a special teams contributor at best. That leaves Ras-I Dowling and Logan Ryan as the two most likely candidates to play outside if needed.
Talent has never been the issue for Dowling, and his 6'1" frame is the prototypical size for an outside corner. Indeed, his college highlights reveal a physical presence who excels at making plays on the ball at its highest point.
But Dowling cannot stay on the field and has lived up to his injury-prone label. In many ways, his career bears an eerie resemblance to the aforementioned Wheatley. It's too early to condemn Dowling as a bust, and he was one of the most impressive players in spring practices, but he must stay out of the trainer's room to give himself a chance.
Ryan might be a safer long-term option, though the rookie will undoubtedly experience growing pains. The book on Ryan portrays a highly physical corner with good cover skills who can play man or zone effectively. His aggressiveness may draw some pass interference calls early on, and at 5'11" and 190 pounds, he needs to add more bulk to match up against bigger receivers. But at least on paper, Ryan projects as a starting-level outside corner at some point.
Some of the Patriots' younger secondary players are as unproven as those in the front seven, but they have a lower ceiling and floor. If one or two from the likes of Dowling, Ryan, Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon can become reliable contributors, that would provide the kind of reinforcement needed when injuries inevitably occur.
The Big Picture
The Patriots have as much young defensive talent as almost any team in the league. However, potential does not always translate into results, and there are enough question marks that Pats fans probably cannot expect an elite unit.
But even though the offense figures to regress, that unit will still be very good. Even in the infamous Reche Caldwell season, the Patriots possessed a top-10 offense. So the defense does not have to turn into the '85 Bears overnight.
The main question is whether or not the Pats can be above average in all facets. Even though the defense has ranked solidly in rushing defense and points, the third-down and passing statistics have been disastrous. The Patriots cannot continue to rely on turnovers and red-zone stands to establish the well-rounded identity they desire.
Ultimately, it will be disappointing if the defense does not show noticeable improvement this year. There is more than enough talent after years of rebuilding, and the continuity means we should expect fewer assignment breakdowns. Look for the Patriots to finally crack the top 15 in yardage allowed, and perhaps a top-10 appearance in points allowed.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro-Football-Focus.com