2013 is a brand-new season, but the Patriots enter Week 1 trying to answer the same old questions defensively. Of chief import is whether their secondary can raise its level of play, despite returning most of the same players from last season.
Starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard struggled with injuries throughout the preseason, so his availability remains in question. In his stead, Kyle Arrington will likely start alongside Talib.
Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory return on the back end, giving the Patriots essentially an identical starting secondary to last season, depending on how Bill Belichick uses Dennard and Arrington. Free agent Adrian Wilson joined the Patriots amidst considerable fanfare but underwhelmed during the preseason and ultimately landed on injured reserve, ending his season and depriving the team of a much-needed personnel upgrade.
The other Wilson—Tavon—looked so discombobulated during the preseason, there was widespread speculation that he might be on the roster bubble. He showed well as a rookie last season but clearly isn’t a finished product. Don’t look for him to spend much time on the field until he proves more consistently to be trustworthy as a safety.
The Bills don’t pose much of an aerial threat since they’ll be starting undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel at quarterback. To put that into perspective, Tuel will be the first undrafted rookie in the NFL’s modern era (since 1960) to start at quarterback in Week 1 without having any professional experience in another league.
Week 1 might not be the sternest test for the secondary, but facing the Bills will be a nice measuring stick regardless. If the defensive backfield is truly ready to step up its game, Tuel will be welcomed rather rudely to the NFL.
Last season, this unit yielded 687 yards passing and six touchdowns in two meetings with the Bills. That can’t happen again.
If the rookie is able to exploit the defense, it would be a vivid indication that seasons change in New England, but the Patriots’ beleaguered secondary doesn’t.
*Update: It looks like first-round pick E.J. Manuel has recovered from his recent knee surgery enough to earn the start. Not much changes from a coverage standpoint. Whether the Bills start an undrafted rookie or a highly drafted one fresh off knee surgery, the Patriots still should put the clamps down.