It's almost been taken for granted that last season's miserable 30th-ranked run defense would automatically improve with the return to health of behemoth D-tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
However, it's just possible the problems may go a little deeper than an absence of beef along the interior. That was obvious during organized scrimmages and preseason action against the Washington Redskins.
NFL.com media reporter Albert Breer highlighted some of the issues the run defense could face this season:
It's not just the 177 rushing yards the Redskins accumulated on Thursday, but the consistent success they seemed to have running the ball in the team's joint practices last Monday and Tuesday. Tommy Kelly is 33 and Wilfork will turn 33 during the season. The depth up the middle is questionable beyond those two. The Patriots undoubtedly would like to rotate their older big men, which means they'll need to find guys worthy of those snaps in the coming weeks. (Ideally, first-round draft pick Dominique Easley, who is recovering from major knee surgery, gets healthy enough to contribute.)
Wilfork and Kelly coming back certainly should make a difference. Head coach Bill Belichick usually builds his defense on size in the middle, and that often leads to a stout run front.
Yet the fact that the group was gashed by Washington, albeit without Wilfork and Kelly, still rates as a concern. It hints that the basic techniques of gap control aren't being followed, or worse still, teams have sussed New England's schemes along the front.
Washington runs a zone-based system that clearly gave the Pats problems. Closer to home, AFC East rival Buffalo has some of those same principles in its own ground schemes.
Meanwhile, the New York Jets may incorporate less man blocking to take advantage of the speed of Bilal Powell and new arrival Chris Johnson.
Belichick won't have been happy to see his run front mauled during scrimmages and the preseason opener, no matter who was lining up in the trenches. But his plans for the season will be helped by the pending return to health of first-round pick Easley.
The D-tackle recently made his first appearance at camp and looked sharp, according to Boston Herald writer Karen Guregian:
Easley, meanwhile, had blown out both ACLs while at college. He's been rehabbing the right one, which was the latest. He had been on the active/non-football injury list. At one point, he broke off from the defensive line group and worked with strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash. He looked pretty good in all the change-of-direction work Nash put him through.
If he can quickly work his way into playing fitness, Easley will offer the Patriots something different inside. Specifically, he'll bring quickness and the ability to dart through gaps, rather than simply controlling them. More penetration up front will help the Patriots wreck running plays at their source.
The team now faces a week of organized scrimmages with the Philadelphia Eagles, followed by a preseason encounter. The Eagles are owners of 2013's top-ranked rushing offense. So be sure to keep a close eye on how successfully the Pats are able to corral Philly runners.