The New England Patriots defense has been the focus of the 2011 NFL offseason. At first, it was the need for a big-time pass rusher in the 2011 NFL draft. Now, it is the availability of some big name free agents as of Friday.
All the while, the return of Leigh Bodden and Ty Warren waits silently like a ninja. The only question is, will that ninja be a ninja warrior or a ninja turtle?
Ranking 30th in the league against the pass is nothing to be proud of, but it becomes more understandable when coupled with the second-most pass attempts thrown against them. Of course, those pass attempts were thrown as a result of an ineffective pass defense.
Could the return of Warren and Bodden really improve the defense that much?
The biggest problem with New England's defense was in generating a pass rush from the outside. Neither Bodden nor Wilfork play outside linebacker, but their play can in turn improve the play of the outside linebackers.
With Warren eating space on the outside and in the middle, there will be free space for the outside linebackers to move around and make the play, even a cleaner path to the quarterback when they are sent on the pass rush.
Bill Belichick got a good taste of what elite coverage can do to an offense in the playoff loss to the Jets. Several times, Tom Brady had all the time he needed in the pocket, but couldn't find an open receiver before the pocket collapsed around him and resulted in a sack.
Now, with Bodden, Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington and others, New England looks to have a top-flight cornerback squad of their own in 2011.
Better coverage will allow the pressure to get there, disrupting the timing on those three-step drops that Mark Sanchez and the Jets employed in the playoffs to beat the Patriots defense.
The return of both won't improve the Patriots third down defense from worst to first, but it's hard to get much worse than...well, worst. The Patriots allowed a conversion rate of 47 percent of third downs, easily the worst in the league.
Fortunately for the Patriots, there's nowhere to go but up. Unfortunately, however, there's a long way to go.
Yes, the Patriots need to improve on third down, and no, neither Bodden nor Warren will be a double-digit sack specialist. Both, however, can contribute in their own ways to improving the defense as a whole.
If the Patriots were any more concerned with the fundamentals of football, we might call them the New England Tim Duncans. In that regard, the returns of Bodden and Warren will be welcome. While neither make a lot of big plays on paper, both make the kind of big plays that don't show up in a box score.
Those are the big plays that come from not giving up a big play.
One thing they bring that also doesn't show up in a box score is their veteran leadership. The Patriots defense was incredibly young last year, with guys like McCourty, Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Brandon Deaderick and others asked to contribute in big ways.
The young guys were up to the task, but both Bodden and Warren have been in the league since 2003.
The Patriots have high hopes of those two upon their return, and with the talent getting better, it's hard to imagine the performance getting worse.