It hasn't gone according to plan so far.
The new, revamped defensive front seven was supposed to look...well, new and revamped. Instead, the New England Patriots have seen their 2011 defense look an awful lot like 2010's.
With only two games in the books, the NFL season is still in its infancy, but the returns haven't been great. The Patriots still give up too many yards and too many points. Opponents' drives are still way too easy. Quarterbacks still have all day to throw.
The good news is that the defense still shows a knack for big plays. But as last year showed, a turnover-based defense is dangerously unstable.
Two keys of a solid defense are an ability to get to the quarterback and an ability to stop the run. That comes from the front seven.
Here's how the top seven players there (based on snaps played and projected role) are doing so far.
Stats: four tackles, 0.5 sacks
It's been a quiet start to the season for Carter, who went from under-the-radar signing to pass-rushing savior after a standout preseason. He was sensational in the second exhibition game against Tampa Bay as the leader of a—get this—swarming pass rush.
He showed an impressive burst in those games, and while the regular season hasn't seen him match that explosiveness, he's playing against better competition. He hasn't looked exceptional, but there doesn't appear to be anything to worry about just yet.
He teamed up for a sack with Mike Wright against Miami, taking Chad Henne down for an eight-yard loss on 1st-and-goal on the Dolphins' first drive. The sack appeared to be well-timed, as it pushed the Dolphins 10 yards from the end zone, but Henne scored on a nine-yard run two plays later.
Carter's most noteworthy play this year was when he was penalized for roughing the passer against San Diego when he drove Philip Rivers to the ground, negating a third-down incompletion and giving the Chargers new life. Carter deserves only slight punishment for that; his foul was letting the top of his helmet go into Rivers, rather than leading with his facemask.
It is the opinion of this evaluator that Carter was a victim of over-officiating, rather than his own recklessness. And he did get heat on the quarterback, which he'll be counted on to do.
Stats: two tackles, 0 sacks
The Haynesworth project hasn't gone as badly as some feared, but it hasn't gone well, either.
Haynesworth really hasn't done anything yet with New England, and that's going to need to change—soon. He got a few good pops in against the Dolphins, but he has ground to make up to become the impact defender the Patriots need him to be.
Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe had a terrific breakdown of Haynesworth's 22 snaps against San Diego. He revealed that the lineman was only double-teamed seven times but still managed to go the entire contest while not appearing on the stat sheet. Leaving a lineman one-on-one with Haynesworth used to be a foolish mistake. Instead, 15 such matchups ended up well for the Chargers.
As if that isn't enough, Haynesworth was often the last player to get up at the end of the play late in the second half, and he is already battling injury. He's been ruled out for Week 3 with a back injury and was kept out of practice in the preseason as well.
It's too early to sound alarms, but the Patriots need Haynesworth to pick things up. If he and Vince Wilfork can make opponents pay for single-teaming them, this defense will drastically improve.
Stats: three tackles, 0.5 sacks, one interception
The Big Daddy might have already secured the No. 1 play for the whole season. His interception of Philip Rivers was surprising, exciting and the highlight of a solid start to the campaign.
As usual, Wilfork is contributing in places not shown in the box score. The defensive captain is living up to that honor. He's a calm, resonant voice in the locker room and in press conferences. He brings a measured demeanor when he talks to the public, knowing full well his standing as a face of the team.
On the field, Wilfork has continued to be a rock of consistency. He plays more than any other lineman, logging 62-of-72 snaps in the victory over San Diego. He's widely known for his massive size, but that big frame plugs up the running lanes, and as the snap count shows, Wilfork is conditioned enough to keep himself on the field when the Patriots need him most.
Wilfork wanted three-down responsibility when he was negotiating a contract extension before last season, and he has shown he can deliver.
And as we've already seen, Vince is capable of being a playmaker when the team needs him to be. His interception wasn't a fluke, as it would have been had Rivers just thrown the ball at his chest. Wilfork faked the rush, then dropped back in coverage, defending the space between Rivers and his target in the flat, Mike Tolbert.
Wilfork had to make a good play for the end result. He had to find Tolbert, know his coverage assignment, cover well enough to be there quickly and notice the ball in time. He did all four and was rewarded.
Wifork also has half a sack on the season. He remains a vital piece of a defensive line in progress.
Stats: two tackles, 0 sacks
I have a small, irrational fear that Shaun Ellis is a mole. That he and Rex Ryan agreed that he would join the Patriots, learn plays and tactics, intentionally fail on the field and relay the information to a beaming Ryan in the Meadowlands.
It's just a thought, however, and Ellis has actually contributed a few good plays already in his time in New England. His statistical achievements are modest, but the 11-year veteran has shown at times that he still has the burst Bill Belichick craved when he signed the career Jet in the offseason.
In both games, he was successful at generating a rush by shoving linemen back into the pocket, an example being when he drove a lineman into Philip Rivers, forcing the quarterback into a short-armed throw that Sergio Brown picked off along the sideline.
The team's pass-rushers haven't clicked yet, and Ellis is part of the unit. Just like the defense as a whole, Ellis will get better as the season goes on.
Stats: five tackles, one sack
Ninkovich has developed into a reliable player in his three seasons in New England and is reminiscent of departed Patriots hero Mike Vrabel. He plays the same position, has the same number, has the same stubble and has similar size (he's 6'2", 255 pounds, while Vrabel was 6'4", 261).
At times, his play is similar to Vrabel's, too. He's become one of the team's top rushers at the linebacker position and shows versatility in coverage and containing the rush.
He already has a sack on the season, but his pass-rushing production has been dimmed by the team's reluctance to use blitz packages, and instead, try to generate pressure via the front four. As the season goes on and the team toys with blitzes more, it'll become clearer what Ninkovich is capable of.
Stats: 16 tackles, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble
It's been a sensational start to the season for Mayo. The third-year captain remains a tackling machine, with 16 through two games, and he's started to silence his remaining doubters, who claim he doesn't have the knack for the big play.
While Mayo doesn't have any interceptions or sacks, he has shown that he ups his play in the critical moments.
The Chargers game was a masterpiece. Mayo hit bruising running back Mike Tolbert on a 4th-and-goal run from the 1-yard line early in the first half, dropping the 243-pounder for no gain and giving the Patriots the ball. The play gave the Patriots a head start in an offensive battle.
Mayo struck again later in the game, again with the Patriots needing a stop. The Chargers were only down six and looking to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but Mayo hit Tolbert in the backfield on a run and jarred the ball loose for a fumble that was recovered by Rob Ninkovich.
Tom Brady led the offense down for a touchdown on the ensuing drive, sealing the game.
Mayo is as reliable a tackler as there is in the league, and he's already shown a Tedy Bruschi-esque ability to make the play the defense absolutely has to have. He's vital for this defense.
Stats: five tackles (Fletcher), two tackles (Spikes)
The defense was drawn up in the offseason with Spikes penciled in as a starter as either an inside linebacker or the middle linebacker, but the second-year pro has failed to seize the opportunity.
Spikes has struggled to stay healthy and has drawn attention for controversial Twitter comments. This is coming on the heels of a season that featured a four-game drug suspension, and it's safe to say that a year with big expectations hasn't gotten off to a good start for the former Florida Gator.
In Spikes' absence, Fletcher stepped in and has been solid in the extended snaps he's received. Spikes returned to the field against San Diego, and the next few games will be telling as to whether Spikes has regained some of the momentum he lost in the preseason.
Grade (Spikes): D+
Grade (Fletcher): B-