The defense got off to a rough start in 2012, specifically against the pass, but a few moves helped facilitate a second-half improvement:
- Devin McCourty (who was not playing bad at cornerback to that point) was moved to safety;
- Cornerback Ras-I Dowling was injured for the season, thus promoting Alfonzo Dennard to a starting spot on the outside, a role which he emerged in;
- Arrington was moved to the slot;
- The Patriots traded a fourth-round pick for Talib.
Talib was the final domino to fall into place, and from there, things got better.
In the first nine games of the season, the Patriots were allowing 5.2 pass plays of 20 yards or more per game. In the final seven games of the season, after all those moves had been completed, that number dropped to 3.9 per game. Before the moves, opponents were averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. After the moves, that number dropped to 7.1.
So, the Patriots are hoping that maintaining the status quo in the secondary will allow the unit to grow together.
What's next for the Patriots defense?
They added safety Adrian Wilson, potentially to help in run defense (he was held out of most sub packages in 2012), but could still use another option in coverage on tight ends. They've struggled in that area for years and ranked 29th against tight ends in 2012 according to Football Outsiders.
A pass-rushing defensive tackle remains one of the team's biggest needs, from this perspective, and although signing CFL defensive linemen Armond Armstead gives the Patriots one possible answer, another move would help create a competition for the spot in training camp.
The Patriots are said to be in the market for an edge pass-rusher. Free agent defensive ends John Abraham and Dwight Freeney have both been reported to be visiting Foxborough. New England has taken the veteran approach before, adding defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter prior to the 2011 season.
Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich ranked 25th and 31st respectively in pass-rushing productivity, according to Pro Football Focus (measures pressure created on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks). An injection to the pass rush would be welcome, and the improved health of Jones (who was slowed down by an ankle injury) should also help.
Complemented with the right moves in the front seven, though, the moves they've made in the secondary should help the Patriots continue to improve in pass defense.