Because of this Aaron Hernandez murder investigation, most of the talk surrounding the Patriots has been on the offensive side of the ball. Most of the questions are about how the Pats will operate without Hernandez on the field. People are saying that they will struggle without Hernandez next year, while others say they will be fine. Personally, I am of the belief that they will be fine because of Tom Brady, and they have some good, young players that will bring some new talent to the table. But that isn’t what is going to decide the Patriots fate in 2013. The outcome of the Patriots season will be determined by how their defense improves. When they won their three Super Bowls in four years, they had a great defense to lean on. When they went 18-1 in 2007, everybody remembers that record breaking offense, but they had a solid defense to go along with it. The Patriots defense will be the deciding factor if they want to get back to the Super Bowl. I don’t care if the offense is ranked number one, or number thirty one. Brady will make them play good enough to get back to the big dance when it counts. That is just how he operates. But the defense is the key, and I think that this Patriots team is going to have a very good defensive group in 2013.
When you break down the Patriots defense right now, they look pretty damn good. The weakness over the past couple of years has been the secondary, and the Pats have done some good things to improve that area. They moved Devin McCourty to safety, where he was great in 2012 at limiting big plays. He isn’t a big guy, but he has great ball skills and he fits perfectly at free safety in the Patriots scheme. They also re-signed Aqib Talib, who is a big guy that plays very good man coverage. This is something the Patriots desperately need. His ability to be isolated one on one allows the Pats to be more aggressive with their defensive calls, and this results in negative plays for the opposing team. The guy that will be lining up opposite Talib in 2013, will be Alfonzo Dennard. I think that Dennard has an insane amount of potential. He is undersized (stands at 5-10) but he is tough as nails, and he plays great man coverage. His technique isn’t perfect, but for such a young player he really knows how to play the position. He doesn’t back down from anybody, and from everything I have heard, he has a great work ethic. This all adds up to a future NFL star in my opinion, and the Pats are lucky to have him on their roster. One underrated move that the Pats made was they resigned Kyle Arrington to a four year deal. Arrington has gotten a ton of criticism throughout his career with the Pats, and most of it was deserving. But it was because he was playing the wrong position. Arrington doesn’t belong on the outside. He must stay in the slot, and never come out of the slot. He is absolutely awful on the outside, but he is actually a very good slot cornerback. With him in the slot, and Talib and Dennard on the outside, the Pats have a solid trio of corners to trot out onto the fiedl. The last major thing the Patriots did to help improve their secondary was also the most important thing in my mind. They signed safety Adrian Wilson. This was a huge move to me, because Wilson brings a physical mindset, and a physical body to the team. This is something that has been missing at the safety position since Rodney Harrison roamed the center of the field. It is important to have this type of guy in the secondary, because Wilson will make receivers think twice about their route, and in football when you hesitate, it will most likely result in a negative play. All of these guys are very talented players, and when you put them together, they will make it very tough for opposing offenses to move the ball through the air.
The other two parts of the Patriots defense were already in pretty good shape before this offseason started. They have a solid defensive line, anchored by Vince Wilfork, and they have a solid core of linebackers, anchored by Jerod Mayo. This group was solid against the run in 2012, as they finished sixth in the league in yards per attempt at 3.9.
The one concern with the linebackers, is their ability to play pass defense. Mayo is the one guy that is pretty good at this, but Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower both struggled mightily in covering tight ends and running backs in 2012. Apparently Spikes was working on this by himself this offseason, and hopefully we see some results on the field come opening day. Spikes is great against the run, but he really is a slow guy. Hopefully his training has helped him in that area. Hightower is a young guy, and I think we will see improvements from him because it seems that most young guys in the NFL are eager to learn and improve. Not to mention that he has a great on the field mentor in Jerod Mayo.
The Patriots pass rush wasn’t the best, but they have a lot of talent in that department. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are both great off the edge, and if Jones manages to stay healthy for the entire year, I think he can get close to 15 sacks in 2013. These two combined for 14 sacks in 2012, and neither of them were 100% healthy for the entire year. They have Justin Francis coming off the edge as well, and he brings a ton of energy to the field that really helped the Patriots in the late stages of the regular season. The Pats also went out and signed Tommy Kelly to help boost the pass rush on the inside, and hopefully he is able to help Wilfork out. Wilfork is very good at pushing the pocket from the inside, and I think that Kelly will brings some nice push as well. This will open up some one on one opportunities for Wilfork, and he is dominant when he gets those kinds of chances. New England also selected Jamie Collins in the second round of this years draft, and he has some impressive athleticism that the Patriots should be able to put to good use along the defensive line.
When I take a step back and look at this defense as a whole group, I see something special. I see a team that has a lot of talent, and a team that is hungry to prove people wrong. Over the last couple of years, this defense has heard nothing but criticism. Even when they made it to the Super Bowl in 2011 they were hearing criticism, because they were the 31st ranked defense in the league that year. I see this team coming out strong in 2013, and really surprising some people. When the Patriots signed Adrian Wilson I said that this defense would be a top ten defense next year, and I am sticking with that prediction.