Most want to discuss the gloom and doom of the Patriots rough offseason, but not everyone agrees this is the end. The Patriots are still the best team in the AFC East, by far, and that isn’t going to change because they lose a talented, sociopathic tight end and a second year cornerback who tends to struggle with drinking issues (not to mention his timing- arrested right before the draft and ten days after a murder charge for a teammate.) Today is a day to focus on the positives and look forward to football. The 2013 Patriots will continue to win for one reason: the growth of the defense.
Since 2008, the Patriots defense has been the weaker little brother that would make occasional plays while the offense outscored everyone. In theory, it worked, especially in the regular season, but the defense had major holes and in the playoffs good teams exposed those weaknesses. The Ravens have had the most success exposing New England and their less-than-stellar defense, but there is reason to believe this trend is about to come to an abrupt end.
In the first half of 2012, the New England defense was inconsistent. The pass rush was improved, but injuries slowed Chandler Jones and the trickledown effect reminded us of the same issues we’ve seen the last five years. The secondary wasn’t getting the job done and the Patriots linebackers were also being exposed in coverage. It was clear that something had to be done from a personnel perspective. The Patriots, although they were 6-3, needed to fix their secondary as best they could if they had any chance to compete in the playoffs. On November 1st, Aqib Talib was acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that was the beginning of the Patriots growth. Talib wasn’t allowed to play until Week Eleven versus the Colts, but the effect was immediate. Talib had a 59 yard return for a touchdown and gave the defense, secondary and coaching staff more confidence.
The Patriots played ten games without Talib in 2012. In those ten games, the Patriots were 7-3, and they allowed 291.1 passing yards per game while giving up 21.7 points per game. In the six games Talib played in, the Patriots were 5-1, they allowed 238.5 passing yards per game, and they gave up 19 points per game. The improvement in the passing defense equaled less points allowed and it also made offensive coordinators pause before throwing to Talib’ side of the field. The trade helped them return to the AFC Title game for the second year in a row, but when Talib went down, the Ravens went to work on Kyle Arrington, who is a slot corner, not an outside corner. The only way to fix that is to add depth, so the Pats went to work.
The Patriots needed to inject some size, speed and athleticism into their defensive line rotation, and they succeeded. Adding Tommy Kelly is a key move for a defense that has learned to rely on Vince Wilfork a little too much. Kelly and Wilfork will tie up multiple blockers when they are in the game together which will free up area for the linebackers to roam. Armond Armstead, the CFL import who played his college ball at USC, is also an intriguing addition to the team. Armstead had a heart issue at USC, but his talent was never questioned and he was one of the best defensive players in the CFL at the young age of 22. The Dolphins struck gold with Cameron Wake and the Patriots may have done the same with Armstead. Time will tell, but he will get every chance to prove himself.
Rob Ninkovich returns to his role of making plays, getting after the quarterback and being the most underrated player on the Patriots defense. There is going to be an intriguing battle for the backup spot to Ninkovich, with Justin Francis and Jake Bequette battling for a roster spot. Chandler Jones begins his second year as right defensive end, and hopefully he can stay healthy and give the Patriots a full season of production. Jones was slowed by two ankle injuries in the second half of 2012 and the effect was obvious. Another roster spot battle to watch is Jermaine Cunningham versus Michael Buchanan, the seventh round pick out of Illinois. Cunningham hasn’t lived up to expectations and Buchanan was very productive in college.
The linebacking core also had a major addition, but instead of going after free agents, the Patriots decided to add to their talented group through the draft. Outside linebacker Jamie Collins brings a skill set that the Patriots didn’t possess, and adding him to an already strong core could help take them to the next level. For all the heat the secondary gets, the linebackers need to cover as well, and Collins may be their best coverage linebacker from day one. Hightower showed consistent improvement and appears to be the most physically talented of the group, and Mayo will once again flourish in his weak side linebacker role. Brandon Spikes may be one of the best run stuffing linebackers in football, but he has had issues staying healthy. The return of Dane Fletcher brings much needed depth to the middle linebacker spot. This group has a chance to be special.
The Patriots knew the secondary needed depth, and they didn’t waste any time. Safety Adrian Wilson will have every chance to prove he can still play. Having a veteran like Wilson not only helps with communication, it also helps with play recognition. Veterans that still have the physical ability to contribute tend to be the players that push teams over the top. Tavon Wilson also showed promise in 2012, and he should benefit the most from the addition of Adrian Wilson, regardless of losing snaps. Cornerback Logan Ryan, a big, physical cornerback out of Rutgers, was also drafted and is expected to play right away. Ryan doesn’t have blazing speed, but he does have good instincts and loose hips, which is crucial for a defensive back. Ras-I Dowling is in the final year of his deal, and everyone knows he is talented, but will he ever stay healthy? This is it; if he goes down again, his Patriots career is most likely over. I’m rooting for the kid because he can play, but if he can’t contribute on the field, what is the point of keeping him?
The Patriots started to rebuild this defense on-the-fly in 2008, and for the first time in a VERY long time, Matt Patricia and his crew has a chance to be the big brother and carry the offense to another Super Bowl. New England won three titles with defense and mistake free football; it is time to return to their roots.
*Statistics Provided by ProFootballReference.com
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