New England Patriots: Five Ways to Replace Aaron Hernandez’s Production

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5. Back to the Future: A Strong Defense

Dec 30, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones (95). Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

When the Patriots were winning their Super Bowls, there was one constant: the Bill Belichick / Romeo Crennel defense that played physical, aggressive defense and shut down the best offenses in the game. Over the years, the defense has been carried by the offense until it finally hit critical mass between 2009 and 2011 when the young players brought in to replace the aging Super Bowl squads and washed out and devolved into having to try and outscore teams like the early 2000s Indianapolis Colts teams.

This is the first season in a while the Patriots have continuity in the defensive backfield, with a defined role at safety for Devin McCourty and starting cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard together at the position through training camp.  The secondary also includes holdovers at safety (Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, and Nate Ebner) and cornerback (slot corners Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole, and a finally healthy Ras-I Dowling).  They also brought in safety Duron Harmon and cornerback Logan Ryan to inject some youth to the position in the 3rd round of the draft.  The biggest move was free agent safety Adrian Wilson coming to New England, where he is expected to (four years later) take on the empty crown as veteran leader of the secondary that has laid unused since future Hall of Fame safety Rodney Harrison retired.

The Patriots linebackers all return with the starting three SEC group of captain Jerod Mayo, hard-hitter Brandon Spikes, and rookie sensation Dont-a Hightower together again.  Add in the return of top back-up Dane Fletcher from injury and three draft picks–2nd round pick Jamie Collins and 7th round picks Michael Buchanan and Steve Beauharnais–and there is a solid, deep, athletic core at linebacker again in New England.  Last year, the defense finally seemed comfortable to get aggressive with the linebackers when the secondary was stabilized after acquiring Talib and starting Dennard, so expect to see more linebacker stunts and blitzes (beyond run blitzes–actually going after a quarterback) like viewers saw more of in the second half of last season.

Finally, the defensive line stands to be much improved with the return of All-Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and a healthy Chandler Jones at defensive end.  Swiss army knife defensive end Rob Ninkovich is back, last year’s surprise contributor Justin Francis, and rookie hybrid linebacker/defensive ends Jamie Collins and Michael Buchanan could work their way into playing time at his spot.  The team returns pass rushing defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, and much is expected out of second year defensive end Jake Bequette (at least more than the “nothing” he contributed last year in his “redshirt” season).

At defensive tackle, the Patriots finally went out and got a veteran tackle to take some pressure off of Wilfork in free agent Tommy Kelly from Oakland. They picked up intriguing prospect Armond Armstead from Canada where he was playing to prove his health after heart-issues at USC, and bring back interesting prospect and last year’s undrafted free agent surprise, defensive tackle Marcus Fortson to add some pass rush ability to the front four that did not exist last year with since released big bodies Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love.

With the continuity in place on the defense, and the athletic skill players brought in this offseason, it may finally be the season that the Patriots defensive coaching staff is comfortable enough with the players to dump the “bend but don’t break” overly conservative philosophy.  The Patriots defense should be able to start to get back to the aggressive, mixed coverage, multi-front, quarterback confusing, switching looks from 3-4 and 4-3 during the game from series to series and play to play if need be style that were a staple of the Patriots defenses in the early 2000s.

With an improved defense, the Patriots will be in position to alleviate any concerns about offense with the loss of tight end Aaron Hernandez and the reworking of the style while integrating new receivers into the mix this year, as was long overdue.  This Patriots team will be different from 2012, but different is not always bad.  With growth on defense, an offense built to attack the field deeper than previous squads, and a strong running game, the Patriots look to continue to be the best team 1 through 53 in the NFL and compete for the championship again.