Patriots re-tool for another Super Bowl run

Photo courtesy of gazettenet.com

Photo courtesy of gazettenet.com

Each year, the NFL preseason brings newfound optimism and hope to almost every team in the league. That optimism does not always translate to success, but for the New England Patriots, seemingly every season is “Super Bowl or bust.”

The backbone of New England’s success early in the millennium was a tenacious defense. As much as the national media focuses on glamor positions, such as quarterbacks, championships are still won in the trenches and on the strength of dominant defense. No matter how great a quarterback is, even the Tom Brady’s,Peyton Manning’s, and Drew Brees’s of the world can be neutralized by a great defense. In those cases, the rest of the team needs to step up. Teams like Seattle and San Francisco can still pull out a win if Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick have a bad game.

As for New England, their recent championship drought can mostly be attributed to an over-reliance on Tom Brady. The defense has not been as feared as it was during the Super Bowl years. This year, the Patriots believe they have improved their defensive front to return to the mountain top. While they have certainly upgraded some areas, they may still need some additional help in other areas to truly field a championship-caliber defense. In the secondary, the weakest link in coverage (after Brandon Browner returns from suspension) is the strong safety position, currently slated to start Duron Harmon. Fortunately for New England, they may not need to ask much from their strong safeties in terms of pass coverage because of the presence of Browner, Darrelle Revis, and Devin McCourty. The team seems satisfied with allowing whoever plays strong safety to play closer to the line of scrimmage.

At linebacker, Jerod Mayo returns to bolster a unit that was exposed against the run and pass at times after Mayo was placed on injured reserve. Dont’a Hightower returns after a successful sophomore season against the run though he is still a work in progress in pass coverage. The biggest difference is Jamie Collins. Collins came on strong late in the regular season and into the playoffs as a moveable chess piece for Bill Belichick. Capable of rushing the passer on occasion and covering most tight ends in man coverage, Collins adds an element not present to New England’s linebacking corps last year with run-stuffing Brandon Spikes contributing almost nothing against the pass.

The biggest question mark for the defense is the defensive line. Vince Wilfork’s strong suit has always been his work against the run, but even that had started slipping even before his severe injury last year. He can still hold his own at the point of attack, but rarely does he penetrate into the backfield or beat a double team the way he could in the past. He’s still a useful player that can help a defense and play nose tackle in the hybrid defense, but he’s going to need more help around him.

Next to Wilfork, first-rounder is Dominique Easley, a rookie with plenty of upside if he can fully recover from severe knee injuries sustained in college. Otherwise, Chris Jones was one of the least effective defensive tackles in the NFL last season both against the run and as a pass rusher. New England fans better hope Jones is not thrust into extensive action when the games matter most.

At the defensive end positions, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are among the best in the NFL in run defense, but neither is a dominant pass rusher (don’t be fooled by Jones’s 11.5 sack total). In the Patriots’ hybrid defense, these two will actually see time at linebacker, but their roles will not be drastically different except for some occasional pass coverage.

New England has plenty of reason to be excited about their “new-look” defense, but I still wonder if they have the pass rush necessary to slow down the best offenses in the game.What they had last year was not nearly enough to get any pressure on Denver in the AFC Championship Game, and they seem to have improved all areas of their defense except pass rush. They hope their other additions are still enough for a fourth Super Bowl victory.

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