NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
2007 changed everything for the Patriots. A team built on defense and a reliable offense in crunch time morphed into a high-powered, record breaking air attack with the acquisitions of Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
While exciting to watch and dominating for long stretches the 2007 season, it changed the Patriots philosophy on how to win football games. It became less about the defense and more about points on the scoreboard.
For the first time since 2007 the Patriots will have the opportunity to return to their championship philosophy and once again become a defense first team.
Do yourself a favor, go back and watch the Patriots playoff runs from 2001-2004. Pick any game, whether it’s the 16-13 Snow Bowl or the 20-17 Super Bowl win against the high powered Rams or the 24-14 2003 AFC Championship Game against the Colts. All of those games have one constant, the defense won the game for the Patriots.
It’s long been forgotten since the Patriots have consistently put together a record breaking offense the last six seasons. When the Patriots were at their pinnacle, they were there because of their defense. A defense that the coaching staff trusted and a defense where the players trusted each other to do their jobs. A defense that could adapt to any game plan or scheme and a defense that always came up with the big play. Sure the offense was clutch and reliable with the game on the line, but the Patriots don’t come close to winning even one Super Bowl if it wasn’t for the defense. Those defenses were built around an organizational core that Bill Belichick molded, coached up and supplemented with free agents and draft picks where help was needed. The core of the defense stayed in tact and grew together each year. In a league where constant change happens, continuity is a priceless asset.
For the first time in a long time the Patriots return nearly the same defense from a year ago. Ten of eleven defensive starters remain from a defense that flashed real promise as the 2012 season went on.
The last six seasons have seen the Patriots field the best offense in the NFL lead by the best QB in the NFL Tom Brady. Even though offensive records have been shattered, the Lombardi Trophy has eluded the organization. While the Patriots have done a yeoman’s job of rebuilding and retooling the defense on the fly after the loss of icons such as Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour, they have fallen short. The main reason the defense has failed the past half-decade is easy, lack of continuity.
Each year the Patriots enter the season with a multitude of new faces on defense, especially in the secondary. Trying to win a championship with so many new faces is a tough task for any coach. Due to the lack of continuity, talent, and leadership on the team the coaching staff hasn’t trusted the defense.
It should come as no surprise that each season the Patriots defense gets better as the season goes on. We have seen this trend prevail at least over the last three years. The Patriots defense is horrendous early in the season, giving up huge yardage through the air and barely hanging on to win games. As the year goes on the defense progresses to the point where they are at least league average. Later in the season the defense makes more plays, is more aggressive and is more multiple in the fronts they deploy.
The reason behind it is simple. The defense has been a proverbial revolving door the last few seasons. It has taken the coaching staff months just to get all the players in the right positions and on the same page. It takes time for the rookies to learn the coverage packages and even longer until they can implement them on the field. The coaching staff has played vanilla coverages and schemes early on in the season hoping that the offense can score enough points to win the game.
Earlier in the decade the Patriots would enter camp with a defense that is experienced, battle tested and familiar with each other. Instead of spending weeks going over the fundamentals of the games and the nuances of basic coverages they could begin to implement disguises, blitz schemes and audibles early on in camp. This was a tremendous advantage for the organization and one they have sorely lacked the last few years. For the first time in a long time the Patriots defense will enter camp as a cohesive unit and have a chance to be the strength of the team.With the same defense in place this season, the Patriots will have the opportunity to be more aggressive and multiple out of the gate.
Continuity in the secondary has especially let the Patriots down in the past and it’s understandable. Communication and trust of the other defensive backs to do their job is imperative in the secondary. That communication and trust can only be acquired through repetition and game time experience playing together as a unit, something no Patriots secondary has been afforded. Just look at how many names have been shuffled through the CB and Safety positions since 2009. Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Shawn Springs, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Jonathan Wilhite, Brandon McGowan, Pat Chung, and the list goes on and on. When you consider the lack of talent and little time those players had to play together it’s no wonder why they struggled.
Finally the Patriots can enter training camp feeling good about their secondary and the depth they have built. Instead of entering the season as complete strangers the members of the secondary will have some familiarity and will be able to improve communication throughout camp.
The linebacker corps has the opportunity to be the real strength of the team. It’s time for Jerod Mayo to become the vocal and emotional leader of the entire defense. The same way Tedy Bruschi did at this point in his career. With Mayo, Hightower, and Spikes along with recently drafted Jamie Collins and the versatile Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots have a LB unit as deep as any since 2005. The unit as a whole should be much further along entering camp than at any point in recent memory.
The defensive line led by Vince Wilfork and second year stand out Chandler Jones are in a much better position entering this season than last year. Jones, Justin Francis and Jake Bequette all have a full season under their belt. An off-season in an NFL strength and conditioning program will do wonders for some of the second year players.
Anywhere you look on the defense, there is more cohesion and continuity compared to this time last year.
The offense has carried the defense over the last five seasons. The offense will surely be forced to undergo a transition phase of sorts, especially early in the season. It’s time for the Patriots defense, one that has been together for a full season now, to step up and carry the team through the transition phase. The pieces are finally in place and now is their time to take the burden from Tom Brady.