Optimism with Patriots' defense

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
12:55
PM ET
Last week, Mike Reiss passed along a piece (along with additional thoughts of his own) from Gregg Rosenthal, the editor of the "Around the League" blog over at NFL.com, that examined the Patriots offensive line as an area of concern.

As a follow-up, Rosenthal recently published a piece that examines an area of optimism for each team heading into the 2012 NFL season.

For the Patriots, Rosenthal selected the improvement of the defense -- based off what it looks like both on paper and thus far during preseason practices and two exhibition games.

Breaking it down based on the "three levels" of defense, here's a sampling of our thoughts on the defense from what we have seen thus far.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The line received a surge in athleticism in the addition of first-round pick Chandler Jones, who has looked sharp so far in camp. He appears ready to bookend the line with Rob Ninkovich, who has shed the linebacker title in favor of playing more from a three-point stance (although head coach Bill Belichick noted that Ninkovich has really always been, and remains, an end-of-the-line player). Behind those two, the Patriots have a spattering of potential backups, including Jermaine Cunningham, Trevor Scott, Jake Bequette, and even Brandon Deaderick, who also may be used on the interior of the line. Inside, things are built around hulking nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Wilfork remains a defensive anchor, and both Kyle Love and Ron Brace have impressed too.

LINEBACKERS
A trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont'a Hightower looks to be the focal point of the Patriots' linebacking corps, with the three SEC products combining toughness, athleticism and physicality in the middle of the defense. The Patriots are not stacked with depth behind them, as Dane Fletcher has been lost for the season with an ACL tear, leaving Bobby Carpenter, Jeff Tarpinian and Niko Koutovides as top reserve candidates. Carpenter has versatility, while Koutovides and Tarpinian are more established as special teams players. With the aforementioned starting trio in tow, however, the Patriots have a chance to be stout versus the run.

SECONDARY
The area that will be most closely focused on this season is, of course, the secondary after a trying season in 2011. The early returns have been solid, as the pair of Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory seems to have developed a chemistry at the safety spot, while Kyle Arrington has been active from the cornerback spot. Arrington will be joined by Devin McCourty and likely Ras-I Dowling as the starters at cornerback (note: given how much sub defense is played in the NFL, it seems appropriate to think of Dowling as a starter), and each has flashed during points of training camp. Look for rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner to play critical roles at safety, and Sterling Moore to contribute at corner as well. As Rosenthal mentioned, this group has looked better in limited action than it did in 2011, and that's a good sign for the Patriots. One key storyline to monitor is the health of safety Patrick Chung, who left Monday night's game with a shoulder injury and is not expected to play tonight.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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