Pats manage to rebuild and still win

At one point early in the Patriots' most recent victory, their defensive lineup consisted of the following:

  • Seven players in their first year on the roster, three of whom were rookies

  • Three second-year players, one of whom was leading the huddle

The Patriots were in their dime package (six defensive backs) with rushers Myron Pryor, Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain; linebackers Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton; and Leigh Bodden, Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather, Brandon McGowan and Pat Chung in the secondary.

They were fast, fearless and flying to the ball, which meant they hardly resembled the slower unit from 2008 that often seemed to be in a different zip code from its opponents, especially on third down.

At that moment, one of the early themes of the Patriots' 2009 season became clear: Through seven games, this team has managed to strike the delicate balance between rebuilding defensively and remaining in contention.

"It's what all good organizations do," said former 17-year NFL defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell, who lives on Cape Cod and follows the club each Sunday. "You find a way to keep your team young enough that it doesn't get hurt all the time. Sometimes you look up and see two to three guys that have slowed a step, all in the same year. That's tough. [The Patriots] don't let it happen."

In retrospect, perhaps that's exactly what happened to the Patriots' defense last season, and Bill Belichick was determined to fix it.

It's been so far, so good in that regard.

No question, the next five games will tell us more about the Patriots. It'll be a difficult stretch that unfolds this way: versus Miami, at Indianapolis, versus the N.Y. Jets, at New Orleans, at Miami. By then, we should know how sturdy the defense truly is.

But to dismiss what has happened to this point is to overlook what had been a major preseason storyline: Would the team's defense, stripped of so many veteran leaders, be able to hold up its end of the bargain? Some were predicting trouble, saying the defense only had to be good enough to complement an explosive offense. Yet with the offense sputtering at times out of the gate, the defense has had to be better than that.

Of all the defensive changes this offseason, it has been the unheralded additions of safety Brandon McGowan and Tully Banta-Cain that have provided the most spark.

When McGowan signed a modest two-year contract May 5, few took notice. Banta-Cain's February return on a no-frills one-year deal drew a bit more attention because of his previous stint with the team, but entering training camp he was still projected fourth on the outside linebacker depth chart behind Adalius Thomas, Shawn Crable and Vince Redd.

Both have been revelations, the 26-year-old McGowan setting a tone as the hardest hitter in the secondary (two forced fumbles) while earning a starting role, and Banta-Cain, 29, emerging as the team's top pass-rusher (three sacks), worthy of a contract extension through 2011.

So for all the rightful criticism the Patriots have taken for personnel missteps of late -- a list including Joey Galloway, Greg Lewis, Alex Smith and Kevin O'Connell -- an objective analysis should also include decisive hits such as McGowan, Banta-Cain and rookies like Butler and Pryor, who have contributed immediately.

There are more hits, of course, but the point is that no team aces all personnel decisions. Even with the Patriots' spotty drafts of 2006 and 2007 and disappointing 2009 trades, they remain in the upper echelon when compared with other NFL franchises widely considered the gold standard of personnel acquisition, such as Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Baltimore, Green Bay, Philadelphia and the New York Giants.

Every franchise hits a rough personnel patch at some point. Where the Patriots earn respect is their ability to avoid a Titans-like collapse as they navigate through some of the choppy personnel waters.

"It's a continual process. You're always trying to upgrade, and part of upgrading is getting younger if, in fact, those young guys can play," Sidwell said. "That also helps your salary structure, and I've always thought the Patriots have done the best job since the inception of the salary cap of managing it. They get key veterans and yet they're always looking to make themselves younger without losing any quality of play."

While getting younger has been the theme for the Patriots' defense, not to be overlooked are the roles that veterans Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green and Mike Wright have played on the line. They are tough, talented and physical.

Meanwhile, when second-year players Mayo and Guyton are the tandem at linebacker, it is a combination of speed that has changed the overall complexion of the unit. And the secondary is making a case to be called the deepest and most talented in Belichick's tenure.

There are still questions, for sure, and not everything has gone according to plan (e.g. Adalius Thomas). But during a bye week in which the idea is to step back and assess, few could argue with what has unfolded on defense through seven games.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.