- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Part of Bill Belichick's brilliance is taking the complex and simplifying it. It is reflected in the straightforward, no-frills motto he preaches to players: "Do your job."
So in Belichick-type fashion, let's cut through the many layers of the 2012 New England Patriots to identify the singular key to their season.
It's all about the D.
Surely, the concerns along the offensive line are real, but will anyone truly be surprised if things ultimately work out just fine there? We've been down this road before with that group. And chances are the same is true with the changing of the guard at running back, as well as the thinned receiving corps.
The offense should be fine. It usually has been under quarterback Tom Brady's direction.
But the D? Not so much in recent years, despite Belichick's early-career reputation as a defensive wizard.
So as the Patriots prepare for Sunday's season opener in Tennessee against the Titans, it makes most sense that all eyes will be focused on a revamped unit that could finally put the "D" back in New England. There have been encouraging signs that this season won't be filled with some of the problems that have recently dogged the unit -- namely third-down struggles (28th last year, 32nd two years ago), inconsistent pass-rushing, leaky coverage and, most painfully for the club's followers, the inability to close out Super Bowls when the opportunities were there for a playmaker to rise up to do so.
The optimism starts with first-round draft choices Chandler Jones (the 6-foot-5, 260-pound, playmaking, athletic, long-armed, pass-rushing presence at right end) and Dont'a Hightower, the 6-3, 270-pound burly linebacker whose versatility highlights what probably best defines the unit -- the ability to play any scheme at any moment because of the flexibility of personnel.
So this isn't the 2009 defense that was more of a pure 3-4 alignment. It's not the 2010 unit that might be best described as a hybrid 3-4/4-3. And it isn't a direct facsimile of last year's 4-3/5-2 package, although that's probably what it most resembles with one caveat -- there are more wrinkles in this year's scheme.
"During the NFL season, you can't just stay in one particular thing because everyone is looking at what you do, week in and week out, and if you get hurt by something, another team is going to try it on you. So being able to adjust, change things and be versatile as a defense is a big thing for us," said veteran Rob Ninkovich, who was classified as an outside linebacker in 2011 but is now viewed more as a defensive end.
"You just can't make yourself one thing, and I think that's the best thing about what we're trying to do."
The other aspect that represents a shift for Belichick is targeting more athletic players who excel in space. It's arguably the most revealing comment Belichick made this year, acknowledging that the Patriots aren't in their base defense as much as they used to be (34 percent of the time last season), so it makes sense to target and prioritize players who will factor in most in the passing game.
In keep-it-simple Belichick fashion, he said, "The bigger they are, the slower they run." And he didn't want "slow" in 2012. He wanted speed and quickness in passing situations, which is why the defense is stocked with players in the 250- to 275-pound range, as they generally are more active in the passing game. There are 10 defensive ends or linebackers on the roster who fit that profile.
"As the game changes, defenses need to change as well. It's part of the evolution process," said the 260-pound Ninkovich, the starter at left end opposite Jones. "The more passing that's going on, there are going to be more nickel and dime situations -- more pass-rushers, getting-after-the-quarterback mentality. That's what we're going to."
Some might say the Patriots are a little late in adopting such a mentality, that the shift could have been made a few seasons ago. It's a fair debate, one in which both sides could make a compelling case.
It's not as if the old defense didn't have its moments. Last season's much-maligned unit had a knack for forcing turnovers, and that shouldn't be overlooked. It also was stingy in the red zone, but it simply conceded too many yards and had trouble getting off the field on third down, which are issues the Patriots want to decisively bury early this year.
"We can't start off like we did last year, letting up too many yards off the start of the season," Ninkovich said. "We have to play well from the first game and give us the confidence to continue to improve toward the end of the year. Obviously everything goes together -- rush and coverage, and coverage and rush -- so when you can get all that together, working at its best, that's what we want to do."
There is danger in trying to read too much into the preseason, but the new-look unit showed that optimism for a more decisive defense might be warranted. While it has almost become cliche that the NFL is now a "passing league," Ninkovich was quick with a Belichick-type response on that topic.
"You can't play this game without defense," he said.
He's right, and they are playing it differently than they have in the past. Of all the questions surrounding the Patriots, this is where it starts.
It's all about the D.
For the Patriots, it's all about the defense, plain and simple.