- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- While the New England Patriots' offense fine-tunes its game plan this week in advance of the regular-season opener against the Buffalo Bills, it will do so in a meeting room sprinkled with new faces.
The much-discussed turnover throughout the Patriots' pass-catching corps has overshadowed the fact that the defense is dealing with a nearly opposite set of circumstances.
In fact, the Patriots return their statistical leader in nearly every major defensive category, with linebacker Jerod Mayo (147 tackles), defensive end Rob Ninkovich (8.0 sacks), linebacker Brandon Spikes (five forced fumbles) and safety Devin McCourty (five interceptions) among them.
Throw in the anchor of the group, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, a pair of upstart second-year players, defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, as well as cornerback Aqib Talib, perhaps the team's best coverage player in a handful of years, and the core of the defense is firmly intact.
Depending on one's view of defensive assessment, the Patriots' defense in 2012 was either a group with plenty of room to improve (they allowed the eighth-most yards in all of football, including the fourth-most passing yards) or better than a cursory view at yardage total suggests, as only eight teams allowed fewer points last season.
While part of the yardage can be attributed to the team playing the equivalent of prevent defense late in games during which they were nursing comfortable leads, the fact remains that the Patriots gave up nearly 6,000 total yards, an undeniably robust amount.
It remains to be seen whether the Patriots' young group of receivers can convert the promise they've shown to this point to production when the games count. But even if that group performs near the standards that departed pass catchers set before them, the Patriots need an improved defensive effort in 2013 to reach their ultimate goal.
After all, it was both sides of the football that let the team down in the AFC Championship Game, as the defense was unable to hit Joe Flacco even once, and the red zone defense was as poor as the Patriots' red zone offense was (the Ravens scored four touchdowns in four trips).
But with the season upon them, members of the Patriots' defense aren't focused on expectations and group goals.
"I'm not big on that," McCourty said of setting goals and expectations. "I think we've got to take it one game at a time and each team will create different challenges, and I think as a defense we have to be ready to go stop teams' best opportunity, best players. And I think that has to be our goal: stop their best players and keep points off the board."
"We're going one week at a time, man," Talib echoed. "We're just trying to win the game that's in front of us."
While the players themselves may not be focused on season-long expectations, it's fair from the outside to set our own view of what this defense is capable of.
While it starts with returning the nucleus of talent, the Patriots also added a capable interior line presence in Tommy Kelly, have coverage linebacker Dane Fletcher back after missing all of last year with an ACL tear and are injecting versatility and athleticism with second-round pick Jamie Collins.
The personnel in place is at least as talented as last year, with depth along the defensive line being one area that arguably has regressed.
But in projecting the starting 12 defenders (given how much nickel defense teams play in today's NFL, a third cornerback is a starter in terms of usage) for Week 1 this year compared to both last year at this time and at the end of the season, the current mix appears superior.
Up front, the Patriots fortified the spot next to Wilfork by adding the sturdy Kelly, whose imposing frame not only lends itself to gap control run defense, but, as we saw this preseason, also churns out interior pass rushing production.
Even more important along the defensive line will be the development of Jones, the team's best pass rusher and a high-ceiling prospect. Jones had bright spots during the preseason and appears to be further along entering 2013.
Many are expecting a superior sophomore season for the 23-year-old Jones.
"You never can be comfortable," Jones said of entering year two in the NFL. "The word I want to use is I feel have a little more experience. As far as going into year two and seeing different looks, it helps you."
It will be up to Jones in particular, as well as Ninkovich, to catalyze the Patriots' pass rush, which generated just 30 sacks during the first 15 games of last season. With just three games of NFL experience behind them on the depth chart, Jones' and Ninkovich's rush production will be under the microscope to aid the secondary and prevent quarterbacks from standing tall in the pocket.
The linebacking corps looks familiar at the top with Mayo, Spikes and Hightower, all of whom are standout first- and second-down players.
While Mayo is likely to stay on the field regardless of the defensive personnel, Spikes or Hightower may not play alongside him in sub packages.
That's an area that, with Fletcher and Collins in the mix, the Patriots have a shot to improve upon. The range of Collins was evident in preseason, while Fletcher is an instinctive linebacker who is used to playing space from his core special teams contributions.
The secondary, an oft-criticized group last season, made notable improvement upon the arrival of Talib at the trade deadline, as they surrendered a Total QBR of 43.2 during the last seven weeks of the season, down from 69.6 before Talib came aboard.
The uncertain status of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in relation to his July arrest (and possible violation of his probation from a previous incident) is a cause for concern, but the Patriots have improved depth in the secondary.
Logan Ryan, a third-round pick this season, will slide into a fourth cornerback role unless Dennard is forced to miss time, at which point he may become a nickel player.
But perhaps the most important aspect to the secondary at the season's outset is the presence of McCourty at safety to serve as the rearguard. There are statistics to confirm McCourty's impact, but beyond the numbers, he allows the Patriots to retool their defensive schemes. His reliability as a deep-field defender gives the Patriots the chance to play aggressively in the front seven and incorporate man-coverage schemes.
The nadir of the Patriots' secondary in 2012 was a downfield throw in Week 6 against the Seattle Seahawks in which Sidney Rice sped past the safety duo of Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner for a game-winning score. With McCourty at safety, the secondary is not nearly as susceptible to vertical shots down the field.
Familiarity is key key
Patriots coach Bill Belichick often talks about individual players making a leap from their first to second year in the NFL, with Hightower and Jones among those that fit into the category this season.
When considering all of the holdovers from last season, this iteration of the Patriots defense can be viewed as entering its own second season.
There is vulnerability if the pass rush doesn't improve, the untested defensive-line depth isn't ready to handle the rigors of the NFL and if Dennard's legal issues take him out of the mix.
But with a bulked-up Jones, the addition of Kelly, a more athletic crop of linebackers and a deeper secondary, this Patriots defense should be improved, both in yardage and points allowed per game.
To allow fewer than 21 points per game is not an easy feat, but in a division that has two potential rookie starters at quarterback, the Patriots have an opportunity to build off of last year's benchmark.
While in previous years there have been questions as to whether the Patriots' defense was good enough to complement the offense for a championship, such talk should be buried this season if this group meets expectations.
Even if it's only those on the outside setting them.
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