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Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Updated: August 8, 1:37 PM ET
Can Patriots' defense become elite?

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Cornerback Aqib Talib sees mostly the same faces when he looks at the New England Patriots' defense. At the same time, he notices a major change.

"We're getting our calls out a lot faster. Bringing the same defense back, we're kind of on the same page," he said Wednesday following the team's joint practice with the Philadelphia Eagles. "We still have a lot of work to do, but it's going, definitely picking up a little bit."

Aqib Talib
Aqib Talib says the continuity in the Patriots' defense should be a big plus this season.

The continuity in personnel has the Patriots starting at a higher point than they were at this time last year.

"It always helps because we kind of get through the playbook a little faster when you bring guys back," said Talib, one of the club's 10 offseason award winners. "Now we can just work on our checks, work on getting lined up, and know where your help is. You kind of learn the extra stuff about the playbook."

Continuity and development of young, promising defenders doesn't make for sizzling headlines, which is why the Patriots' defense mostly has flown under the radar in training camp. More of the attention has been on the receiving corps and all the changes there, in part because it's a more intriguing storyline.

But would anyone argue with the thought that it is actually the defense that will be the most important key for the Patriots in 2013?

They need 2012 first-round draft picks Chandler Jones (end) and Dont'a Hightower (linebacker) to capitalize on what Bill Belichick earlier described as a "double growth" opportunity (physically and mentally) for players making the Year 1 to Year 2 jump. Jones and Hightower were solid as rookies, but have potential to do more, to be game-changing difference-makers.

The Patriots need captain Vince Wilfork, still looking strong in his 10th season, to pair with fellow mountain-of-a-man Tommy Kelly (6-foot-6, 310) at defensive tackle to provide force at the heart of the line of scrimmage.

They also need relentless 2012 leading sacker Rob Ninkovich to keep creating havoc off the edge, linebacker Jerod Mayo to continue serving as the all-around, do-it-all glue guy at linebacker, and hard-hitting inside 'backer Brandon Spikes (another forced fumble Wednesday) to keep chopping wood.

If it sounds familiar in the front seven, it's because it is, the primary changes from last year coming at defensive tackle (Kelly in, Kyle Love/Brandon Deaderick out) and with top draft pick Jamie Collins the first linebacker in the mix when there is a substitution (he's been more of a finesse-type coverage player to this point).

It's similar in the secondary, where last year's entire top group returns, with a developing competition at safety (Steve Gregory versus free-agent signee Adrian Wilson) and a lingering question on whether starting right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard's legal issues will end up as an early test of the team's depth.

Because there are many of the same players as in 2012, the expectation level within has been raised.

"We don't come and think 'it's a fresh start.' We know we have some type of foundation and it's up to us," said safety Devin McCourty, a two-time captain entering his fourth NFL season. "We have to push ourselves. We can't allow ourselves to make simple mistakes out here; we're not a first-year unit out there. Even the new guys are older guys, like Adrian [Wilson]."

As Talib explained, the Patriots pride themselves on being a game-plan defense, meaning they vary their approach on a week-to-week basis. That runs counter to his initial years in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he was part of a Tampa-2 scheme and things didn't vary as much.

"No matter who we play, we don't know what we're going to do until the week of the game," Talib said. "It's tough to play in New England, period. You have to have thick skin to play out there. Stuff changes. You have to learn on the fly. You have to learn quick."

If things unfold as desired, the Patriots might be able to dip into new parts of their defensive playbook, a result of their continuity and the projected development of personnel. Having hybrid players such as Ninkovich (6-2, 260), Jones (6-5, 265) and Hightower (6-3, 270) creates flexibility to provide different looks to an opposing offense, among other things. And, in the secondary, the continuity is widely viewed as a positive.

So the question remains: Could the Patriots, perhaps in a throwback to their Super Bowl championship roots, be a top defense? It's a question that hasn't been asked much in training camp, a result of so much attention placed on the receiving corps. But it just might be the most important question of all.