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Are Patriots Better Defensively?

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Aqib Talib will return to the Patriots in 2013 on a one-year contract. Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images.
Aqib Talib will return to the Patriots in 2013 on a one-year contract. Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images.

The Patriots thought they had it all figured out in 2012. A patchwork defensive backfield had seemingly come together at the start of last year with the addition of Steve Gregory, a safety from San Diego, to start opposite Patrick Chung.

Then the Patriots selected safety Tavon Wilson from Illinois in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft. An insurance pick was made — one that could have turned into a liability — in the seventh round of that same draft in Alfonzo Dennard.

But through the first six weeks of the regular season, that defensive backfield was among the worst in the league at giving up passing plays of over 20 yards. Even after the team acquired Aqib Talib and transitioned Devin McCourty to safety, the Patriots still finished the regular season 29th in the league in passing yards allowed to opponents, and 25th in total yards allowed per game.

What was clearly missing last year, and in other years past, was a veteran presence. McCourty served as the de facto leader among a young and relatively unproven group in 2012. Now, even though he is new to the squad, safety Adrian Wilson brings his invaluable 13 years of NFL experience to the position.

Wilson, listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, may be the frontrunner to win the strong safety job, but at the very least will play a huge role in coverage situations as a linebacker. His physicality is unmatched, and he brings a dimension to New England the team hasn’t known in years – the ability to rush an opposing quarterback from the defensive backfield.

It certainly helped when Talib re-signed with the Patriots after being traded from the Buccaneers in 2012. This offseason, Talib agreed to a one-year, $5 million contract to stay with the Patriots, presumably as the top corner.

In 2012, Talib intercepted one pass with the Patriots (which he returned for a touchdown against Indianapolis). He also missed some time with an ankle injury as the regular season was winding down. But if he can stay healthy, he’ll do a lot more damage, especially against the AFC East’s inexperienced quarterbacks.

Talib and Dennard paired as starting corners could prove to be among the best duos in the conference. And the Patriots were ecstatic to sign slot corner Kyle Arrington back to a four-year deal.

By drafting Rutgers buddies Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, the Pats ensure some more up-and-comers in the system. Harmon is expected to play a role on some special teams situations, but Ryan could see the field in prevent packages and on plays with added defensive backs.

Even getting Dane Fletcher back from injury, and drafting Jamie Collins and Steve Beauharnais, helps boost the linebacker corps in terms of pass coverage.

Predictably Dennard and Talib will start at corner, while McCourty and Adrian Wilson will get the safety spots. But between Tavon Wilson, Harmon, Ryan, and Arrington, the Patriots appear on paper to have a much deeper and effective defensive backfield than last year.