Patriots Take Positive Steps With Defense
by Arjuna Ramgopal
Apr 18, 2013 2:24 PM EDT
Looking at the Patriots defense last season, it was clear improvements had to be made for the team to advance into the playoffs in 2013. While Aqib Talib’s injury early in the AFC Championship game hurt the unit, more has to be done besides keeping Talib healthy.
So what have the Patriots done? Re-signing Talib to a one-year, $5 million deal was key to keeping the secondary from last year intact. Alfonzo Dennard’s prison sentence of 30 days in March next year means he will be available for the 2013 season, barring a suspension from the NFL league offices. These two pieces allow Devin McCourty to remain at safety, his best position, instead of moving back to corner.
But who’s the other starter? Steven Gregory was often paired with McCourty, but it was evident he took bad angles and was not a physical presence. The Patriots added 33-year-old SS Adrian Wilson, a 12-year veteran from the Arizona Cardinals. Wilson could be Gregory's replacement as he fits the traditional free safety mold better than Gregory or McCourty. The former All-Pro is not the top safety he used to be, but he could be a valuable addition as a starter or as a sub-linebacker on passing downs. The Patriots linebacking corps, specifically Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes, struggled in passing downs last season. Taking both of them off and replacing them with a faster player on passing downs could help the Patriots on dink-and-dunk passing situations that teams used to pick up easy first downs last year. Last year's second round pick Tavon Wilson could help out in that role depending on how the coaching staff views him.
The other major defensive addition was DT Tommy Kelly. The nine-year veteran spent his entire career with the Oakland Raiders and was a solid player making the pro-bowl in 2010. While he is 32 and is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the hope is that Kelly can provide an interior pass rush the Patriots have been searching for since trading DL Richard Seymour in 2009. Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick will likely continue to play first and second downs next to Wilfork, with Kelly coming on in passing situations.
Will these changes be enough? That remains to be seen. But a big piece to the puzzle lies in the development of young players such as Hightower, Dennard, T. Wilson, and defensive end Chandler Jones. These players will be entering their second years and will be counted on to contribute. Jones and Hightower were day one starters, totaling a combined 10 sacks during their rookie years. Wilson started games early in the season after injuries to S Patrick Chung and Gregory and recorded four interceptions. Dennard did not play at the start of the season but started after a run of injuries.
If the young defensive core can continue to improve, the Patriots defense should improve as well. While the Patriots could use depth at all positions in the draft, they are not locked into any one defensive position with solid free agent signings. Another year with the same personnel together should result in more cohesion and a better unit.