New England Patriots  

 

New England Patriots poised for defensive renaissance in 2014?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick's well-earned reputation as a defensive mastermind was hatched by his transcendent unit in the Giants' title run of 1986, and burnished by an underdog New York group that put the brakes on one of the greatest offenses of all time in Super Bowl XXV.

It's been a while since the hooded one won that way.

His early New England teams -- the ones that won three Super Bowls in four years -- came off looking like first cousins of those monstrous New York contingents, winning through blunt force and by confronting the opponent and dragging it into a dark alley. Conversely, what the Patriots have morphed into since hasn't even been a distant relative. For the most part, they have been the Bills that those Giants once bullied, or the Colts that the old Patriots used to grind into dust.

And all that explains that why now, entering the 2014 campaign, the pressure in New England is on Belichick himself.

The makeup of the team he has in front of him now feels a lot more like the 2003 or 2004 Pats -- or even the 1990 Giants -- than the New England outfits of 2007 and 2011. Outside of Rob Gronkowski, the offensive arsenal screams workmanlike more than wow, and the defense is where the heavy capital -- in draft picks and salary -- has been spent.

Bottom line: The time is now for Belichick to reclaim his status as the game's preeminent defensive mind.

Based on the rugged build of his team, the counterpart to Tom Brady's offense will need to be better than it has been, and much of that will be on Belichick.

"I think we can be so fixated on what the expectations are, but we got to go out there and do what we can do," free safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty said. "Do our best, and wherever that puts us at the end of the day, I think we have to be happy with that. I think the key for us now is going out there each day and being a good defense, not trying to be a good defense on Sundays, or have one good day out here in training camp, one bad day. It's each day trying to be a dominating force out there on defense."

We've gotten no indication yet on exactly how good they'll be. McCourty joined Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Darrelle Revis and fellow captain Jerod Mayo on the bench in last Thursday's preseason opener (a 23-6 loss to the Washington Redskins).

What we can reasonably say is they should expect to be better than they have been.

After winning back-to-back titles in 2003 and '04, ranking as a top-10 defense in each season, the Patriots sank to 26th in total D during the 2005 campaign. From there, they recovered to finish in the top 10 the next three seasons, and 11th in 2009, before collapsing to end up in the bottom quarter of the league in each of the last four seasons.

Unsaid in those statistics: It's really been almost a decade since the Patriots were better on that side of the ball than on offense.

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Yet in 2014, for the first time in a long time, Brady and Co. should be able to go into games without assuming pinball numbers are necessary to win.

As it stands now, New England has eight former first-rounders on defense, and 15 guys drafted in the top 100. The Patriots had to rebuild at the end of the last decade as Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel left the building, and Brady's excellence bought them plenty of time to do it.

After years of never getting the stops they needed on the biggest stages (2010 divisional round vs. the Jets, Super Bowl XLVI vs. the Giants, 2012 AFC title game vs. the Ravens), last year's group looked like it was on the verge of making the breakthrough that's expected this year.

Through three weeks, the Pats' defense ranked in the top 10. Even as the schedule stiffened, they were a respectable 14th after six weeks. But along the way, the hits started to accumulate. Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles in Week 4. Jerod Mayo tore a pec in Week 6. Aqib Talib developed what he now says was a quad problem (the Patriots reported it as a hip injury), and that limited him for much of the season. And a defense that once showed promise, became patchwork, and was eviscerated in Denver during the AFC title game.

Barring that kind of bad luck, the Patriots should be starting where they left off last September. Mayo and Wilfork are back. McCourty, who spent his first three NFL seasons bouncing around different positions in the secondary, is settled at free safety. Hightower, Collins and Jones are a year older. In general, there are numerous former high draft picks either a) right in their prime or b) nearing the end of their rookie deals.

And then, there's Revis, who a) was the best defensive player on the planet the last time we saw him as healthy as he is now, b) is a guy who was the clear-cut best player on a team that went to consecutive conference title games and c) is still just 29 years old. The Patriots got him because they saw him internally as a "planet" player (Google "George Young" and "Planet Theory") -- the kind of guy, like Randy Moss in 2007, whose rare gifts demand pursuit.

"He's done great things his whole career," McCourty said. "I think it will be no different here, allowing him to do different things that he does well, all those things will help our defense. I think that we'll just continue to let him be the type of player he is and let him go out there, do what he does."

New England also brought in Brandon Browner, a cornerback who, after serving his four-game suspension, can help facilitate a style of play that suits Revis best.

So take all the above and mix it together: What do you get?

A lot of pressure on the Patriots in general -- and Belichick in particular -- to finally put together a successor to the great defenses of their glory years.

Three and out from Patriots camp:

1) An underrated key to New England's success on offense? A clean slate of health for Danny Amendola. There's reason to believe Amendola, in his second season with the Pats, could follow the path that Julian Edelman blazed last year. Over his first four years in New England, Edelman lost 16 games to injuries, and they always seemed to occur just as he was about to break out. He went to Tom Brady's trainer, Alex Guerrero, for help. What he learned was that, while there's always luck involved, you can tilt the odds in your favor. "Football is not just a job, it is a lifestyle," Edelman told me. "As a professional athlete, that is what you have to try to do, stay as healthy as you can. As you know, it is a rough game. The more you can prevent things from happening, the flexibility, having all your muscles fluid and loose kind of like a rubber band, the best results you can get. ... There is a factor of luck. But there is also a factor of knowing when to take a risk on a certain play, knowing a situation in a game. Do you have to go in and take that big hit? Knowing when the journey is over on getting hit. Knowing not to cut back where the big men are. And there's also rest, recovery and hydration." Edelman played 16 games for the first time in his career last year, and caught 105 passes. He referred the injury-plagued Amendola to Guerrero, and the two worked together this offseason.

2) The Patriots' preseason opener didn't shed much light on where the team is headed, but it did give the club a couple areas of legitimate concern going forward. One relates to the run defense, which is unusual for a Belichick team. It's not just the 177 rushing yards the Redskins accumulated on Thursday, but the consistent success they seemed to have running the ball in the team's joint practices last Monday and Tuesday. Tommy Kelly is 33 and Wilfork will turn 33 during the season. The depth up the middle is questionable beyond those two. The Patriots undoubtedly would like to rotate their older big men, which means they'll need to find guys worthy of those snaps in the coming weeks. (Ideally, first-round draft pick Dominique Easley, who is recovering from major knee surgery, gets healthy enough to contribute.) On the flip side, the interior of the offensive line remains an area of concern, with the Patriots having created competition by drafting a guard and a center. The retirement of Dante Scarnecchia, maybe the most respected of Belichick's coaching lieutenants, doesn't help. New line coach Dave DeGuglielmo has big shoes to fill.

3) All that said, with a defense stocked with pedigreed talent, and Brady spearheading the effort on the other side of the ball, this team has the look and edge of a champion -- one that should expect to be back in the conference title game for a fourth straight year. Despite some hand-wringing over his age, the Brady I saw last year was pretty damn good. Don't forget: Brady played part of the year with ligament damage in his throwing hand; the team lost Wes Welker in the offseason and Aaron Hernandez in the summer; and, the offense dealt with uncertainty surrounding Rob Gronkowski all year. If No. 12 isn't directing the unit, do the Pats rank third in scoring or seventh in total offense? No way. This year, the ship has at least set sail on a steadier course, something Brady conceded when I asked him about it last week. "There's certainly more familiarity within the skill group," the 37-year-old said. "Now we have an opportunity to go out there and try to get a lot of good work done in the preseason games to prepare us for the opener." My guess is that as long as he's under center, New England will be OK on offense. As last year proved.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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