Don't look now, but the New England Patriots are starting to find their championship swagger on defense.
That's right. The much-maligned unit that ranked near the bottom of the charts in nearly every statistical category after three weeks has started to show signs of life, and the rest of the league should start to worry.
The return of Haynesworth
The acquisition of Albert Haynesworth was met with great expectations, but numerous injuries during the preseason kept him from making a significant impact. In recent weeks, however, he has started to get more playing time, which has coincided with the Patriots' dramatic defensive improvement.
Although Haynesworth has yet to crack the starting lineup, he has certainly made his presence felt as a situational player. He has been an integral part of their sub package as an interior rusher and his ability to attract double- and triple-team attention has resulted in isolated matchups for the Patriots' edge rushers. Andre Carter, in particular, has benefitted from the attention Haynesworth commands.
Against the Cowboys on second-and-goal, the Patriots utilized a three-man rush with Haynesworth aligned head up over left guard Bill Nagy. He pushed the pocket on a powerful bull rush, which forced the Cowboys to commit three blockers in his direction. With only one blocker (Tyron Smith) left to handle Carter on the edge, the 11-year veteran easily notched his second sack of the game.
Given the importance of winning on third down, the fact that the Patriots are playing well with Haynesworth on the field bodes well down the stretch.
Spikes emerges as a playmaker in the middle
Brandon Spikes missed most of the preseason battling through an injury, but he has started to become a game-changer for the Patriots. Since returning to the starting lineup four weeks ago, he has tallied 25 tackles and made several impact plays in critical situations.
Against the Cowboys, he delivered one of the biggest defensive stops of the game when he snuffed out a shovel pass on third-and-5 with less than six minutes remaining. Spikes shot through the A-gap on a blitz and followed the pulling guard to the intended receiver, Tashard Choice. His instinctive reactions resulted in a big hit on Choice and prevented a potential game-winning touchdown for the Cowboys.
Spikes routinely made those kinds of plays during his time at Florida, and the second-year pro has started to deliver big plays consistently in recent weeks. Some of his success can be attributed to his increased role with Jerod Mayo out with an injury. Bill Belichick has taken advantage of Spikes' intuition and rush skills by regularly blitzing him from all angles. Although he has failed to produce a sack, his disruptive nature has allowed others to make plays in the backfield.
Part of his success can be attributed to his versatility, instincts and awareness. As a cover corner with size, strength and athleticism, Arrington is capable of playing in the slot or outside in the Pats' sub package. He excels at jamming receivers early in their routes, which disrupts the timing of the passing game and produces errant throws from the quarterback. His aggressiveness challenges receivers to make tough grabs under duress, and the persistent contact leads to tips or deflections in the back end.
Arrington has also shown keen timing and anticipation in zone coverage. His ability to quickly recognize routes allows him to routinely jump into passing lanes for easy picks from unsuspecting quarterbacks. Against the Cowboys, Arrington displayed his superb instincts while nabbing an errant pass from Tony Romo on the opening drive. He challenged Miles Austin in the slot before jumping in front of Dez Bryant on an underneath crossing route. While the pressure forced Romo to deliver an errant pass, Arrington's awareness led to the interception.
With the Patriots starting to generate a consistent pass rush up front, Arrington should continue to see plenty of tips and overthrows head into his direction, which should result in a few more interceptions.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.