We’ll get a little peek at the rebuilt defense
Finally, the National Football League gets to peek behind the Patriots’ curtain.
Well, for however much Bill Belichick cares to show.
When the Patriots host the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium in their first preseason game tonight, you can bet the NFL universe will be studying very closely what Belichick’s guys are doing on defense.
Everyone knows the New England offense. Even with the addition of receiver Chad Ochocinco, the Patriots will do what they do: spread you out, move at a fast pace, sprinkle in some well-timed runs, and let Tom Brady exploit any seams in the defense.
But the defense? Oh, there’s much to discover.
Is it a 3-4 or a 4-3? Or is it a hybrid front with game-to-game adaptability? Maybe all of the above.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. You succeed in this league by having more players who win down to down. Scheme is nice, but execution is what carries the day. And that starts with talent.
It has been nearly seven months since Belichick had his troops on a football field to play in a game. With no players at his disposal until the lockout ended, it was just Belichick and his assistant coaches, with reams of film and statistical information, and boatloads of time to fill inside the One Patriot Place Laboratory.
Belichick and his staff have pored over the most mundane minutiae to address the team’s biggest weakness in 2010, which was without question the defense.
It’s not hard to imagine that reviewing the final product last season made Belichick sick to his stomach.
Allowing opponents to convert 47 percent of third downs - the worst mark in franchise history since 1972, when John Mazur and Phil Bengston combined on a 3-11 team that allowed 50 percent - will do that to you.
(When you factor in defensive penalties that allowed third-down conversions - some of which are not always counted - the Patriots actually allowed 49.3 percent.)
Considering what he’s been up to in personnel acquisitions and on the field, it’s a good bet that Belichick couldn’t wait to wash the stench of 2010 off his hands.
Tired of having to scheme up something so his defense could apply pressure to the quarterback, Belichick set out to stock his front seven with players who could beat the men in front of them, or at least command a lot of the offensive line’s attention.
The Patriots had two last year: Vince Wilfork and Mike Wright. That’s not close to good enough.
Enter Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Mark Anderson, and Andre Carter. Even Steve Williams, who remade his body after being exiled to the Canadian Football League, has been an impressive pass rusher wherever they line him up in practice.
And keep an eye out for Eric Moore, Rob Ninkovich, and the surprising Marques Murrell on the edges of the defense. They have stood out in pass-rushing drills in camp.
No more holding people up and sneaking a player in on a rush. These Patriots are aiming to get upfield off the snap of the ball. They are going to dictate the battle at the line.
The Patriots had three big problems with their third-down defense last year, which slid from 12th in the league (37.1 percent) in 2009.
They were last in the league in three different areas: conversions of 10 or more yards (31.5 percent) and 4 to 5 yards (60 percent), and had a league-high 35 third-and-1 situations.
In ’09, the Patriots ranked 25th (24.1 percent), 11th (40.6 percent), and tied for fifth (21) in those categories.
A pass rush will certainly help in third-and-longs. But so will tighter coverage.
Too many times last season, the Patriots were vanilla in the secondary. They bent a lot, but didn’t break, and they got an inordinate amount of turnovers, which saved their bacon.
With cornerback Leigh Bodden out for the season, Belichick was left with rookie Devin McCourty and an undependable trio of Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler, and Jonathan Wilhite at corner, and a safety rotation that was a bit of a circus. Brandon Meriweather got benched, Patrick Chung couldn’t stay healthy, Jarrad Page never was a factor, and James Sanders was a wily but nonthreatening veteran.
Well, Gillette Stadium has run out of vanilla, because that’s over. For the most part.
In McCourty and Bodden, the Patriots have two standout starting corners that have given Brady & Co. fits in practice. Arrington is playing with much greater confidence, and has the inside track over Butler for the nickel spot.
At safety, Chung is healthy and flying all over the field.
As for Meriweather, well, the aggressive nature of this new defense is going to make him sink or swim. A huge season is there for his taking.
As for the other two problem areas - third-and-medium yardage and short yardage - the large lumber acquired by Belichick should help there as well.
Those third-and-5s have to be pushed to third-and-7s. And a team can’t survive being in third-and-1 situations on 17 percent of third downs.
It can’t happen again. That’s why the Patriots have positioned themselves better on the line. Not just to rush the passer, but also to be better on the first two downs to set up the improved pass rush and the excellent coverage they should get in the back.
These are the well-laid plans that Belichick hopes will enable the Patriots to scale the NFL mountain once again.
We just might not see it in action tonight. Several key players won’t play because of injury, and Belichick may play things close to the vest.
He knows the rest of the league will be watching to see his response to last season. As will we.