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Patriots position by position grades: defense

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  January 29, 2014 09:00 AM

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Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory were a large part of the reason the Patriots' pass defense was better this year. (Barry Chin / Globe Staff)

We are continuing with our series of Patriots grades, position by position, moving on to the defense.

This unit found itself more touched up by injuries over the course of the season, affecting lineups week to week. But somehow, it impressed as the year went along and was able to excel all the way up until the AFC Championship.

Here are the grades for the offense.

Defensive line: C+

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were the unit’s top performers, even before injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly diminished the group’s abilities. Chandler Jones played a team-high 1,142 snaps, and Ninkovich trailed only slightly with 1,114 snaps. Their high performance in the running game overshadowed what they were able to accomplish rushing the quarterback. The Patriots were ranked 30th overall against the run, hurt by injuries and midseason changes. Chandler Jones led the team with 11.5 sacks and Ninkovich finished with 8.

It was clear during the entire season that Ninkovich, who kicked out to linebacker at times in a 3-4 setup, did a tremendous job setting the edge. He led the group with 91 tackles, second best on the team. Rookie Sealver Siliga, who only played 221 snaps, came on after Week 12 and helped shore up the interior run defense. He showed real potential for a future with this team. Fellow rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, each of whom immediately stepped in for Wilfork and Kelly, were much less effective against the run and the pass. Chris Jones finished with six sacks, but every one could be considered a coverage sack. Isaac Sopoaga, whom the Patriots traded for, played in only six games before being a healthy scratch in the final two weeks of the season and the playoffs.

This is a group that will see significant change in 2014 with the return of Wilfork, Kelly, and Armond Armstead, who missed the entire season after being placed on the non-football illness list. Armstead had surgery to treat an infection and was never deemed healthy enough to play. Only Andre Carter, signed midseason to help with the team’s pass rush, is a free agent. Rookie Michael Buchanan will likely get a shot next year and second-year veteran Jake Bequette will have to turn a corner to secure a roster spot again.

Linebackers: B

The defense struggled after losing Jerod Mayo in Week 6, going through a series of changes to adapt to the loss of its leader. Despite missing the majority of the season, Mayo still finished eighth on the team in total tackles with 55. In the end, Mayo’s injury ended up paving the way for the Patriots to utilize their younger group of linebackers who would likely have played more of a redshirt season.

Dont’a Hightower, who finished with a team-high 97 tackles, improved dramatically over the course of the year. He struggled early on, especially against the pass, but ended up being one of the strongest run stoppers on the team coupled with middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (86 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss). Between the two, the Patriots were much more stout against opponents than when they had five defensive backs on the field, usually a sign that either Hightower or Spikes was on the sideline. Spikes only played 694 defensive snaps despite being the team’s top run stuffer because he was seen as a liability in pass coverage. He had been dealing with a knee injury.

Top draft pick Jamie Collins (43 tackles), who was primarily a special teams player in the regular season, saw his snaps increase dramatically in Week 14 as the season began to wind down. He showed some playmaking ability and an ability to get to the quarterback, garnering praise as the season came to a close. Backup middle linebacker Dane Fletcher, used extensively on passing downs and as a starter in the playoffs when Spikes was out, had a much more mild season, never really having a good or bad performance. He had two coverage sacks and finished with 26 tackles. Both Fletcher and Spikes are free agents after this year, giving the Patriots an opportunity to consider how they want to shape the core of their defense.

Cornerbacks: B

Aqib Tailb had a remarkable season, despite missing three games, battling injuries for the second half of the season and getting knocked out of the AFC Championship for the second year in a row. He only allowed three touchdowns all season and picked off four passes while being widely regarded as one of the top cover corners in the game. Alfonzo Dennard was also solid in his time on the field. He missed three games and the majority of another with knee and shoulder injuries. He was one of the Patriots’ top defensive performers, allowing only four touchdowns and holding opposing quarterbacks to a 51.8 completion percentage when thrown in his direction.

Kyle Arrington, the Patriots’ slot corner, was by far the most targeted defensive back. Quarterbacks threw in his direction 98 times through the regular season and playoffs. He managed to hold opponents to a 62.2 completion percentage and six touchdowns. The Patriots saw a bit of boost when rookie Logan Ryan came into the mix, snagging five interceptions and holding opponents to only a 55.9 percent completion rate. Despite troubles in the linebackers group, the Patriots' pass defense was ranked 18th overall after the regular season – a jump from the previous three seasons at 29th, 31st, and 30th. Talib is the sole free agent in the group and is unquestionably the jewel of the bunch.

Safeties: B+

The duo of Devin McCourty and Steven Gregory proved to be more than a solid unit. Their pass coverage, helped mostly by the heady play of McCourty, helped shore up the Patriots’ most eye-popping deficiencies from the prior three seasons. McCourty’s season can probably best be defined by how many times he was targeted in coverage. While playing 1,039 defensive snaps, only 28 passes were thrown in his direction, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He was always in the right place at the right time. Teams were wary of his ability to track down the ball and break up plays. None of the other top safeties in the league saw as few plays in their direction as McCourty did.

Gregory, seen more as the strong safety of the two, was much more likely to miss a tackle (10) than wanted, but helped provide stability in his second season in New England. Rookie Duron Harmon subbed for both McCourty and Gregory when the two went down with injuries. For the most part, he had been consistent across the board in pass and run coverage. He had one blip on the screen against the Houston Texans, missing three tackles, but he recovered nicely.

Second-year safety Tavon Wilson was practically an afterthought, working mostly on special teams. His interception return for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens was the top play of his season. Adrian Wilson, who was placed on injured reserve prior to the beginning of the season, may provide a different look for this group in 2014. Nate Ebner is seen as a special teams-only defensive back. He had eight special teams tackles and two fumble recoveries.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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