For the second straight season since moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3, Vince Wilfork had a great impact, as he was third on the team with 26.5 pressures (sacks declined from 6 to 3.5) and led the team with 21.5 stuffed runs. Combined, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick (25.5 pressures, 26.5 stuffed runs) were slightly more productive than Wilfork, but the Patriots need more from this group against the pass.
Linebackers (3.6 out of 5)
Big jump for this group from 3.1 in 2011 as the two returners, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, elevated their games and made more of an impact, and rookie Dont’a Hightower showed a lot of potential if he can learn the finer points and become more consistent. The starting trio had 7 sacks, 41.5 pressures, and 36 stuffed runs. In 2011, linebackers had 2 sacks, 25 pressures, and 26.5 stuffs. Spikes actually did the best with his opportunities. According to profootballfocus.com’s pass-rush snaps, Spikes got pressure on 19 percent of those snaps, followed by Hightower (16.8) and Mayo (16.1). Mayo is fine in pass coverage, but Spikes and Hightower definitely lacked. The Patriots appear to be a coverage linebacker short (they haven’t had an effective one since Gary Guyton in 2010) of having a great group. The defense as a whole recovered an amazing 21 fumbles — double the league average of 10.
Secondary (2.9 out of 5)
This unit was still the team’s weakest spot, but it showed the biggest improvement, going from 2.4 in 2011. As far as actual numbers, the Patriots improved from allowing 79 passes of 20 or more yards in 2011 to 74 and were still last in the league. Another big area in which they’ll look to improve.
The Patriots have really been hurt by the inability of Ras-I Dowling, the 33d overall pick in the 2011 draft, to stay on the field. He’s a physical freak and can match up with big receivers. But Dowling got hurt again, which forced the trade for Aqib Talib. Getting Talib showed what the Patriots have been missing without Dowling. Talib, rookie Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington gave the Patriots competent cornerbacks.
Moving Devin McCourty to free safety gave the Patriots deep stability for, well, a long time. Patrick Chung’s failings at strong safety were a major disappointment, and forced Steve Gregory to play out of position.
The Patriots improved from 20th in passer rating allowed (84.3) to 17th (86.9), and allowed 38 fewer first downs passing in the regular season. The third-down defense has improved each season from the 47 percent high in 2010 (42 in 2011, 39 in 2012). Yards allowed per pass also slightly improved from 7.1 in 2011 to 6.9.
Special teams (3.5 out of 5)
The Patriots finished 13th in the overall rankings compiled by Dallas Morning News guru Rick Gosselin, with opponent punt average (50.3 yards) the worst mark. Overall, the Patriots improved slightly in opponent kickoff and punt returns (third in the NFL each). Outside of McCourty’s 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Jets, those returns were mostly a disappointment as the Patriots slipped from fourth in the league to ninth. The Patriots had just two returns of more than 30 yards while opponents had eight. Patriots punt coverage was outstanding with one return over 20 yards; the Patriots had six themselves. Zoltan Mesko, who had a punt blocked against Arizona, ranked in the bottom half of the league in average and net, but punters with good offenses are often punished. Stephen Gostkowski, who missed a game-winning kick against Arizona, was 20th in field goal percentage (83; 85 in 2011) and ninth in touchback percentage (46.8). He was 16th in the latter (39.8) in 2011. Matthew Slater once again was selected as the AFC’s Pro Bowl special teams player after leading the team with 20 tackles (12 solo). Rookie Nate Ebner really impressed as the season went along with 17 tackles (14 solo). Linebacker Mike Rivera was also in double digits (12).