Good lord, is it ever time for football to start.
The final days before the start of training camp are reason for joyous, gleeful anticipation every summer but in the case of the Patriots at this particular time, they represent a bountiful oasis in a desert of dullness. The Red Sox’ miserable campaign and the blah offseasons of both the Celtics and Bruins lend even more weight to the notion that the opening of training camp at Gillette Stadium signifies a momentous event. It’s like Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn only with shoulder pads and grass stains.
Every Pats’ training camp bubbles over with optimism, which is to be expected considering the team’s place as legit title contenders year after year. But this year, this camp, feels different. And it’s because of the defense.
Suddenly, the Pats have pass rushers, run stoppers, linebackers who can cover tight ends and backs, safeties who (I think) get the scheme, corners who can actually stay with their opposite number, one of whom is the honest to goodness best there is, and a whole lotta depth. Just look at the names. There’s talent, skill, aptitude, experience and versatility all over the place. Sorry, I have to stop and collect myself for a second.
Looking at this defense as presently constituted calls to mind in some ways the 2004 team. You remember that team don’t you? The last Pats squad to win a Super Bowl? The one that completed a 21-game winning streak? The one with Law, Harrison, Samuel, Bruschi, McGinest, Vrabel, Colvin, Seymour, Warren, Green a rookie Vince Wilfork and so much depth that Troy Brown and Earthwind Moreland played some corner and the unit as a whole barely missed a beat?
Yeah, that one. The best defense, one might argue, in franchise history. That defense finished the year second in points allowed at 260. That’s 16.2 per game. You read that right. It’s OK if you need to take a minute too after reading those numbers.
The 2004 Pats allowed more than 400 total yards to an opponent twice from November on, zero times in playoff games. Not too shabby. Of course, the highlight came in the divisional round, when the Colts and Peyton Manning, who had naturally just won both the league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards, came to Foxborough and posted 276 total yards and three, count ’em, three points. Glorious.
Through the first three weeks of last season, it started to feel like the Pats were finally onto something again defensively. They’d built their fair share of strong units post-’04 and have always done well in keeping opposing offenses off the board (their lowest ranked scoring defense in the last 10 years was the AFC champion 2011 unit, which finished 15th). But last year, it looked like a definitive shift had occurred.
In Weeks 1-3, the Pats allowed a total of 34 points and allowed a measly 309 yards per game. It appeared that the offense, which as we all remember, was completely rebuilt and not at all on the same page, would be able to rely on the D to bail it out from time to time for a change.
And then Wilfork blew out his Achilles in Week 4 against the Falcons, starting a chain reaction of major injuries that would end those hopes. The injury bug didn’t hit the Pats defense last year, it was more like the injury leech and it sucked pretty much all the blood right out of them.
That could all happen again this year of course. There’s no way of knowing if or when that leech will start draining the Pats’ collective blood again. But let’s not go there. Instead, let’s take a step back and gaze with googly-eyed wonder at all the layers of this year’s defense and imagine how good it can be.
Up front, Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are back and healthy. Chandler Jones is 24 years old and coming off an 11.5 sack season, and Rob Ninkovich, one of the most versatile players on the team, won’t necessarily be counted on as heavily to provide pressure from the opposite end should the Will Smith lottery ticket pay off and first round pick Dominique Easley stay healthy enough to bring occasional pressure up the middle. And don’t forget Chris Jones, who was forced to play far more than anyone would have liked last year thanks to Wilfork’s and Kelly’s injuries, and responded with six sacks from one defensive tackle slot. In spot duty, Jones could be a real weapon.
Jerod Mayo will be back to solidify the linebacking corps, which will take some pressure off the still young and still developing Dont’a Hightower, who really struggled at times last year. With Mayo next to him, and if second-year man Jamie Collins shows the same kind of ability and explosiveness he did down the stretch in 2013, Hightower could well be primed to bust out. Having veteran James Anderson, one of the strongest, most underrated moves the Pats made in the offseason, in the rotation definitely won’t hurt either, especially given his skills in coverage.
The secondary really could be where it’s at though, thanks to the arrival of Darrelle Revis. Revis’s skills, talent and exploits are no secret and when you add to that his durability (minus his torn ACL-shortened 2012, he’s missed three games in six years) as well as the fact that he could well be playing for a long-term deal (the Pats hold a $20 million option on him for 2015 and no matter how good he is, if you think they’re paying him that kind of coin, you clearly just got here), well, watch out. The Pats’ other big free free agent signing in the defensive backfield, Brandon Browner, will sit out the first four weeks due to a suspension, but is the kind of big, fast, physical corner rarely seen around these parts and a solid, deep combination of Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and the promising Logan Ryan will spot him until he’s eligible to play.
If there’s one potential trouble spot, it’s at strong safety, where second year man Duron Harmon looks to have the edge. Harmon isn’t that big for his position but he’s quick, a solid tackler and possesses enough good instincts to instill faith that he’s the man for the job of playing next to Devin McCourty. He’d better be, otherwise it’s Patrick Chung redux and, um… yeah, we don’t really want that now do we?
Of course, as it almost always does, it all comes down to health. Should this group avoid that injury leech, it could be a top five defense. You’d have to think that with all the bad luck suffered last year, from Wilfork in Atlanta to Mayo’s torn pectoral in the incredible, last-second, comeback win over New Orleans to Aqib Talib’s second straight shortened AFC Championship Game, some movement back to the mean is in store. And that signifies all the more reason to be so excited about this time of year. Training camp is coming right up.
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