Patriots Defense, Not WR Biggest Issue Entering Camp

With training camp getting ready to kick off on Friday morning at 9 a.m., most of the talk is that the biggest issue facing the team is who will step up and catch the ball from quarterback Tom Brady in the revamped wide receiving corps.

While it is certainly a major priority, it is not the most important issue facing the 2013 Pats. The offense will definitely need time to sort itself out and until those new receivers find a comfort level with Brady, the offense may start off the season slowly. But Brady is the great equalizer, he’s won Super Bowls with wide receivers that didn’t set the world on fire and can do so again.

The New England defense needs a big second year jump from Chandler Jones in 2013 (SBalestrieri photo)

The New England defense needs a big second year jump from Chandler Jones in 2013 (SBalestrieri photo)

The biggest need for the Patriots on the eve of starting training camp is having a championship caliber defense that can close out tight games and especially when the offense scores less than 20 points. Since the Patriots last Super Bowl win after the 2004 season, the Patriots are 5-21 when scoring less than 20 points with the last win coming on December 20, 2009 in Buffalo.

Brady has been forced to outscore opponents to win and when the offense doesn’t light it up on the scoreboard the Patriots invariably lose. The team needs to build a defense in the 2003-04 mold. Those teams were physical, had playmakers at each level and always forced the opponent make the fatal mistake at crunch time.

Since the great players from those teams have left, the Patriots have struggled to replace them and in the case of Willie McGinest, are still looking for his replacement. They feel that the 2013 version of the defense may be able to recreate that 2003 team’s magic on defense.

2003 Team, A great place to start- Perhaps the best Patriots team to ever take the field was the 2003 team that went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl over the Carolina Panthers. It was a fantastically balanced team with a superb defense and a underrated but opportunistic offense.

The leading receiver of that Patriots team was Deion Branch with just 57 receptions and the two leading rushers, Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk had 642 and 638 yards respectively.

Of course Tom Brady was leading the offense and he was best in the biggest of games including the Super Bowl. But it was the 2003 defense that defined the team.

Defensive Line Depth-The Patriots of 2002 finished 9-7 and couldn’t stop the run, so the 2003 team brought in veteran Ted Washington who became a force against the run, allowing Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green and Bobby Hamilton to clean up. That defensive front was deep and could all make plays.

The Patriots of 2013 have their huge run stuffer and gap eater Vince Wilfork. What they’ve lacked is the ability to consistently rush the passer. Last season they drafted Chandler Jones who had an outstanding start of his rookie campaign before an injury slowed him down the stretch.

They’ve since added Tommy Kelly from the Raiders and Armond Armstead from the CFL for interior pressure to go along with Rob Ninkovich and now with added depth players Justin Francis, Jake Bequette and Jermaine Cunningham, the pass rush should be much improved.

’03 Linebackers Outstanding-The linebacking corps of ’03 was perhaps the best, deepest group the Patriots ever fielded. McGinest, Mike Vrable, Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer, Rosey Colvin as well as super sub Matt Chatham were an outstanding group who could stuff the run, cover and blitz the quarterback. All of those players had big plays in big games and the defense’s front seven was the best in pro football.

The 2013 roster has a ways to go to be as productive as playmakers as their earlier brethren but have an extremely solid group of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower as starters who are excellent in run stopping ability but struggle in coverage.

But the team added top draft choice Jamie Collins who can cover as well as blitz off the edge, Steve Beauharnais in the draft, as well as the return to health of Dane Fletcher who can cover in sub-packages.

They have the ability to mix and match and show different fronts and confuse the offense’s blocking schemes and disguise the blitzes they want to bring from all points on the field.

Ty Law, Rodney Harrison Hallmarks of Secondary- The secondary of 2003 with Law and Tyrone Poole at corner and Harrison and Eugene Wilson at safety were a fantastic group. Utterly fearless and extremely physical, they pounded opponents into submission.

After the absolute mugging they gave the Colts wide receivers in the AFC Championship game, Indianapolis’ Bill Polian, who just happened to sit on the NFL Rules Committee, instituted rule changes to take away the advantage the Patriots had.

The Patriots were 15th in yards allowed passing, but opponents had a QB rating of just 56.2 against New England, easily the best in team history and outstanding in any era.

The 2013 version of the Patriots secondary finally came together in the second half of 2012. The team traded for Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay and rookie corner Alfonzo Dennard rose from a 7th round draft pick to a solid right cornerback. This allowed Devin McCourty to move to safety, immediately stabilizing the back end of the secondary.

The one big weakness of this group was that it lacked a true strong safety, a physical, in-the-box intimidator who can be physical with tight ends but still cover. Enter Adrian Wilson, like Harrison did 10 years ago, Wilson comes with plenty of experience and questions on whether he can still play at a high level.

Wilson is a five time Pro-Bowler who is built like a linebacker. Like Harrison, he’s a fierce hitter in the box and immediately makes the middle of the field a place where opponents will no longer look to as their own.

Conclusions- The Patriots need to build their defense to be a top ten unit again if they are again plan on going deep into the playoffs and be a legit threat to win the Super Bowl. The big pieces are in place but there are still holes that needed to be filled.

They now have a nice blend of youth and experience and have playmakers at every level of their defense, much like their 2003 team. However if they are to be truly compared to that unit, they’re going to have to prove it on the field.

The opponents in the AFC East have all improved in 2013, none of the games are a guaranteed win. Each one will be a battle, which in the long run may serve the team better. If they have a successful season, it will go a long way in making them hardened for the playoff run.

They have a long, long way to go but if they are going to model themselves after anyone, the 2003 team is a good unit to turn to.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or @PatriotsCentral

Listen in to our Patriots Central podcast with co-host Jeremy Dawson and myself as we bring you some of the best Patriots news and interviews. Our latest was with special guest, former Pro-Bowler and Patriot Deltha O’Neal. You can listen to it here: