These Patriots they are a-changin'

These are not your Daddy's Patriots. Kisha Tapangan looks at how the Patriots have changed (for the better) in 2011.

Another season and another playoff run for the New England Patriots. This time around though, it has been a very different road, a road full of change.

Looking at the how the Patriots offense and defense rank amongst others in the league, it's a startling difference. Other than rushing yards (which ranks 20th), every other aspect of this offense ranks in the top three.

On the defensive side though, it is a very different story.

Total and passing yards allowed are ranked 31st. Points allowed and rushing yards were also underwhelming. With this in mind one has to wonder, how a team with a struggling defense made it to within just one game from a chance at the championship title. The answer is a series of carefully made adjustments on both sides of the ball throughout the season.

Flexible wide receivers, defensive backs and a change in offensive targets were just some of the keys to the Patriots' winning record.

Wide receivers can play defense

Matt Slater was a fifth round draft pick for the Patriots in 2008 and a year later Julian Edelman was drafted in the seventh round. What these two players have in common is one thing: versatility. In a receiving corps that includes Wes Welker and Deion Branch, earning a starting spot as a receiver wasn't going to be easy. Edelman and Slater took advantage of all opportunities available and at the beginning of the season; both were finding a place on special teams.

But it didn't stop there.

As the season continued and the injuries piled on, Edelman was on field for defensive snaps. It was as if he was doing his best impression of former Patriots and versatile player Troy Brown. It was a hit on Jets' running back LaDainian Tomlinson that really made Edelman a convincing defensive player.

Many wondered early in the season as to why Matthew Slater still had spot on the starting roster. With a rookie year that was a little bit of everything, most people weren't sure where Slater would be a perfect fit. In 2011, Slater was voted by his peers to be the Special Teams Captain. Slater led the Patriots in special teams tackles with 17 in the regular season and was also a defensive starter for three games.

In the win against the Indianapolis Colts, Slater started at safety in which he was able to make solid tackles and force a fumble.

Slater -Wilfork
New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) celebrates with Patriots defensive back Matthew Slater (18) after recovering a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown against the Washington Redskins in the first quarter at FedEx Field. (Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE) 12/11/2011

Devin McCourty, a viable Safety option

Devin McCourty was a standout cornerback during his days at Rutgers University. After a unexpectedly stellar rookie year, McCourty has found himself struggling to play at the same level in his sophomore year. With this in mind, defensive backs coach Josh Boyer focused on McCourty being an effective defensive back instead of just a cornerback.

Boyer explained to ESPNBoston exactly what makes Devin McCourty such a great option to put at safety,

"You have to have a little bit of range, and you have to be kind of a physical player, being able to step up in the box. Devin has done all those things at points in time for us in the season."

McCourty is a smaller built cornerback which has become an issue in situations where he is playing man-to-man coverage against receivers who have two to three inches taller over him. What makes McCourty such a flexible defensive back is that he has the ability to read the ball very well and as a safety, it gives McCourty more space and opportunity to make adjustments for the necessary stops.

McCourty has only two interceptions this season but his total tackles have increased.

It is unknown if McCourty will stay at safety for the remainder of the playoffs, but in his short time in the position, he's been one of the more successful ones.

Gronkowski set the NFL single season TD scoring record (17; 16 receiving, 1 run)
Changing targets
There has always been a place for great wide receivers in the Patriots offense. Wes Welker, for example is having the best season of his career with 122 receptions for 1,569 yards. But among the receivers, Welker is the only one this season who has managed to still be one of the main targets for quarterback Tom Brady.

The other main targets, surprisingly, are a pair of tight ends.

Bill Belichick has been waiting for players like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to come along, it was just his luck that were both in the same draft class.

Gronkowski has become one of the best tight ends in the league and the Patriots offense has successfully adjusted the system to get the most out of the 2010 second round pick. With an NFL record of 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, Gronkowski is the new breed of tight end.

Not to be overlooked, Aaron Hernandez has also been a unexpected jack of all trades. From blocking to making catches and, as of last week, running the ball, Hernandez has made himself indispensable to the Patriots offensive scheme.

Between Gronkowski and Hernandez, it has become somewhat of a "pick your poison" scenario for opposing teams. One has the blocking ability of a linebacker while the other can work an open field like a large but agile wide receiver.

This paired with the Patriots' hurry-up offense has been effective in dismantling some of the best defenses in the league.

As the Patriots prepare for the defensively dominant  Baltimore Ravens, it'll be a true test to see if these changes are enough for a trip to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. New England has the offensive advantage with Tom Brady and his various options for receivers. The Ravens on the other hand, have an above average quarterback in Joe Flacco and the majority of the firepower is literally on the back of veteran running back Ray Rice.

Sunday's AFC Championship game will be the perfect time to prove that the Patriots have changed for the better.

Kisha Tapangan is contributing writer for Patriots She also manages the blog Necessary Roughness with Kisha. She can also be found on twitter @KishaT. Feel free to email her your thoughts here.

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