Somewhere not too far behind the tale of Tom Brady's return to the Patriots, the biggest storyline this summer in New England was about the complete overhaul the team underwent on defense.
Now, at the unofficial midpoint of the season in the bye week, the unit is basking in an ultimately impressive if still dubiously debated first half of the season. No longer is the discussion about the retirements/trade departures of Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Ellis Hobbs, Richard Seymour and Tedy Bruschi. Now, it's about praising the performances of unheralded contributors like Gary Guyton, Brandon McGowan, Mike Wright and Tully Banta-Cain.
The unit is building around a core of returning young playmakers like Jerod Mayo, Brandon Meriweather and Jonathan Wilhite. Mix in the remaining proven veteran talents like Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, and not even the apparent playmaking demise of expected contributors Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess has taken the air out of New England's early-season defensive balloon.
The Patriots' defensive numbers are improved almost across the board from this point a year ago. The team has been most impressive in two areas that rank pretty high with coach Bill Belichick, as the Patriots rank third in the NFL in both points allowed and turnover ratio. That latter stat, though, is as much about the offense not turning the ball over as the defense getting its hands on it.
One of the interesting defensive improvements, if not the most circulated of statistics, has come on first down. The Patriots rank fifth in the league in first-down yards allowed, improved from 25th at this point a year ago. Opponents' big plays are also down dramatically, especially through the air, as the team has allowed 35 percent fewer pass plays of 20 yards or more (from 20 down to 13).
At times early this fall, the defense was described, even by its head coach, as good enough. Lately it's been better than that. It's been more aggressive and made more plays. There has also been more diversity of both personnel groupings and scheme. A lot has been thrown together, and so far, so good. But there is no time to rest on the limited laurels of seven games of action.
"I think at this point, rather than doing more, it's probably doing it better," Belichick said of the defense's potential evolution over the second half of the season. "I think we've run enough plays that we can always add one or two little wrinkles, but I don't think we're going to drastically change our system at this point.
"Things are always changing, so you try to just keep moving in the right direction and just keep improving, and that encompasses a lot of things. I don't think right now is the time to be happy or sad; I think it's time to analyze where you're at and try to make it better."
Maybe most surprising is the relative success with which the secondary has come together. With four new starters as compared to the opening of last season -- Meriweather, McGowan, Wilhite and Leigh Bodden -- as well as key first-year contributors like veteran Shawn Springs and rookies Darius Butler and Patrick Chung, the defensive backfield has been a fluid group with plenty of looks, plenty of bodies and, so far, plenty of early success.
The big plays allowed and wide-open receivers are down, while the game-changing plays from the group seem to be building.
"It's a good thing that we're starting to make more plays in the back end and starting to get more pressure on the quarterback," Meriweather said of the unit coming together. "I think it's a sign of everybody doing their job."
Now, moving forward with the meat of the season's schedule on the horizon, the key is to keep the momentum rolling. The stretch of games against the NFL's basement dwellers (Tennessee and Tampa Bay) will be replaced by a month of contests against Miami, Indianapolis, the New York Jets, New Orleans.
It's been one solid effort after another through the first seven weeks. The plan is for that mentality and that production to continue moving forward.
"I know I'm going to be facing the Miami Dolphins next," Meriweather said when asked about the tough second half of the season.
The New England defense isn't good enough or proven enough yet to get ahead of itself. But more often than not through seven games, it's been good enough for the team to stay ahead of its competition.
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