For Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, improving the defense should be the biggest concern heading into the 2012 season.
The unit made its first appearance in competition against the New Orleans Saints during their preseason opener on Thursday, August 9th. It was 7-6 victory for New England, during which New Orleans recorded 280 yards of total offense and mustered only two field goals.
Now, it is important to acknowledge that NFL preseason results are not always an accurate measure of the players' ability or readiness for regular-season play. Statistics are often skewed due to star players' tendency to watch most of the games from the sideline.
Truthfully, Drew Brees played in just two series in the first quarter and completed one pass.
Instead of letting his short time on the field turn you away from what really happened, consider this. Brees dropped back only four times to pass, and was able to connect on just one of his throws. More importantly, first-round pick Chandler Jones got to Brees on one of his dropbacks and forced the perennial Pro Bowl candidate to throw the football away.
Although preseason play may be a bit misleading, it is also a good chance to see who steps up on an individual level. Who, in limited time on the field, will display being adequately prepared to compete at a high level?
The Patriots should be excited that starting safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory each recorded an interception. The Pats secondary has been much maligned over the past few seasons and deservingly exploited by opponents. However, their job was made much easier on Thursday by the pressure created by former Alabama linebacker and first-round pick Dont'a Hightower.
Add in LB Brandon Spikes when he gets healthy and all of the sudden the pass rush is starting to look a bit more impressive heading into the season.
Thursday's bout did have one sour moment for the Patriots, as LB Dane Fletcher hurt himself in the first quarter. However, he was only starting in order to help Spikes get back into the rotation quickly.
Last year the defense was a large part of why the Patriots failed again to finish off the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. They lacked enough pass rush to disrupt the NFL's best crunch-time QB, Eli Manning, and he was able to pick the secondary apart to take home the NFL's biggest prize.
Throughout the course of the year, the Patriots were the second-worst unit in terms of yards allowed. They gave up 20 or more points in 13 of the 16 regular-season games. The Pats defense simply didn't handle their business and learn from their games with average teams.
Take their third week 34-31 loss to the Buffalo Bills as enough evidence of the issue that would later be the Patriots demise.
Despite the bad numbers and eventual Super Bowl loss, New England still put together a heck of 2011 campaign. The team finished 13-3 in the regular season, and was good enough to squeak past Baltimore in the AFC Championship game.
The Patriots are seemingly a few defensive adjustments away from winning the Vince Lombardi trophy once more. If the effort from preseason Week 1 says anything, it's that the Patriots' young talent brings a lot to the table in 2012, and that the coaching staff's focus seems to be well-directed.
I expect Belichick to have his unit prepared, motivated and hungrier than usual for the start of the season.
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