With five first-round and three second-round draft picks among the 11 starters on their depth chart, there’s no doubting the raw talent of the Patriots’ defense. And with Bill Belichick still heavily imparting his hall of fame wisdom on the unit, it’s usually sound strategically, too.
But coming off a preseason-opening performance in which it didn’t allow a touchdown to the potent Saints, and a sequence of practices in which they played well against their own powerful attack, New England enters its second exhibition in a position to add the third key component of most quality defenses.
Succeed Monday night against the Eagles, and to skill and scheme the Patriots will be able to add swagger.
“I think we’re doing a great job,” said linebacker Brandon Spikes. “A lot of young guys are coming in, making plays. They’re high-energy guys, flying around, (and) that’s great. They’re catching on to the defense and it’s good. We can just build from there, so I think we’re having a good camp defensively.”
Their performance against New Orleans was certainly encouraging, but had to be taken with a degree of realism, considering Drew Brees played only a couple series and the rest of the night the Saints were quarterbacked by a trio of inexperienced backups.
More encouraging, though it counts for nothing, has been the group’s performance in its practice sessions since. Despite going up against Tom Brady and one of the more intricate, precise, productive offenses in the NFL, all reports indicate the defenders have not only been holding their own over this last stretch of training camp – but they’ve actually had the better of the play in most head-to-head drills.
Tuesday, for instance, the defense came up with four interceptions and apparently made the offensive line look foolish up front. Two of those picks came on passes from Brady, both by what at this point appears to be New England’s starting safety tandem of Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory — the newcomer who has arrived from San Diego with a ton of energy, along with what seems to be an instant connection with Chung, and who was consistently around the ball in the Saints game.
“We’ve been flying around trying to make plays on the ball and priding ourselves on working on our communication and things like that,” Gregory said. “It’s been getting better every day.”
Gregory is undersized and undrafted, though his presence so far looks like it has the potential to settle an unstable secondary that was among the worst in football last year. After being forced to play some safety in the playoffs, the additions of Gregory and rookie Tavon Wilson have allowed Devin McCourty to focus exclusively at cornerback, and thus he’s shown signs of being the shutdown-type he was as a rookie. Kyle Arrington continues to be a consummate pro, too, whether in the slot or on the other corner.
Up front, the Patriots generally had less improvement to make than they did in the secondary — but they have been in perpetual need of a pass rusher, and in Chandler Jones it finally appears that player has arrived. Everybody knew he was long, lean and fast, but the polish on his technique has surprised some of those who said the first-round pick was coming out Syracuse as a longer-term project, and it’s now looking like he’ll be a factor at defensive end from Day One. If he can sustain this level of attention-commanding play, it should make it easier for Vince Wilfork to wreck havoc from the middle of the line, and free fellow first-rounder Dont’a Hightower to make plays as a flank linebacker.
With Jones — as with everybody at this still-early stage – it remains to be seen whether this can last, or whether it was simply a good week. And that’s why Monday night marks an important opportunity to carry it forward.
Philadelphia comes to Foxborough having scored the eighth-most points in football last season, and as one of only two teams (the Saints are the other) to rank among the league’s top-10 offenses in both passing and rushing. Michael Vick is adept at doing both, of course, which should test the Patriots’ attention to detail and discipline.
They’ll need to know their responsibilities and stick to the scheme. Also challenged by receiver DeSean Jackson, running back LeSean McCoy and a decent offensive line, their skill will be tested as well.
Succeed with all that, and then comes the swagger.
“Training camp is supposed to be everyone coming together as a unit and working together to try and improve and kind of get to a point where you start the regular season and everything is going, we’re working together and everyone knows exactly what they’re doing and what their roles,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “I think that that’s what we’re doing.”
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The results of the Patriots signing Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps are sure to be interesting — not only concerning what his world-class speed can do in pro football, but what it could mean for the roster construction.
The 4x100-meter relay runner played collegiately at Florida, where he played running back, but his purpose as a professional is expected to be in the return game. And that’s where his impact on others becomes intriguing.
If Demps presents enough value, he could take a spot from Brandon Bolden, the undrafted runner who saw the field before second-year back Shane Vereen against New Orleans. He could also put Julian Edelman’s place in jeopardy, considering the receiver’s biggest contributions have come as a punt returner recently. Danny Woodhead, despite being both a running back and a returner, would seem to be less threatened.
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After its struggles against the Saints, the play of the Patriots offensive line will be in focus again Monday, especially if Brady sees extended playing time — and particularly if Logan Mankins makes his return from offseason ACL surgery. Activated from the physically unable to perform list this week, he was a welcome sight for a line in flux.
“He’s everything we stand for,” said Pats player personnel director Nick Caserio.
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Dave D’Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.