by Bruce Allen
If Tom Brady hadn’t gotten hurt, you might not even have noticed it so much this season.
With his injury however, more attention is being paid to the defensive side of the ball, and even then, it’s not getting a whole lot of attention.
Don’t look now, but almost the entire Patriots defense is being remade. It’s getting younger, faster and more athletic. The growing pains are there, we’ve seen them. This sort of transition is going to have its bumpy parts, but the move is being made nonetheless.
At linebacker, for years the starters seemed to play the whole game, every game. For a long time it was Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel, with Willie McGinest alternating between outside linebacker and defensive end. When Phifer, Johnson and McGinest all either retired or went elsewhere, Junior Seau came on board for the last two seasons. Only Bruschi and Vrabel remain today, and they were joined last season by Adalius Thomas. During those years, the only young linebacker to see the field was Tully Banta Cain, and he was allowed to leave via free agency, being deemed not worthy enough to keep around.
This season, we’ve seen three young linebackers get regular playing time on the defense. First round pick Jerod Mayo has already made himself a fixture in the middle beside Tedy Bruschi, and undrafted free agent rookie Gary Guyton has been a third down regular, even coming in and playing for Bruschi on occasion. On the outside, third year man Pierre Woods has broken into the rotation, subbing for Vrabel and Thomas when they need a blow. The fact that these young players are on the field says a couple of things, first Bill Belichick realizes that his veterans aren’t always going to be here, and needs to get them rested while they are still playing, and second, he feels that these younger kids can do the job. They wouldn’t be on the field otherwise. The speed of Mayo and Guyton on the inside has already had an impact, and many times you see Mayo downfield, having already done his job pursuing the ball with his speed, trying to make a play.
In the secondary, the Patriots lost Rodney Harrison for the season, and possibly for good a couple of weeks ago. While Harrison was on the field for almost every play this season up to that point, fourth year man James Sanders had established himself as the other starter at safety. Sanders doesn’t always make the spectucular play, but his teammates rave about his knowledge of the defense and his ability to make calls and lead the defense. Second year safety Brandon Meriweather is now the other starter, and after breaking into the rotation towards the end of last season, Meriweather has shown the results of his offseason work at catching the ball, coming up with a team high three picks thus far. Sander is a free agent after the season, but the Patriots may look at he and Meriweather as the future of the safety position going forward.
At the cornerback position, three first year players, Mike Richardson, (a 2007 draft pick who was on IR last year) Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite saw significant playing time last week against the Rams. Granted, a lot of that had to due with injuries to starters Ellis Hobbs, Lewis Sanders and Deltha O’Neal, but the three youngsters at least held their own back there. They’ve got a lot of work to do, but these kids aren’t going to gain the experience they need by sitting on the bench. It’s not ideal, but at least they’re getting their feet wet out there.
A lot has been made about the poor drafts that the Patriots have had the last few season. But consider that they have these players with three years or less of experience contributing on defense: Woods, Mayo, Guyton, Meriweather, Antwain Spann, Richardson, Wheatley, and Wilhite, plus Le Kevin Smith on the D-Line. That’s nine young players being worked into the rotation. Third round pick Shawn Crable has yet to see the field, but he’s had Vrabel, Thomas and Woods ahead of him at outside linebacker.
The statement that the Patriots defense is old no longer applies. It’s actually being remade right before our eyes.