Pats' defensive pecking order in focus
Through two preseason games, 11 observations on the New England defense
Following the New England Patriots' two preseason victories, much of the attention has been focused on the team's offense: the promise of rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the revived running game and the remarkable return of Wes Welker, among others.
But what about the defense?
With this in mind, here are 11 things that have come to the fore on that side of the ball through the first two preseason games:
1. Patrick Chung is the clear-cut leader to start at safety next to Brandon Meriweather. The 2009 second-round draft choice, who was selected with the pick the Patriots acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs for Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel, looks like a more confident player. He's been on the field for 62 snaps, and all have come in the first half. That seems to be a clear statement that he's the starter who will get the bulk of the snaps.
2. James Sanders is a veteran who must be wondering about his future. Remember how late in the 2009 season Sanders was credited with being a calming influence in a secondary that had hit a rough stretch without him in the lineup? Sanders was hardly on the field against the Falcons this past Thursday, playing just 13 snaps. With Chung emerging, and Sanders scheduled to earn $2.3 million, Sanders is one of the team's veterans who could be swung in a trade.
3. Brandon Spikes is getting starter-type respect. In what could be a sign of the coaching staff's plans to have Spikes in the starting lineup, the rookie inside linebacker has been utilized much like a starter through two preseason games, playing primarily in the first half (66 snaps, 58 in the first half). The 2010 second-round draft choice stepped in when Gary Guyton injured his knee on the fourth day of camp, and it might be hard for Guyton to wrestle the job back from him.
4. Tyrone McKenzie's standing, on the other hand, is tough to read. When training camp began, one line of thinking was that McKenzie would be part of a three-player competition with Spikes and Guyton for a starting spot at inside linebacker. But in the first two preseason games, the 2009 third-round draft choice watched as rookie free agent Dane Fletcher and seven-year veteran Eric Alexander came onto the field before him. Some might say that's because Fletcher and Alexander are playing more on the weakside, but as Bill Belichick pointed out Aug. 15, the inside linebackers are cross-trained at both positions. Also, Alexander led the huddle when paired when McKenzie, which seemed curious.
5. Questions remain about the ability to consistently generate pressure out of the four-man rush. There were promising early signs against the Saints when outside linebacker Marques Murrell (two starts, 70 snaps played) sacked Drew Brees on the third play of the preseason opener. The outside linebacker spot is where the Patriots' fourth rusher would most often be coming from, so is Murrell (0 career starts) really the answer? At the very least, he looks like he's jumped ahead of Rob Ninkovich, who was lined up with the first unit on the first day of camp, on the depth chart.
6. Devin McCourty has been as consistent as a rookie could be at cornerback. The first-round draft choice hasn't missed a practice and has played 75 snaps, with all but three of them coming in the first half. Like Spikes, that's starter-type respect.
7. Vince Wilfork's leadership is shining through. It can be a challenge for a nose tackle to be the face of the defense, but that's what has happened with the seven-year veteran. The Patriots had a sturdy front three with Wilfork, Ty Warren and Richard Seymour from 2005-08, but now only Wilfork will be lining up for the Patriots from that group in 2010. The overall depth up front has to be a concern for the team.
8. Bill Belichick is leading the installation. When the Patriots have separated in practice, with the offense on one field and the defense on the other, Belichick has stayed with the defense and been the primary voice. Linebackers coach Matt Patricia has also been a take-charge presence behind the scenes, according to one player.
9. Derrick Burgess is ready to expand his role. Last year, the 10-year veteran mostly played in a three-point stance as a pass-rusher. But Burgess is playing more in a two-point stance this year in more of a traditional outside linebacker role. The Patriots eased him into the mix by playing him just the first three series Thursday in Atlanta.
10. Jonathan Wilhite and Brandon McGowan are the top reserves in the secondary. When the Patriots have called on a sub package in their first two games, it's mostly been the dime (six defensive backs) with Wilhite and McGowan coming onto the field. While that could change when cornerback Leigh Bodden (knee) returns, it's still a sign that they are probably safe on the roster.
11. Gerard Warren has become an important free-agent signing. When the Patriots signed the 10-year veteran to a one-year deal shortly after April's draft, it made a minor ripple. But with Ty Warren landing on season-ending injured reserve, his presence on the defensive line becomes that much more important. So far, so good, for the Patriots when it comes to his acclimation to the team's scheme.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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