I think one of the factors of the Patriots success this season is being overlooked.  As we know, former defensive coordinator Dean Pees stepped down after the 2009 season. Following that move, head Coach Bill Belichick did not hire a new coordinator. Instead, even though it is not official, he is basically his own defensive coordinator. I feel there are several changes between the defense last season and the current 2010 version, and I believe Belichick is in the process of taking back and reshaping his defense.

Under Coach Pees, the Patriots strength on defense was completely the defensive line. Until Richard Seymour was traded before the 2009 season, the Patriots had one of the best defensive lines in the game. The combination of Seymour, Wilfork and Warren at times were unstoppable. Also, under Pees you had reliable players such as Mike Wright and Jarvis Green added to the mix.

Under Belichick I feel a changing of the guard is happening on defense. I believe now and in the future moving forward the linebackers will be the strength of this unit.  

Take a look at the history of Belichick’s success on defense, and the linebackers have always been emphasized. With the Giants you had players like Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, and Pepper Johnson. With the Super Bowl championship years of the Patriots, Belichick had Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Roman Pfifer, and Willie McGinest.

With both the Giants and the Patriots the defensive lines were good, but I don’t believe they were the overall strength. It was about the linebackers being in position to make plays.

Even linebacker Jermaine Cunningham has 34 tackles this season despite battling injuries early on this season. (PHOTO:Icon/SMI)

The 2010 Patriots linebackers corp is not at that level, but I think they are being groomed in the same model as Belichick’s great defenses of the past.  Look at some of the totals in tackles for the Patriots linebackers this season going into the last game. Jerod Mayo has 169 tackles. Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes both have 61 tackles. Rob Ninkovich has 56 tackles.  Even Jermaine Cunningham has 34 tackles.  

Now, Wilfork is a very valuable member of this defense. But, prior to this season his main objective I believe in the 3-4 scheme is to hold up blockers to allow the linebackers to make the plays. This year we’ve seen Belichick move him around to different positions including occasionally working at the end, and as a result he’s had an excellent season. Aside from his performance, the defensive line is important for the Patriots defense, but I think under Belichick they are going back to being “space eaters”.  Do you remember Bobby Hamilton and Anthony Pleasant in the early part of the decade? It appears to be a similar scheme that is allowing the linebackers to make plays.

Another element to the 2010 Belichick defense is discipline. Each member on defense has a role and are told to do their job. The Patriots defense has given up a tremendous amount of yardage, but how many big plays have they given up?  If an offense wants to score on this defense they need to work their way down the field to score.

Another factor in the reshaping of the defense is the speed and closing ability of the defenders. You are seeing throughout the game defenders flying to the ball.  It seems whenever you see an offensive player with the ball, a Patriots defender is right there to make the tackle. As they’ve gotten younger we’ve seen a lot more speed at that position, which has certainly made them more effective.

Another difference this season I believe is the amount of players who are contributing and playing on defense. The defensive line before the injuries seemed to have a rotation that would be changing in different situations. At one point you might see Wilfork, Warren and Wright. The next play you could see Brace, Pryor, and Deaderick. At linebacker you might see your regular starters on one down, and then based on the situation you could see players like Gary Guyton, and Dane Fletcher in the game. It was a great move by Belichick, since I believe having more players involved in the overall defense keeps this unit fresh. They are getting contributions from many different players on all 3 levels of the defense.

A huge factor into the reshaping of the defense is the teaching that the young players are learning first hand right from Belichick. Instead of learning the defense passed down from Belichick to Pees last season, this year the players are hearing it directly from the source. 

So the next time you look at the defense, think about exactly what has transpired from 2009 to 2010. The defense is once again being molded by one of the best defensive minds ever to coach football, and thanks to Belichick they’re suddenly in position to potentially contend for a championship in the coming weeks.