Lost in the discussion of the all the fuss being made over the the Patriots offense is the fact that their defense is quietly one of the more interesting aspects of this football team heading into Sunday’s opener in Buffalo.

The problems they dealt with last season are well documented.  They averaged 271.4 passing yards per game allowed, but clamped down when it came to keeping teams out of the endzone after finishing tied with the Texans for the 9th spot for points per game given up.  Surprisingly they even finished tied for 5th in interceptions, which after hearing people constantly complain about how bad that unit was last year seems hard to believe.

Looking at what transpired early on last season, one of the biggest problems they had were giving up the big play in the passing game.  Through the first eight games they gave up 14 pass plays of over 30 yards, including five for over 40 and two of over 50.


Aqib Talib is battling for a big payday after this season.
(USA TODAY Images)

The second half of last year they allowed a total of seven, which was obviously a big improvement and it’s one of the reasons why they found themselves, once again, in the AFC Championship game.  You can obviously point to the acquisition of Aqib Talib, but it’s fair to say that it was also a product of guys finally settling into their roles and getting better with their overall execution.

Getting pressure on the quarterback is also something that has seemingly been an issue, but looking a little closer while they were ranked 15th in the league with 37 sacks last season, they were actually tied with the Super Bowl Champion Ravens with that total and just one behind the Ravens’ opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, who finished the year with 38. This preseason New England has looked fairly decent in that area, with Brandon Spikes (2 sacks), Rob Ninkovich (1.5 sacks), Tommy Kelly, (1.5 sacks) and Chandler Jones (1 sack) each having some early success. Hopefully that will carry over as they get ready to begin the regular season.

As we know, those two areas obviously directly affect each other. So if they can prevent those early on this year, they’ll hopefully avoid dropping a couple of early games the way they did last season.  In two of their first three losses in 2012 they gave up 3 plays of over 40 yards in each one, both of which were on the road to the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks. Playing on the road is tough enough, but giving up plays like that just makes it that much more difficult.

They’re in better condition this time around. Talib has a full season under his belt and having come back on just a one-year deal he’s in a contract year, so he should be at the top of his game. His acquisition stabilized the secondary last season and his presence seemed to take some of the pressure off of safeties McCourty and Steve Gregory.  For McCourty, after struggling early on at corner last season he moved over to safety and essentially played Patrick Chung right out of a job.  Now he’s quietly become one of the better safeties in the league and it will be interesting to see how he grows as a player this year.

From there we’ll see how well Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington handle the additional defensive back spots, although Dennard’s future is a little murky at this point due to his current legal woes. Rookie Logan Ryan had a good preseason and finished leading the team in tackles with 14, and also had four passes defensed, including an interception he returned for a touchdown. So he’ll probably also factor into the mix.

In the end it would be great if they could just shut everyone down, but that’s obviously being a little unrealistic.  According to head coach Bill Belichick, he’ll just be happy keeping points off the board.

“The most important thing on a defense in my opinion is points,” said Belichick this week. “So, we’ll do the best we can to keep the points down. That’s the number one thing. All the other things that come off of that may be important but they’re less important than points. We’ll start with points and then try to do everything we can to give up as few as possible.”

EJ MANUAL TRYING TO FOLLOW  WHO BEAT BELICHICK

Obviously the Patriots are trying to avoid losing their opener against Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.  Only four rookies have been able to do that during Belichick’s tenure, although it’s happened in three out of the last four years with Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald pointing out yesterday that Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Mark Sanchez (2009), Colt McCoy (2010) and Russell Wilson (2012) are among the players who were able to accomplish that.  We talked about the Patriots giving up the big play and Wilson is a name that comes to mind, as he beat them with a 46 yard throw with just over a minute to go in week six last season.  Hopefully the Patriots have better luck against Manuel and keep his name out of this mix this week.

BRONCOS FOLLOWING PATRIOTS PACE

Denver went to a fast paced no-huddle offense in the first half of their meeting against the Rams this season, and it seems they’ll be doing more of that this sesason.  With Wes Welker in the mix it’s probably safe to say he shared some of the elements that New England used to make them so efficient and effective, and it appears they plan on using the higher altitude to their advantage, which makes it even tougher for teams to keep up.  Head coach John Fox said that after their loss to the Patriots last season that they ‘kind of stole it’ from them.

“You want change of pace,” Fox said. “Just like a pitcher — you don’t throw all fastballs. The good ones throw different speeds. They throw curves and sliders and changeups. That’s the trend. Call it the ‘Chip Kelly Effect’. We fell victim to it a year ago in New England. We kind of stole it from them, really.”

PATRIOTS AMONG THE TOPS IN UNDRAFTED ROOKIES:

Every year the Patriots rely on finding diamonds in the rough in undrafted players, and are among the top of the list in total number of players.  They started the year with seven, trailing just the Cleveland Browns, who have nine.  From there it’s the St. Louis Rams (5), Atlanta Falcons (4) and the Houston Texans (4).

TURNOVERS THE KEY TO PATRIOTS SUCCESS

This is stating the obvious, but the big key to the Patriots success is clearly going to be making sure Tom Brady is as efficient in not turning the ball over as he’s been in year’s past, although it’s going to be a little tougher with all the inexperience at the receiver position.  We saw one interception this preseason that happened after being unable to come out of a pattern, and that’s something they’ll clearly need to avoid.  A stat from the Herald yesterday morning pointed out a interesting stat, and that was the fact that in Brady’s 14 years in the NFL he’s played in 84 turnover free games.  The Patriots are 78-6 in those games.  He threw just 8 interceptions during the regular season last year, so it will be interesting to see if this new group can help him maintain the same success.

ON TO THIS MORNING’S LINKS:

PATSFANS.COM:

TWO WAY STREET: Patriots at Bills – Derek Havens – In this new weekly feature Derek Havens looks at how the Patriots could win or lose this weekend.

Player to Watch: Chandler Jones – Steve Balestrieri – Balestrieri spotlight’s Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones for this week’s game.

Two Way Street: How the Patriots Can Win or Lose Sunday – Derek Havens – Havens has a good piece this morning on how the Patriots could win or lose their opener in Buffalo this Sunday.

Five Things to Look For: Patriots vs Bills – Russell Goldman - Goldman has his things to look for, and wonders if the Patriots can stop Bills tight end Scott Chandler.

PODCAST: Patriots at Bills - The guys got together on Wednesday for this week’s edition of our podcast, so be sure and take a listen.

BOSTON HERALD:

Pats ‘D’ has a complex – Jeff Howe

EJ Manuel faces tough 1st test in Bill BelichickRon Borges

Notebook: Aaron Dobson not in dark on film work  – Jeff Howe

Three areas of focus for opener – Matt Chatham

BOSTON GLOBE:

Now batting, the 2013 New England Patriots – Adam Kaufman

NOTEBOOK: Aqib Talib praises Bills’ Stevie Johnson – Michael Whitmer

Words With Frenz mailbag: Examining Shane Vereen’s potential impact in Week 1 – Erik Frenz

Earning Tom Brady’s trust is no easy feat - Shalise Manza Young

Why the Patriots offense is so dominant – Ben Volin

Patriots’ popularity unharmed by rocky offseason – Callum Borchers

Can Aaron Dobson be the one for Patriots? – Shalise Manza Young

ESPN BOSTON:

Examining Patriots-Bills connections – Field Yates

Sharing some NFL opening thoughts – Mike Reiss

YAHOO! SPORTS:

Notre Dame finds offseason ally in Bill Belichick - Dan Wetzel

PROVIDENCE JOURNAL:

It’s time for Patriots defense to show its mettle – Paul Kenyon

PORTLAND PRESS HERALD:

Just like that, Mulligan’s cut - Mike Lowe

ENTERPRISE NEWS:

PATRIOTS NOTEBOOK: Kelly realizes he’s a long way from Oakland – Glen Farley

ATTLEBORO SUN CHRONICLE:

DT Kelly looking on the bright side – Mark Farinella

Not a long wait for Cole - Mark Farinella

GO LOCAL WORCESTER:

What to Watch For: Patriots at Bills