Before the New England Patriots can win another Super Bowl, head coach Bill Belichick needs to rediscover his mojo as a defensive genius. The last time the Patriots had a top five defense was 2007. Since then Belichick's units have tumbled down the NFL rankings. The nadir came last season when the Patriots were ranked next to last in the league.
Keen to reverse this decline, Belichick has added several pieces to a new-look unit he hopes will keep pace with Tom Brady's prolific offense. The question is whether Belichick made the right moves and are they enough?
In April's draft Belichick used two first-round picks to add a pair of potential blue-chippers. First came Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones.The long-armed and cat-quick rush end can occupy the "elephant" hybrid linebacker/end position in Belichick's multiple schemes that used to be performed by Willie McGinest and later, Mike Vrabel.
Belichick has struggled to find an adequate replacement since those two veterans shuffled off into retirement. He will be hoping Jones' athleticism and versatility can provide the answer and allow the defense to morph between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts.
Next came Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The 6-foot-2, 265-pounder was the leader of Nick Saban's complex system and has the smarts to call Belichick's varied playbook on the field.
A rare athelte at middle linebacker, Hightower gives Belichick a playmaker in the Pepper Johnson mould. He is big enough to plug the middle and still quick enough to line up with his hand down and rush the passer.
In free agency, Belichick made two intriguing additions in defensive linemen Trevor Scott and Jonathan Fanene. Scott has the build of a 3-4 outside linebacker and could form an impressive tandem with Jones.
That would enable Belichick to show more 3-4 looks than he did in 2011, when he relied mostly on a simplified version of the 4-3. Fanene is an under-the-radar pickup who could prove very useful.
Ostensibly listed as a defensive end, Fanene's best attribute is the ability to slide inside in nickel fronts and act as a pass-rushing, 3-technique tackle. The Patriots need an interior rusher in passing situations.
Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork are outstanding as run stuffers, but don't offer a consistent pass rush threat. With combinations of Fanene, Hightower, Jones and Scott, the Patriots nickel front could be dangerous this season.
Belichick has added some interesting options and the 2012 version of the Patriots defense will be stronger than last year's 31st-ranked unit. A big problem has been that Belichick has not had the versatile and talented athletes to make his hybrid playbook work.
Fanene, Highower, Jones and Scott all offer flexible skill sets. Belichick will need this new-look front seven to mask deficiencies in the secondary and get the Pats' defense back amongst the NFL's best.685585