Originally written on 60 Max Power O  |  Last updated 7/25/12

They were the 31st ranked defense, not a Bill Belichick hallmark tradition. However, numbers don’t always tell the whole story. The defense was good enough to help get to the Super Bowl, but not good enough to win it. The New England Patriots defenses, during their 2003-2004 Super Bowl runs, were the prototype Belichick defense.

In 2009, the trades of Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour signaled the end of that era, and the beginning of a new one. Belichick has maneuvered through three drafts, searching for his next great defense.

2012 could be the year the new Belichick defense breaks out, and form it's own identity. Vince Wilfork leads the charge, the rock in the middle of the 3-4, Wilfork isn’t only a leader in sprit, he’s the best player on the defense.

His ability to play nose tackle, or slide over and play end gives Belichick valuable versatility. Brandon Deaderick should move in to right defensive end and own the job. Immature his first year, Deaderick made huge strides and was a consistent contributor.

Jonathan Fanene comes in from Cincinnati, and is the favorite to win the left defensive tackle spot. Belichick is looking to get more production in the pass rush department for his defensive line. Fanene had very good numbers for limited play, but could never crack a very good Bengal front four.

The linebacker position has gone through an overhaul since 2009. In 2012 however, Belichick has the skill sets needed to go back to his hybrid and play it effectively. Jerod Mayo leads this group; his play will set the standard of which all others will play. He can play the middle in a 4-3 and the weak side, or inside linebacker in a 3-4.

This type of versatility will be on display with the arrival of rookie Don’t’a Hightower, who also plays the combination above. Hightower is a difference maker, and will challenge Brandon Spikes for playing time. Spikes only plays on the inside, so expect Hightower to move to outside linebacker, keeping Spikes on the field and giving the Patriots the best options for their rotation. Spikes is one of the emotional leaders on the defense; he fires the players up and holds that intensity level. Rob Ninkovich is a solid, hardnosed player who has come a long way from his transition from tight end three years ago. He reminds us of Mike Vrabel, an endless motor who makes up for a lack of top notch skills with smarts. He anticipates well, and is a good pass rusher.

Rookie Chandler Jones, the top draft pick in 2012, will assume the roles of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson as a pass rushing linebacker in a 3 point stance out of the 4-3. He may get some time playing up in a 2 point stance, but the Patriots have enough in that department that Jones can develop over the season. Dane Fletcher is an underrated player who is a lot like Ninkovich - smart, plays hard, and in Fletcher’s case, can also play inside linebacker in the 3-4, middle in the 4-3, and outside in both sets.

Devin McCourty, the left cornerback, is looking to rebound after a disastrous 2011. In 2010, McCourty was at All-Pro level, but regressed badly. The Patriots are counting on him to rebound and be the ball hawk he was in 2010. Kyle Arrington will battle for the right cornerback slot with Ras-I Dowling. Arrington showed the NFL in 2011 that 2010 was no mistake by having a very good year and ending as the Patriots best corner. Dowling has what defensive coaches drool over, size (6-2), speed, and instincts. Before a season ending hip injury, Dowling was the starter at RCB, and played like a veteran. He battled Brandon Marshall in the 1st Miami game and came out the winner.

We think we’ve seen enough of Patrick Chung to say he’s a solid safety, but probably has hit his ceiling. That isn’t a bad thing; he’s a physical in-the-box safety that could be miscast as a split safety. He would be more effective if the Patriots can solve the missing piece next to him. Steve Gregory, who came in form San Diego, will most likely earn the other safety spot. The Patriots love his versatility, but can he be a play maker?

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