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So much about last season's Patriots was perfect, or nearly so: a Tom Brady directed offense that led the league in scoring, and at one point didn't turn the ball over for a record 28 straight quarters; a ball-hungry secondary, led by first-round pick Devin McCourty, that helped New England intercept an NFL-high 25 passes. And yet all along there was a flaw, rudely revealed by the Jets in their stunning 28--21 second-round playoff victory in Foxborough. The defensive line.
Vince Wilfork, the space-eating 29-year-old nosetackle, was at his best, making a third Pro Bowl. But one man, even a 325-pound one, does not a stout defensive line make, and not one of the assorted journeymen and no-names with whom coach Bill Belichick attempted to bookend Wilfork did much of anything. The Patriots' pass rush ranked 14th in sacks during the regular season, with 36, but that was largely a result of the opportunities provided to it by the offense: Opponents threw the ball against New England more times than they did against all but one other defense, because they were so often playing from behind. The Patriots were 11th overall in run defense but just 16th in yards allowed per rush. On Jan. 16, Rex Ryan's Jets ran straight into the mouth of the Patriots' defense and found all gums, rushing 29 times for 120 yards, including 66 yards on 17 attempts directly up the middle. Not only did Mark Sanchez, the Jets quarterback, avoid being sacked; he also wasn't even hit, not once.
Belichick has addressed that weakness by stocking his line with a full set of gleaming, oversized canines. For a time in August the Patriots' training camp roster featured no fewer than 19 defensive linemen, who weighed a combined 2.8 tons, stood a total of 119 feet and five inches tall and forced anyone attempting to fill out a depth chart to write very small. The most singularly notable aspect of this revitalized line, though, is its quality.
The biggest of the line's additions, the 6'6", 335-pound tackle Albert Haynesworth, has the potential to be its most impactful. Haynesworth spent the last two seasons as an exorbitantly paid and disgruntled pariah with the Redskins, but that recent history allowed Belichick, in late July, to acquire a 30-year-old, two-time All-Pro with the talent to be the NFL's most dominating defender for a song—a single fifth-round draft pick—at a base salary of just $1.5 million. The acquisition of Haynesworth represents an exceedingly low-risk gamble. If the opportunity to play for the league's most recently successful franchise fails to gruntle Haynesworth, then Belichick can cut him, with little lost. If Haynesworth proves gruntled, then Belichick has himself one of the best pairs of interior linemen in league history. "Being able to play with a guy like that is unbelievable," says Wilfork, clearly pleased with the prospect of having some help. "I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully we can get some good things going."
Haynesworth's acquisition represented only the beginning of New England's refortification of its defensive line. Eleven days later Belichick signed the durable veteran end Shaun Ellis, 34, away from the Jets, for whom, in 11 seasons, he registered 72½ sacks—a dozen of which came against the Patriots during the regular season, and two more of which came against them in last season's playoff game. On that same day, Aug. 8, Belichick signed 32-year-old Andre Carter, the chiseled owner of 66 career sacks, including 11 playing next to Haynesworth with the Redskins just two years ago.
Belichick's acquisition frenzy should provide him with a significant talent upgrade as far as his defensive linemen and also the ability to be unusually versatile in his use of them. The nature of his new personnel suggests that the Patriots will shift away from their long-favored 3--4 defense to a 4--3, but the cagey coach, revealing more of his intentions than is typical, told reporters that he plans to constantly shift between the two alignments. "How, strategically, we want to move guys around and put them in certain alignments or how to configure them relative to certain formations and tie it in with coverages and things like that—I think there's flexibility there," he said.
Belichick's new charges seem, for now, willing to submit to whatever their coach asks of them, in his and their pursuit of perfection. "Whatever they want me to do, I'll do," says Carter. No team, of course, is perfect, but the Patriots seem closer to perfection than any other in the NFL, and with their greatest flaw turned into a strength and no obvious drop-off elsewhere, they are much closer to it than they were last season. For them, the fifth 14-plus-win season and the fifth Super Bowl appearance of Belichick's 12-year tenure should constitute a mere starting point.
WITH 2010 STATS