The single most important question about the 2009 New England Patriots--bigger than questions about Tom Brady's knee or who replaces Mike Vrabel--is whether or not their revamped defense as a unit can get a stop and get off the field when it counts. They couldn't in the 2006 AFC championship game against the Colts and they couldn't the following (near-perfect) season in the Super Bowl against the Giants. Those two failures allowed come-from-behind scoring drives that cost the Patriots at least one and probably two championships (unless you really think the Bears would have been any more trouble for the Pats than they were for the Colts, who beat Chicago handily in Super Bowl 41). But this off-season New England has moved aggressively in hopes that the devastating, heart-breaking, late game drives that ruined the ending of 2006 and 2007 won't happen again.
There are two methods for improving defensive units--the either/or approach or the both/and model. In the either/or mode, a team can significantly improve either its pass coverage or its pass rush. For example, by improving the pass rush a team can hope that its secondary won't have to cover receivers as long. Or, by fixing the secondary coverage, they can give pass rushers more time to get to the quarterback since his receivers will be covered. The other method is to improve both the pass rush and the pass coverage in hopes that the two will be mutually reinforcing: that better coverage gives pass rushers more time to work and that better pass rushing means that airtight pass coverage forces quarterbacks to take a sack, throw the ball away, or force a throw to well-covered receivers.
The 2009 Patriots have clearly opted for the both/and model.
FIrst, they made a dramatic upgrade in the secondary, signing Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden and drafting Darius Butler and Pat Chung. Those newcomers, joined with returning vets Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders and second-year men Terence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, should give New England dramatically better pass coverage than last year. There is both more depth and more talent. Upgrades all around.
But the Patriots didn't neglect the other side of the both/and equation. Thursday's trade for Derrick Burgess showed that they did not want to depend solely on better pass coverage to hide weaknesses in the pass rush. Burgess will likely rotate in various packages and schemes as a 4-3 end (when New England lines up that way) or as part of the mix with Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, Tully Banta-Cain and perhaps others at outside linebacker in the base 3-4. Burgess should represent a significant addition to a pass rush that was seemingly non-existent last season. A healthy Burgess--and that's really the key, isn't it?--should also be an upgrade over the 2008 version of Mike Vrabel, just as Bodden and Springs are a marked improvement over Ellis Hobbs and Deltha O'Neal. If Woods or Crable--either or both--are ready for a break-out season, they could join Burgess and Adalius Thomas coming from the other side to give New England a fierce pass rush--maybe not Steelers-quality but probably good enough given the Patriots' excellent defensive line and improved secondary to represent a vastly improved defense.
But remember, the Patriots can't merely improve their defense over 2008. That should be easy--but it won't be enough. What they have to do to add more hardware to the trophy case is to improve enough as a unit to be able to do what neither the 2006 nor 2007 Patriots defenses could do: get off the field late in the game so Tom Brady can take a knee and lock up another title. Whether or not the 2009 Patriots defense can reach that level is really the question that matters most. More than any of the other questions, the answer to that one will determine whether 2009 joins 2001 and 2003 and 2004 as one of those magical championship seasons or whether somewhere crucial--in the playoffs or the Super Bowl when a stop has to be made, when the defense has to make a play and get off the field--the defense instead gives up play after play and costs New England another shot at a championship.
We can talk about individual players or specific positons on defense but unless both the pass rush and the pass coverage are much better, the defense as a unit is not going to able to make those crucial stops in the clutch that lead to championships. Derrick Burgess won't and can't do it all himself and won't be asked to. But his addition combined with the improvements in the defensive backfield is a huge step toward putting a championship-caliber pass rush and pass coverage--in other words, a truly powerful defensive team--on the field in 2009. We won't know the answer to this most important question ultimately until January or February 2010. But the aggressive way the Patriots have pursued the both/and strategy for fixing the defense shows that they realize that half measures and stop gap solutions won't work and that the defensive shortcomings of recent years have to be fixed if the team is going to win another title in 2009.