FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Jerod Mayo #51 of the New England Patriots reacts after he sacked Matt Moore #8 of the Miami Dolphins in the second half at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
But with that improvement came a lot of changes. Those changes started at the beginning of training camp, when the Patriots switched the 4-3 base defense. Over the coming months, the Patriots added a lot of new players, but also got rid of a bunch. Before the season, safeties Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, and Brandon McGowan were all released. During the season, the Patriots let go of the likes of Leigh Bodden, Albert Haynesworth, and Phillip Adams. The Patriots were also victims of the injury bug - Pro Bowl defensive end Andre Carter, starting safety Josh Barrett and rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling both landed on injured reserve while key contributors such as Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, Pat Chung, Brandon Deaderick, Shaun Ellis, James Ihedigbo, Kyle Arrington, Dane Fletcher, Brandon Spikes, Ron Brace, and others all missed time with injuries at some point this year.
All of this makes it that much more impressive that the Patriots will be representing the AFC in Super Bowl XLVI this evening. And with all of this being said, earlier in the week, I tried to gauge what it has been like for Patriots defenders to endure all of these constant changes.
Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher, in his second season with the team after going undrafted out of Montana State, was the first to admit that it had been "tough... playing next to new guys every time you get in the game and what not." Fletcher added that he knows "it's not easy on guys like constant guys like [Jerod] Mayo and Vince [Wilfork] - cause you've always got new guys playing next to you."
Safety Sergio Brown, also in his second year after going undrafted out of Notre Dame, said that it was a whole new season now, and that the past didn't matter. However, when specifically asked if the constant change had been tough, Brown was more open, saying that it had been "real tough" and that while the game against the talented New York Giants receivers would be "difficult," the team would "just have to put the work in and everything will fall into place."
While Fletcher and Brown admitted that the constant transition had been tough, Patriots linebacker and special teams star Tracy White, forced into action because of all the injuries this year, wouldn't go so far. "It's all about doing your job. It's about focusing on what you've got to do and when they bring guys in, coaching them up on what they need to know. They don't make it too hard for the guys that come in. If you're doing your job, and doing what the coaches say, everyone will continue to play well."
Safety Patrick Chung said that the constant change "could be a challenge if you let it be," but had a lot of confidence in his coaches and teammates, saying that "guys [head coach Bill Belichick] puts there, he has faith in those guys, like [Matt] Slater coming over and Julian [Edelman]. He has full faith in those guys. Regardless of who's being shuffled around, we're in the same room, we're all on the same page, we're all on the same playbook, we all have to be able to communicate with everybody on the field. We have smart guys that can play any position, so I have full faith in anybody."
There's no question that the constant change the Patriots have endured on defense would be crippling for most ordinary NFL teams. Now, with the Patriots playing the Giants later this evening in Super Bowl XLVI, the Patriots are peaking at the right time and have two things going for them that they lacked most of the season: health and consistency.