The Patriots' biggest Achilles' heel in 2010 was their miserable third-down defense, which ranked 32nd in the league. Teams converted 47.1 percent of their third-down opportunities against New England.
Heading into 2011, with such a high-octane offense, an improved third-down defense could greatly increase the Patriots' chances at getting back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2007, as it would improve the defense as a whole, which ranked 25th overall.
The Patriots' defense lacked experience and was debilitated by injuries last season. Three rookies started, and a total of seven rookies could see action on defense in a given game.
The experience and health issue should be taken care of in 2011, as CB Leigh Bodden and DL Mike Wright will be back, and the rookies who got so much playing experience last season have another year to learn Bill Belichick's defensive schemes.
However, it appears those schemes are changing, and it could be the recipe to curing last season's third-down woes. The Patriots cut DE Ty Warren and traded for DT Albert Haynesworth, whose struggles in the Redskins' 3-4 were well publicized. The Pats most certainly will be employing a "40" front more often than not in 2011, and the hope is that Haynesworth can spark an interior pass rush, especially on passing downs. It's easy to forget, considering his tumultuous 2010 campaign, but Haynesworth has 30½ career sacks.
In a 4-3 defense, Belichick can put Jermaine Cunningham and Eric Moore at their college positions at defensive end. The team likes Cunningham, but he recorded only one sack in his rookie season playing outside 'backer. Moore made two sacks in four games with the Pats, mainly rushing off the edge in the nickel.
OLB Tully Banta-Cain, while his numbers had tailed off, was the team's best pure pass rusher, but he was cut when the lockout ended. At outside linebacker, the team has Rob Ninkovich, who overachieved last season and showed he is able to get after the quarterback. Jerod Mayo could factor in, as well, in the 4-3 from the outside, as could Gary Guyton.
Another potential way to aid the pass rush on third down could be utilizing S Patrick Chung, who is better in the box than he is in coverage. He could be a factor, especially if the edge rushers aren't getting the job done.
In the secondary, the Patriots need to do a better job of keeping receivers in check on third down. Having Bodden back should help, as he will be an upgrade over Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington. Rookie Ras-I Dowling has good size and physicality, and he could become the team's nickel corner, and that might improve the third-down "D."
Belichick's schemes and the defense's disguises at the line of scrimmage certainly aid the third-down defense and mask any personnel deficiencies. With more experience and skill, the third-down defense should be improved in 2011, but the players in the Pats' nickel will have to step up, otherwise New England again will have to count on winning shootouts.