Pressure to perform, with or without Brady
Since a certain accomplished quarterback is suspended for the first four games, it would greatly help the Patriots if their defense was of the smothering persuasion this season. The good news for New England fans: It probably will be, because the Pats are talented, deep and experienced on that side of the ball.
Considering they missed hosting the AFC championship game in much friendlier confines because of a tiebreaker last season, New England knows how valuable every win can be. Jimmy Garoppolo, the team's second-round pick in 2014, will start the season under center as Tom Brady serves his Deflategate suspension, but even if Garoppolo does a perfect Brady impression, the offense is not a likely source for improvement after already ranking third in scoring last season.
That's where the defense comes in. The group showed signs in 2015, ranking ninth in yards allowed and 10th in points; this was the first time the Patriots finished in the top 10 in both categories since '08.
This season the defensive starters return at every position except right end, where Chandler Jones was traded to the Cardinals entering a contract year. But Jabaal Sheard, who takes over for Jones, played 558 snaps last season and led the team in run stuffs (11) and was second in pressures (16). While left end Rob Ninkovich tore his triceps in training camp, if he can't return for Week 1, New England has former Rams first-round pick Chris Long ready to go.
The defense is not only deep but also—as coach Bill Belichick prefers it—versatile. In Devin McCourty,Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, the Patriots have three safeties who can be deployed differently, based on an opponent's strengths. Chung has revived a foundering career to become one of the game's best box safeties and routinely makes life difficult for opposing tight ends with his physical play. Last year cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan became one of the league's better duos, and they can play in man coverage or zone. Second-round pick Cyrus Jones should be an upgrade at nickel corner over last year's uninspiring rotation after becoming well-versed in a similar scheme at Alabama.
With Chung acting as a de facto linebacker, the Patriots usually only play with two, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. That would be a problem for most teams, especially against the run, but both are so good that the undermanned position is a strength. Collins, a rare athlete, is the playmaker: He causes problems when he drops into passing lanes, and he blitzes from anywhere.
On the line Malcom Brown steadily improved during his rookie season and should be a more constant disrupter this season. Alan Branch, a versatile veteran, and Terrance Knighton, a standout with the Broncos before a subpar season in Washington, are run stuffers who are also effective at rushing the passer. On the end Ninkovich, Sheard, Long and second-year player Trey Flowers embody New England's defense: tough and physical at the point of attack.
This could be the last go-round for this unit. Collins, Hightower, Butler (restricted), Sheard, Ninkovich, Ryan, Long, Branch, Knighton and Harmon are in the final year of their contracts. The Patriots have cap room for 2017, but it will be hard to retain all of those players. In many ways, it could be now or never for the defense.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
Hear out my case for Martellus Bennett(left). He is one of the 10 best all-around tight ends in football, but this year he'll be, unequivocally, the second-best one on his team. That doesn't mean he can't be almost as valuable as Rob Gronkowski. Bennett, 29, gives New England two tight ends who can run routes from anywhere as well as block in the run game. What makes the Patriots hard to defend is the way they use their tight ends to create mismatches for other players. New England is particularly clever in deploying them outside, which can result in a slot receiver being covered by a linebacker. With tight ends who can win their routes, such formations border on unstoppable. Even better: The Pats can run the ball with these same tight ends, allowing them to go from spread formations to condensed ones without substituting. With the addition of the 6'6", 275-pound Bennett defenses will struggle to match up.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 12--4
2015 Record: 12--4
SEPT. 11 atARI
SEPT. 18 vs.MIA [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 22 vs.HOU [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 vs.BUF [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 atCLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 vs.CIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 atPIT
OCT. 30 atBUF [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 vs.SEA [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 20 atSF [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 atNYJ [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 vs.LA [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 12 vs.BAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 atDEN
DEC. 24 vs.NYJ [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atMIA
= PREDICTED WINNER