Patriots focus on defense despite overhauled offense

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quarterback Tom Brady and the New England offense have been the story for the Patriots for the better part of the last decade. That will obviously continue in 2013 despite the total "re-do" -- that's how coach Bill Belichick describes it -- the high-powered passing attack is undergoing this offseason.

Given that uncertainty, there is greater focus on the Patriots defense this summer. The unit has clearly been the red-headed stepchild in New England for years, despite the team's ability to make it as far as the Super Bowl and AFC title game the last two seasons.

For the second straight offseason there were veteran free agent additions to the defense and Belichick once again used his top draft pick on that side of the ball. That brings guys like former Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly and former Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson on board. Versatile second-round linebacker Jamie Collins and third-round safety Duron Harmon are now in the mix. And there's even the addition of former USC star and CFL free agent import Armond Armstead.

That group joins a core of returning talent like Pro Bowl captains Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, versatile veterans Devin McCourty and Rob Ninkovich and 2012 first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower.

The question, though, as New England takes part in its second week of OTA workouts on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, is whether this is finally the right mix of talent on defense to make that unit more a part of the Patriots success rather than along for the ride thanks to the offense.

New England finished 25th in total defense a year ago, 29th in passing defense, based on yardage. But the group was tied for ninth in the league in points allowed thanks in large part to 41 takeaways, trailing only the Bears for the most turnovers forced.

There is room for improvement and things that can be built upon. According to Ninkovich, it's not too early to begin the team-building process on defense.

"Definitely not," the multi-talented defensive end and former outside linebacker said Wednesday following New England's second OTA workout of the spring that was open to the media. "This is the core group of guys we're going to have for this year, so it starts now. We have to come together. It's a new bunch of guys and we all have to come together as a team and get going for the season."

In Kelly -- who had back-to-back seven-sack seasons with the Raiders in 2010-11 -- New England adds a talented defensive line veteran who should help next to Wilfork. But despite his impressive resume, Kelly is taking nothing for granted in his new home.

"Bill doesn't guarantee anybody anything. You see how many people they get rid of around here?" Kelly questioned with a laugh. "Make the team first. I just keep my head down, learn the playbook and just try to stay out of everybody's way."

So far, Ninkovich seems content with the shorts-and-helmets OTA work that's going on with the defense.

"It's good, just getting the whole team together," Ninkovich said. "We're trying to just get better and work toward training camp."

And while veterans and newcomer to the New England defense alike know that there has to be improvement on that side of the ball -- regardless of what transpires with Brady and the offense -- Ninkovich isn't looking to compare the 2013 version of talent on that side of the ball to any previous group.

"It's a new year, so you really can't look at anything in the past, previous years," Ninkovich said. "It's a new season for us. We just have to move on from the past and focus on the future."

Spring may bring hope to all NFL cities, but for a Patriots team that's ridden its offense to much success in recent years there is finally some hope that the once again new look defense may be ready to carry a fairer share of the winning load. But there is a long way to go from the hope of spring to the production of the fall. None knows that better than Belichick, who's been trying to rehab a much-maligned defense for years.