What do you think is the single biggest reason for the turn-around from the Patriots defense this season?
Jason: While the secondary is coming together with McCourty's move to safety and the addition of Talib, I think the biggest difference has been the play at linebacker. Mayo has been a solid presence for several years, but the improving play of Spikes, Ninkovich and Hightower has allowed the Patriots to get more aggressive getting after the quarterback. They're not piling up sacks, but they are getting enough pressure to keep opposing quarterbacks on their heels.
Raj: To be frank, the Patriots defense was very shaky during the first half of the season. They've gotten a lot better now but they aren't the best. However, from my viewpoint, switching Devin McCourty over to safety and adding Aqin Talib as a corner really enhanced this defense, if not bolstered it. Talib isn't Asomugha (although he isn't having a very good season either but I give him the benefit of the doubt because the Eagles are terrible) but he can still defend well. McCourty at safety is much better because it's more comfortable for him and he brings that cornerback presence to the safety zone. When he picked off Matt Schaub last Monday, I knew that (whether McCourty liked it or not) safety is McCourty's forte. Talib did an excellent job of not allowing Andre Johnson to have a monster game and even when Talib went down, Alfonzo Dennard stepped up. He didn't care if he was a rookie covering a pro-bowl receiver. He did his job well and that to me shows that the Patriots have a lot of depth at defense. I would list more names but collectively, the switches made in defensive positions has truly made this Patriots defense a formidable force for offenses around the NFL.
Stephen: The youth movement has been the biggest reason for the turnaround on defense this season. Whether it's Chandler Jones' six sacks, Dont'a Hightower's versatility, Tavon Wilson's four picks or Alfonzo Dennard's improving coverage skills, the Patriots have gotten great play out of their rookie defenders. All four guys look like they belong, especially Jones and Hightower. Dennard has turned out to be a starting-caliber corner and has played a big role in solidifying the pass defense.
Derek: In my opinion, the vast improvement that this defense has shown is tied to the Aqib Talib trade. That one move allowed a complete re-shuffling of the secondary to put players where they can be most successful. The addition of Talib allowed McCourty to move to safety, where he has been a complete beast. It also allowed Kyle Arrington to move to the slot corner position where he's also been solid, compared to a total liability. The improvement of Dennard also can't be overlooked.
With the secondary in much better shape, I believe it allowed Mike Patricia to dial up some more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Instead of being forced to keep his linebackers in coverage, he now has the freedom to send them in rushing. As a result, the Patriots are no longer playing "bend but don't break" defense. They're playing a "we're going to break you" defense.