FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Much of the spotlight heading into the Patriots' regular-season opener at Arizona has been focused on the big piece they will be missing on offense.
It's anyone's guess whether New England can duplicate its typical efficiency without Tom Brady. But having to lean on its defense against a Cardinals team that Bill Belichick says has ''as good a group of skill players that we've seen in a long time'' may not be the worst thing either.
Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer is expected to have his full complement of weapons Sunday in receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown. It will also be the first real look of what the Cardinals' backfield tandem of Chris Johnson and second-year David Johnson can do together.
It's a lot for any defense to deal with, and Belichick doesn't expect to truly know what kind of team he has until at least a month into the season. But he acknowledges his defense - and particularly its veteran secondary - might be the most cohesive group he has entering Week 1.
''(There are) a lot of things that we can do now that we wouldn't have been able to do at this time last year with that group of players because we've done them for a year, or we did them in different game plan situations last year,'' Belichick said.
While several position groups were slowed by injuries at different times this offseason, the core secondary group of cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, has remained healthy.
The same is true at linebacker, where starters Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower will be counted on to slow down Arizona's run game.
In the secondary's case, it's only helped to build more chemistry among a foursome that was on the field to start 13 of the Patriots 18 games last season. It also accounted for seven of their 12 interceptions.
''It helps as long as we play well. It doesn't matter if we're all back and we're not playing well,'' McCourty said of the continuity. ''So I think for us personally it's great. We have a great group. We like being around each other, spending time off the field bonding and learning how to play on the field together. It's just grows.''
The secondary's production also figures to grow with the editions of cornerbacks Cyrus Jones, a rookie second-round draft pick, and undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones.
Former college rivals at Alabama and Auburn, the duo has fit in seamlessly thus far.
Cyrus Jones said he's anxious to get a crack at the Cardinals' multi-pronged attack.
''We just gotta be ready for whatever,'' he said. ''Everybody knows what type of playmakers they have, but you just gotta focus on your responsibilities and trust the man next to you that he's gonna do his job and let the chips fall where they may.''
McCourty said the unknown also helps drive veterans on defense.
''In this league you don't always know if it's gonna stay that same way, so I always preach to the guys to take advantage of the opportunity,'' he said.
Notes: TE Rob Gronkowski returned to the practice field after being absent on Sunday. ...WR Danny Amendola, who has been recovering from knee and ankle issues this preseason, said Tuesday that he feels he is ready to play despite sitting out all four of the Patriots' preseason games. ''I feel strong. I feel fast. So I'm ready to roll,'' he said. ''They have a plan, they've always had a plan, and so have we. I'm excited to be ready to go and looking forward to this weekend.''
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