A huge gap has been filled with some three tons of reinforcements

So much about last season's Patriots was perfect, or nearly so: a Tom Brady directed offense that led the league in scoring, and at one point didn't turn the ball over for a record 28 straight quarters; a ball-hungry secondary, led by first-round pick Devin McCourty, that helped New England intercept an NFL-high 25 passes. And yet all along there was a flaw, rudely revealed by the Jets in their stunning 28--21 second-round playoff victory in Foxborough. The defensive line.

Vince Wilfork, the space-eating 29-year-old nosetackle, was at his best, making a third Pro Bowl. But one man, even a 325-pound one, does not a stout defensive line make, and not one of the assorted journeymen and no-names with whom coach Bill Belichick attempted to bookend Wilfork did much of anything. The Patriots' pass rush ranked 14th in sacks during the regular season, with 36, but that was largely a result of the opportunities provided to it by the offense: Opponents threw the ball against New England more times than they did against all but one other defense, because they were so often playing from behind. The Patriots were 11th overall in run defense but just 16th in yards allowed per rush. On Jan. 16, Rex Ryan's Jets ran straight into the mouth of the Patriots' defense and found all gums, rushing 29 times for 120 yards, including 66 yards on 17 attempts directly up the middle. Not only did Mark Sanchez, the Jets quarterback, avoid being sacked; he also wasn't even hit, not once.

Belichick has addressed that weakness by stocking his line with a full set of gleaming, oversized canines. For a time in August the Patriots' training camp roster featured no fewer than 19 defensive linemen, who weighed a combined 2.8 tons, stood a total of 119 feet and five inches tall and forced anyone attempting to fill out a depth chart to write very small. The most singularly notable aspect of this revitalized line, though, is its quality.

The biggest of the line's additions, the 6'6", 335-pound tackle Albert Haynesworth, has the potential to be its most impactful. Haynesworth spent the last two seasons as an exorbitantly paid and disgruntled pariah with the Redskins, but that recent history allowed Belichick, in late July, to acquire a 30-year-old, two-time All-Pro with the talent to be the NFL's most dominating defender for a song—a single fifth-round draft pick—at a base salary of just $1.5 million. The acquisition of Haynesworth represents an exceedingly low-risk gamble. If the opportunity to play for the league's most recently successful franchise fails to gruntle Haynesworth, then Belichick can cut him, with little lost. If Haynesworth proves gruntled, then Belichick has himself one of the best pairs of interior linemen in league history. "Being able to play with a guy like that is unbelievable," says Wilfork, clearly pleased with the prospect of having some help. "I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully we can get some good things going."

Haynesworth's acquisition represented only the beginning of New England's refortification of its defensive line. Eleven days later Belichick signed the durable veteran end Shaun Ellis, 34, away from the Jets, for whom, in 11 seasons, he registered 72½ sacks—a dozen of which came against the Patriots during the regular season, and two more of which came against them in last season's playoff game. On that same day, Aug. 8, Belichick signed 32-year-old Andre Carter, the chiseled owner of 66 career sacks, including 11 playing next to Haynesworth with the Redskins just two years ago.

Belichick's acquisition frenzy should provide him with a significant talent upgrade as far as his defensive linemen and also the ability to be unusually versatile in his use of them. The nature of his new personnel suggests that the Patriots will shift away from their long-favored 3--4 defense to a 4--3, but the cagey coach, revealing more of his intentions than is typical, told reporters that he plans to constantly shift between the two alignments. "How, strategically, we want to move guys around and put them in certain alignments or how to configure them relative to certain formations and tie it in with coverages and things like that—I think there's flexibility there," he said.

Belichick's new charges seem, for now, willing to submit to whatever their coach asks of them, in his and their pursuit of perfection. "Whatever they want me to do, I'll do," says Carter. No team, of course, is perfect, but the Patriots seem closer to perfection than any other in the NFL, and with their greatest flaw turned into a strength and no obvious drop-off elsewhere, they are much closer to it than they were last season. For them, the fifth 14-plus-win season and the fifth Super Bowl appearance of Belichick's 12-year tenure should constitute a mere starting point.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 8

QB TOM BRADY

ATT 492

COMP 324

PCT 65.9

YARDS 3,900

YD/ATT 7.93

TD 36

INT 4

RATING 111.0

RB BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS

ATT 229

YARDS 1,008

REC 12

TTD 13

WR CHAD OCHOCINCO

REC 67

YARDS 831

AVG 12.4

TTD 4

WR WES WELKER

REC 86

YARDS 848

AVG 9.9

TTD 7

WR DEION BRANCH

REC 61

YARDS 818

AVG 13.4

TTD 6

TE ROB GRONKOWSKI

REC 42

YARDS 546

AVG 13.0

TTD 10

LT MATT LIGHT

G 16

SACKS 10

HOLD 3

FALSE 1

LG LOGAN MANKINS

G 9

SACKS 3½

HOLD 1

FALSE 1

C DAN KOPPEN

G 16

SACKS 5½

HOLD 1

FALSE 2

RG DAN CONNOLLY

G 14

SACKS 0

HOLD 1

FALSE 0

RT SEBASTIAN VOLLMER

G 16

SACKS 1

HOLD 2

FALSE 2

RB DANNY WOODHEAD

ATT 97

YARDS 547

REC 34

TTD 6

TE AARON HERNANDEZ

REC 45

YARDS 563

AVG 12.5

TTD 6

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 25

DE SHAUN ELLIS

TACKLES 36

SACKS 4½

INT 0

NT VINCE WILFORK

TACKLES 57

SACKS 2

INT 0

DE MIKE WRIGHT

TACKLES 14

SACKS 5½

INT 0

LB JERMAINE CUNNINGHAM

TACKLES 35

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB JEROD MAYO

TACKLES 174

SACKS 2

INT 0

LB BRANDON SPIKES

TACKLES 59

SACKS 0

INT 1

LB ROB NINKOVICH

TACKLES 53

SACKS 4

INT 2

CB DEVIN MCCOURTY

TACKLES 72

SACKS 1

INT 7

SS BRANDON MERIWEATHER

TACKLES 67

SACKS 0

INT 3

FS PATRICK CHUNG

TACKLES 88

SACKS 0

INT 3

CB LEIGH BODDEN*

TACKLES 56

SACKS 0

INT 5

DE ALBERT HAYNESWORTH

TACKLES 16

SACKS 2½

INT 0

SPECIALISTS

K STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI

FG 10

FGA 13

XP 26

PTS 56

P ZOLTAN MESKO

PUNTS 58

GROSS 43.2

NET 38.4

*2009 statistics

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 14--2

September

12 at Miami (Mon)

18 San Diego

25 at Buffalo

October

2 at Oakland

9 N.Y. Jets

16 Dallas

23 BYE

30 at Pittsburgh

November

6 N.Y. Giants

13 at N.Y. Jets

21 Kansas City (Mon)

27 at Philadelphia

December

4 Indianapolis

11 at Washington

18 at Denver

24 Miami (Sat)

January

1 Buffalo

COACH: BILL BELICHICK

AGE: 59

12TH SEASON WITH THE PATRIOTS (126--50)

Belichick remains so close-to-the-vest about inside information that his responses to media questions about such matters as injury status ("Things they're not able to do, there's nothing they can do about it") sound positively Confucian. It's not the most endearing way to run a team, but last season he became the first NFL coach with four seasons of 14 or more wins.

SPOTLIGHT

CHAD OCHOCINCO, Wide Receiver

The Patriots' player-acquisition spree included more than just defensive linemen. They also traded fifth- and sixth-round picks to the Bengals for the 33-year-old Ochocinco, fourth among active wideouts in career receiving yards (10,783) and career touchdown catches (66), and first in career self-promotional gambits (unquantifiable). Ochocinco, though, has been quiet so far, his most notable attempt to stir the pot a halfhearted and relatively tame suggestion that he would live with a fan for the regular season's first few weeks. "You have to do it the Patriot Way," he explained.

The Patriot Way, as stringently enforced by Belichick, is to tamp down any meaningful self-expression for the good of the team. While the passing game would undoubtedly benefit should Ochocinco return to being the 1,200-yard, seven-to-10-touchdown receiver he was during his Johnson days, it doesn't need him to, not with the continued presence of Wes Welker and a tandem of highly skilled second-year tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who as rookies combined for 87 catches, 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns, and who could increase those numbers by 50% this year. For the first time in years Ochocinco was not a training camp's center of attention, and his reaction to that development was somewhat surprising. He took to calling Foxborough "heaven."

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (BELICHICK) PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (WILFORK)STICK A 'FORK IN IT Wilfork was a one-man wrecking ball on the defensive line last year; now a host of newcomers will strengthen the Pats in the trenches and on the pass rush. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (OCHOCINCO)
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
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