With the postseason underway, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the offense . Now, we’ll flip it around and break down the defense. First up, the secondary.
Depth chart (stats based on coaches film review): Devin McCourty  (89 tackles, 5 INTs, 13 passes defensed), Kyle Arrington  (67 tackles, 11 passes defensed), Steve Gregory  (55 tackles, 3 INTs, 5 passes defensed), Patrick Chung  (53 tackles, 2 INTs, 5 passes defensed), Alfonzo Dennard (35 tackles, 3 INTs, 7 passes defensed), Tavon Wilson (48 tackles, 4 INTs, 6 passes defensed), Aqib Talib  (19 tackles, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed), Marquice Cole (12 tackles, 1 INT, 3 passes defensed), Nate Ebner (17 special teams tackles), Malcolm Williams (2 special teams tackles).
Overview: It’s been fascinating to watch the New England secondary evolve over the course of the 2012 season. Much like the offensive line, there were struggles early on as they tried to find the right mix, but once they were able to find a good combo (namely, Talib and Dennard at corner and McCourty and Gregory at safety), the continuity and consistency helped improve the New England pass defense.
The addition of Talib has really been a boon. He hasn’t been a Pro Bowler by any means, but the trickle-down effect has been tremendous for the rest of the defensive backs, and, by extension, the defense as a whole. It’s allowed the New England defense to shuffle some players — particularly the move of McCourty from corner to safety, as well as kicking Arrington from outside back into the slot — and take some pressure off younger defensive backs. As a result, the Patriots have managed to maximize the strengths of the defensive backs they do have, and the numbers have reflected the change. Since late November, the following numbers have all decreased for the New England defense: points per game, average passing yards, average rushing yards and total average yards allowed per game. In addition, in that stretch, the Patriots have increased their takeaway ratio.
Going forward, health is probably the biggest issue for this group, particularly Talib. He was slowed by a nagging hip problem (which first appeared in the initial Patriots-Texans game in early December), and was held out of the bulk of the last two regular-season games. The hope is that with almost a month on the shelf, he’s over whatever health issues plagued him, and he can slide back into a regular role for the postseason. If Talib is there, look for the same group of defensive backs (Talib, Dennard, McCourty and Gregory) to get the bulk of the reps in the playoffs, with support from Arrington, Cole and Chung.
(For what it’s worth, one of the great offseason questions will be what happens with Talib. A free agent at the end of the season, provided he remains a key part of a secondary that plays deep into January, how much would the Patriots pony up to keep the cornerback? The 26-year-old would likely be in for a handsome payday if he does steer clear of any off-field issues and stay healthy, but would he likely take less than market value for the chance to stick in New England?)
Best Moment: Moved back to safety on a consistent basis over most of the second half of the season, McCourty made two very similar plays working as the deep safety against both the Niners and Texans, coming away with big picks in both games on the goal line. Against Houston, McCourty picked off quarterback Matt Schaub in the first half, a game-changing turnover that denied the Texans an early score. And against San Francisco he did the same thing, coming away with a nifty pick of Colin Kaepernick.
Worst Moment: It was more of a problem with team defense, but the lasting image of the New England secondary over the first half of the season was Wilson and Ebner failing to keep Sidney Rice  in front of them in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks  in Seattle — as a result, Russell Wilson found Rice for a 46-yard touchdown pass with 1:18 left.
By the numbers: According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty led the Patriots in defensive snaps in 2012 with 1,098, beating out linebacker Jerod Mayo  (1,073.)
Money quote: ‘It’s a different team. You just feel it walking around here ‘ the atmosphere. A winning organization. You can feel it in the air. I’ve never been a part of an organization like that. It’s good to feel it in the air, the confidence that’s in this building.’ — Talib on joining the Patriots.