By Len Pasquarelli
The Sports Xchange
Chances are you're not going to tune in to one of those omnipresent poker shows late one bleary-eyed night, and see Bill Belichick sneaking a peek from behind a pair of dark glasses, sweating his attempted draw to a possible inside straight.
But the Patriots' coach, whose defense finished a miserable 31st in the league last season, nearly went "all in" on that side of the ball in this year's draft. Only when the "river card" in the seventh round bore an "O" instead of a "D," with the selection of Northwestern wide receiver Jeremy Ebert in the No. 235 slot, did the Patriots and Belichick deviate from the plan.
Before that, Belichick went six-for-six with defensive choices, the unit likely having cost him a Super Bowl championship last season and maybe the past few years. New England hasn't claimed a title since Super Bowl XXXIX, culminating the '04 season, and providing the Patriots a third Vince Lombardi Trophy in four years.
And a few veteran players to whom The Sports Xchange has spoken during the offseason have suggested that Belichick is a bit frustrated by the drought. And so the Pats' coach was apparently determined to do whatever it takes to shore up the team's weakest link, and thus resulted the near-unwavering focus on defense over the weekend.
Even the newcomers could divine the trend.
"He takes a lot of pride in defense," allowed Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, the latter of New England's first-round choices on Thursday night. "This is a great team, a great organization, a great coach. It expects to win. It expects to play great defense ... and that's why we're here."
And that's, frankly, why the focus in New England was on defense in the draft.
Time was when Belichick was so far ahead of the curve on defense, he could take just about anyone's leftovers or spare pieces, and make them competitive. But the game is far different now, and offenses have not only caught up, but surged ahead. Not just with Belichick, of course, but with everyone.
The way the game is playing anymore, genius and X-and-O acumen aren't enough anymore, and Belichick obviously realizes that. A defensive unit has to have players, the Pats haven't had enough of them, and the 2012 draft was definitely an exercise in spackling up some voids.
Only one team, Seattle, selected more defensive prospects than the six the Patriots plucked from the board. And the Seahawks had three more choices, 10 overall, in which to do it. Obviously, no franchise had a higher percentage of defensive picks. Few coaches were as creative as Belichick at landing defenders.
Always a virtuoso at playing the draft board, Belichick orchestrated four trades during the three-day event. Notable, though, was that Belichick, who in the past has frequently dropped back from a slot, in exchange for additional selections, often in future years, actually dealt up on two occasions.
Both times were in Thursday's opening round, the first time to ensure grabbing Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones, and then the deal that netted Hightower. The two first-rounders are expected to play immediately, and to help add some much-needed push on the pocket to a unit that doesn't strike fear into opposing quarterbacks as much, and which has had to fabricate a pass rush in recent years.
"There's a kind of feeling here," Jones said, "that enough is enough."
The New England defense has been a work in progress of late, a unit forced by personnel and trends to remake itself. But the work of Belichick over the past three days, the team hopes, will lead to progress. And the draft, which brought fresh pieces to the equation, was a meaningful step toward assembling a unit that isn't just a house of cards.