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Per tweets by Andy Hart (@JumboHart) Ninkovich said about the defense improving and the return of a few key players:
"Definitely as a defense, we are going to be a better defense. But we have to put the work in. We got some of our guys back," (referring to the likes of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, etc.).
One of the things that killed the Patriots defense last season, as it has over the last couple of seasons, was their inability to get off the field in third down situations, especially when it came to defending screen plays.
Per Shalise Manza Young (@shalisemyoung), Ninkovich was adamant about seeing improvement in third down situations
"We have to get off the field; that's huge."
Finally, on the return of Gronkowski, per Mike Reiss, Ninkovich said that Gronkowski is one of the hardest working players he's ever seen.
There's no question that, barring a string of catastrophic injuries, this defense is going to be much improved. Even though some may question how effective players such as Wilfork, Kelly, etc. will be coming off of significant injuries, the defense still features key players like Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower (who should be better this season), Darrelle Revis and others.
If the secondary does what everyone thinks it's going to/can do, that's going to open up more time for pass rushers to get to the quarterback, which could take some pressure off some of the older players.
We know full well how bad the Patriots have been on third downs in recent years, although last year I thought there were some small improvements. Last season, they allowed opponents to convert on 42.2 percent of third down plays, with plays between 3rd & 6 and 3rd & 8 being a huge problem.
Again, that should improve this season with the personnel they'll be running out there, but how much will remain to be seen.
On Gronkowski on being cleared to take part in training camp - that's huge. Considering he tore his ACL in December, it only took him seven months to recover when it can sometimes take players a year or more to fully recover. The Patriots are going to closely monitor his health over the course of the season, but when he's out there, he's going to make the Patriots that much more lethal. Nobody has caught more touchdown passes from Brady since 2010 than Gronkowski has (42 over that span), so it's safe to say they're going to especially need him in the red zone.
I've heard some fans say that a healthy Gronkowski might have changed the complexion of the AFC Championship game against the Broncos. While that's debatable, if he can stay out there all year and play in the post-season, that gives New England a way better chance against the likes of Peyton Manning and the Broncos revamped defense.
That said, like many fans, I think Gronkowski's health is a much bigger question mark than the improvement of the defense. Some might even be able to make the case that other than Brady, Gronkowski is the second-most important player on the team. This much we know for sure - when he's able to play, the offense is 10 times better.
All of these questions will hopefully be answered sooner rather than later, but for now, we can only speculate.
Which player do you think is the most important to the Patriots success this season, other than Tom Brady? - @JesseGaunce
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