BOSTON (CBS) – The much criticized Patriots defense of 2011 is an afterthought to the group that now takes the field preparing for 2012.

For a secondary that ranked 31st in the NFL last season, it’s a new year with new hope. Hope that Devin McCourty can right his ways after suffering one of the worst sophomore slumps in recent memory, Patrick Chung can stay healthy and take another leap forward in his progress, and hope that they can get contributions from youngsters Ras-I Dowling and Tavon Wilson.

After 20 days of camp and one preseason game, the defensive unit is starting to feel themesleves becoming just that: a unit working as one.

“It’s early but that’s definitely the goal,” said corner Kyle Arrington, who led the NFL with seven interceptions in 2011. “This is definitely the time to do it. Just keep stringing these days along. It’s tough – every day is like Groundhog’s Day but it’s the National Football League and that’s what training camp is for.”

“We’ve been flying around trying to make plays on the ball and priding ourselves on working on our communication and things like that,” said veteran safety Steve Gregory. “It’s been getting better every day.”

Gregory, Arrington On Defense: 

Tuesday was a very good day for the defense, as they forced a number of turnovers and bad plays by the offense during practice. While Patriots fans are used to seeing things the other way around, forcing such a talented offensive group into a number of mishaps only boosts the defense’s confidence with only three days of training camp remaining.

“We’re the type of guys that can cover. That’s what I do best, cover guys,” said Gregory. “This is great competition. It definitely presents a challenge. It gives you an opportunity to work on your skills, work on your technique against some of the guys that do it the best at a high level.”

“We have a talented bunch offensively so they give us a good look,” added Arrington. “The more we compete and make ourselves better, the better we’ll be overall as a team.”

A key part of that will be communication in the secondary, which Arrington said is coming along.

“[It’s] huge, if not the biggest factor back there,” he said. “We’re putting a lot of hours in, that’s what [this] time is for. The more we communicate, the more comfortable back there we are with one another.”

And while the secondary looks to be improved based on their personnel, they also have the added benefit of a pair of young hard-hitters playing in front of them in first-rounders Chandler Jones and Don’t’a Hightower. Both impressed in their small sampling from New England’s 7-6 victory over the New Orleans Saints last week, but are working hard to improve every day.

“It’s all about me learning; you can never learn enough right now,” Hightower said Tuesaday. “I’m still in the back of the classroom still trying to learn, talking to Pep (linebackers coach Pepper Johnson) and Matty P (defensive coordinator Matt Patricia) about everything. I’m still trying to learn, get advice from those guys as well as V (Vince Wilfork) and (Jerod) Mayo and everybody else.”

And although Chandler lines up on the defensive line and Gregory takes his spot in the defensive backfield, they have a Syracuse connection that has drawn them close.

“He’s like my little brother now,” Gregory said of Chandler. “Syracuse guy; I have to take care of those guys.”

As much as the rookies are impressing and improving on a daily basis, they’re still rookies. Everyone is expecting bumps in the road and a few growing pains along the way. But that is what veterans are for; to help with the learning process.

They’re also there to give a few reminders that the youngens are, in fact, still rookies. On Tuesday, they had to carry all the team’s pads after practice.

“We’re all teammates so whatever it is, the little rookie thing, everybody has to go through it,” said Hightower. “I’m proud to be a part of it. I’m glad to be here to I have no problem with it.”


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