By Erik Frenz
Cold, Hard Football Facts Pigskin Pop Star 

Yes, the NFL preseason is about as meaningful as a Britney Spears' hyphenated marriage. But the excitement level in New England is higher than "Hit Me Baby One More Time" on the 1990s pop charts. 

The reason for that excitement in New England is quite obvious.

Last year, New England's pass defense was as soft as soggy toilet paper. They defied Newton's third law that for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. The only action most Patriots fans saw was the defense rolling out the red carpet and, more often than not, making opposing quarterback look like Joe Montana. Jets QB Mark Sanchez, for example, posted a 127.3 passer rating in New York's 28-21 playoff victory over the Patriots last year, the second-best performance of his career. (CHFF discussed New England's history of dismal pass defense Friday on Boston sports radio WEEI.)

This year, the very early indications are that New England has made great strides shoring up the pass defense that has haunted it for so long.

It's easy to get caught up in the hype of preseason games while losing sight of what they truly are — exhibition football. Still, an anomaly as sharp as the one we've witnessed with the Patriots suddenly fielding a stout defense warrants statistical context. Let's take a look at the numbers from the 2010 regular season and compare them with the 2011 preseason to date. 

Defensive Passer Rating

That part about opposing quarterbacks looking like Joe Montana may belong in the category of hyperbole. Whatever the case, the Patriots have shown an outstanding improvement from last season here in the 2011 preseason.

Year Attempts Completions % Yards YPA TD INT Rating
2010 612 389 63.56 4,345 7.10 25 25 81.23
2011 preseason 62 28 45.16 326 5.26 0 2 48.18

The sample size is simply too small, and irrelevant, to read into it that deeply. But, just for some context, Green Bay's top-ranked Super Bowl-winnning pass defense last year posted a 67.2 Defensive Passer Rating, almost 20 points higher than the number the Patriots have produced in the preseason. 

It helps that New England has also played against a rookie quarterback (Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert) and a third-year quarterback in an up-and-coming team and offense (Tampa's Josh Freeman). But the effort represents a great deal of improvement just the same.

Defensive Hog Index

The Patriots were little runts of the pig pen last year and ranked 22nd overall in the Defensive Hog Index

For obvious reasons, these stats aren't tracked in the preseason. But with a little number-crunching, we can get an idea for exactly how much the Patriots have improved with their production, specifically in the front seven.

Year Rush YPA NPP% 3rd down % Avg. ranking
2010 4.23 9.27 47.14 19.3
2011 preseason 4.26 13.23 20.83 n/a

The switch to a 4-3 defense has done exactly what many would expect: The Patriots have gained a lot in their pass defense and sacrificed a little against the run. 

Through two games, the Patriots have logged seven sacks and two interceptions on defense. They are playing the swarming style of defense that Patriots fans have pined to see for so long.

Volume stats are the artificial growth hormone of stats. They may get bigger and look more fearsome, but it ruins the flavor. In the NFL, efficiency wins. It's almost not even worth mentioning that the Patriots ranked 25th in passing yards allowed last year. Ultimately, it was their eye-popping third-down defense that really told the tale of a defense that struggled to get off the field. As CHFF reported last month, only four teams since 2000 were worse on third-down defense than the 2010 Patriots.

Improvement in that area specifically is key to a turn-around for the Patriots defense, and the early indications are good.

Now comes the most important question of all: Can they keep this momentum going into the regular season, when it realy matters?