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Patriots defense will rely on youth

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and defensive back Ras-I Dowling are among the young players the Patriots hope will improve the defense this season.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and defensive back Ras-I Dowling are among the young players the Patriots hope will improve the defense this season.

TAMPA — They were a swarming juggernaut of a defense.

They blitzed an unheard-of 18 times in the game. They tackled hard. They sacked the quarterback three times and posted an amazing 36 quarterback pressures. The running backs were held to 25 yards on 11 carries.

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The right end forced three quarterback hurries, three holding penalties, and had a quarterback hit.

The weakside linebacker looked like a game-changer with two sacks, three hits, and a pass defended.

The Patriots against the Saints in the exhibition opener, with Chandler Jones flashing and Jerod Mayo flying around?

Nope.

That’s what the Patriots looked like on Aug. 18, 2011, when they pummeled the Buccaneers, 31-14 — after leading, 28-0, at halftime, when the starters were pulled — in an exhibition game at Raymond James Stadium, where the teams will square off again tonight.

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Andre Carter was the end and, yes, Mayo was the weakside linebacker who looked like a controlled whirling dervish dicing up the young Buccaneers.

Two months later, the Patriots defense was taking on water.

We don’t point this out to illustrate how a promising start — and the Patriots have done well defensively this year — can go bad. Or to show that the preseason is not to be used as a measuring stick in any area of the game (though we agree with that).

It should only remind us where the Patriots were before an avalanche of injuries (Mike Wright, Myron Pryor, Ras-I Dowling, Leigh Bodden) and ineffective play (Albert Haynesworth, Darius Butler) made plans for a dominating 4-3 defense shift to a patchwork 3-4 unit that was just hoping the offense would outscore the other team.

And how the Patriots have positioned themselves now, with an injection of promising youth to finish what they started last year.

A year ago, the Patriots were relying on aging veterans such as Shaun Ellis, Haynes­worth, Carter, James Ihedigbo, and Bodden to play prominent roles. Not surprisingly, all of those players dealt with injuries at some point.

If you look at the top 20 players on the defense now, the average age is 25.2. There are 13 players that are 25 or under — 65 percent of the 20 that should be the core of the defense. No one is over 30.

The Patriots seem to have learned that perhaps bringing in older players for depth — one of Bill Belichick’s methods of operation while winning Super Bowls — is not always the way to go in today’s NFL.

Those guys were great when you wanted your 3-4 defense to wall up against teams that ran the ball at least 50 percent of the time and play zone coverage in the back end. But to compete against the faster offenses and better quarterbacks, to bring the heat with blitzes and play press coverage on the outside to let the pressure work, Belichick needed thoroughbreds.

And it looks as though he has some of them.

“Those guys work very, very hard,’’ said Vince Wilfork, the old man of the defense at 30. “I mean, everything we ask of them, they’ve done. We can’t ask anything more from them.

“They approached it like a professional, they take the criticism, if it’s from certain players or from the coaches, they take it, they learn, and they try to get better. And that’s what we need.

“But all of them show signs that they can help this football team, and that’s exactly what we want.”

The Patriots have young players with high ceilings sprinkled all over the defense, and that’s by design.

At end, Jones (22) is ready to be a full-time starter, and how high he climbs is up to him. Jermaine Cunningham looks as though he finally understands what it is to be a professional. Jake Bequette, the third-round pick, isn’t the flashiest player but he is consistent and knows how to punch the time clock.

At tackle, Kyle Love (25) keeps getting incrementally better without taking a step back. He’s just a good, solid all-around player.

Both Brandon Deaderick (25) and Ron Brace (25) have had their issues with availability and accountability. Has the light finally gone on full time?

At linebacker, it’s hard to believe that Mayo is still only 26 because he plays like he’s seen it all. If Brandon Spikes (24) can finally stay healthy, strive for consistency instead of flash, then that would allow Mayo to stay at the weakside position that seems to suit his many talents best. Dont’a Hightower (22) should improve when the team tapers his positional workload as the season approaches.

The secondary is still a big question mark outside of the mostly solid Kyle Arrington (26). Can Devin McCourty (25) really be a viable starting cornerback when zone isn’t the dominant coverage? Can Dowling (24) and Patrick Chung (25) make it through complete seasons for the first time since 2009? Is Steve Gregory (29) a full-time starter at safety, or will Tavon Wilson (22) assume the job?

If most of those questions aren’t answered affirmatively, then we could be right back here a year from now, talking about what could have been after everything looked so good.

And it does look good. The Patriots got part of the way last year, but age and injuries struck them hard. Now they have youth on their side. Will that be the right formula? We shall see.

“We’ve been showing signs of being great but we’ve got to put the work in every day and try to get better,” Spikes said. “We’ve got some young guys, those guys have really showed highlights in film and stuff like that.

“If we come out and stay humble every week and look at the game plan and execute it, we should be fine.”

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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