Andre Carter stretches prior to Patriots practice (Steve Balestrieri photo)

The New England Patriots were cut loose on Wednesday to enjoy a few well-deserved days off during their bye week. The Patriots sit at 5-1 tops in the AFC at the moment and have two weeks to prepare for their next game, a date with the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Bill Belichick has said that the team would conduct some self-scouting as well as do some initial preparations for the Pittsburgh game. While there are plenty of things to work on, most Pats fans want to see more improvement from the defense.

While the Patriots defense remains mired in last place in terms of yards allowed, the scoring defense in much closer to the top in 14th place, allowing 22.7 points per game. It is a defense that made wholesale changes jettisoning 7 players that either started or played significant snaps in 2010.

For those glass half-full types, (Felger,Borges…not) there has been reason for optimism with the improved play the past few games. One of the reasons for optimism is the vastly improved play of the defensive line.

It starts with the always stellar play of Vince Wilfork, the big man remains one of the best run stuffers in the business and plays nearly every snap of every game. But now that Albert Haynesworth is finally rounding into form, he and Wilfork are becoming a tandem that is tough to move. In the recent games against the Jets and Dallas, there was precious little room to run in the middle forcing the opponents to try the outside.

With the league becoming such a passing league, its near impossible for DL to play every snap as they would wear out chasing opposing QBs, the Pats depth at DL is a plus as they have veteran Gerard Warren and Kyle Love who can fill in and play anywhere along the line. Both have played at a high level this season and will be counted upon to take considerable snaps. With Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick now coming off of the PUP, it will give the team even more depth that is needed for the stretch run.

But no talk about the defensive line is complete without mentioning Andre Carter. Carter was the least heralded pickup this off-season of the Pats but he is quickly becoming the most valuable. Carter’s play of late has been stellar, now that he is becoming more comfortable in the NE defensive schemes, he has been possibly its most valuable player. Carter has done an excellent job of setting the edge in the running game and becoming more and more of a force rushing the passer.

Bill Belichick mentioned that with the new players coming in and no off-season workouts, it would have been too difficult for him to teach the traditional Patriots 3-4 defense. Otherwise we may not have even seen Carter or Haynesworth who don’t fit the 3-4 mold. But with Carter’s emergence, one surely has to wonder if the 3-4 isn’t relegated to a secondary position next season.

While the pass rush is still very much a work in progress, some interesting developments were in evidence on Sunday against the Cowboys. One play where the Cowboys had a second and goal situation, both Wilfork and Haynesworth pushed the pocket back into Tony Romo. Haynesworth attracted a triple-team, yes a triple team but still allowed him to collapse the pocket. That freed up Carter on the outside alone on Tryon Smith and Carter blew around him to sack Romo and force the Cowboys into a FG attempt. Shaun Ellis is still recovering from hip surgery this past off-season and has yet to make an impact. But sub-package rusher Mark Anderson has performed well in spot duty as he isn’t much of a run stopper. But overall the DL is improving and will be a source of strength.

The linebacking play, particularly that of Brandon Spikes is also reason for optimism. Spikes was having possibly the best camp of anyone on defense when he was injured. He was slowly worked back into the lineup but the past two weeks he’s been immense at the MLB position. Spikes is an instinctive, physical presence in the linebacker position. He can wreck running plays in the backfield and has been used lately as a blitzer up the middle.

Spikes and Wilfork teamed up for the huge stop that may have saved the game against Dallas when they sniffed out the Romo shovel pass on 3rd and goal that saved a touchdown. He also brings a much needed shot of adrenaline to the Patriots defense much to Borges chagrin… Spikes is an emotional sparkplug, something that has been missing since Rodney Harrison retired.

With Jerod Mayo returning soon from injury, he and Spikes should solidify the defense even more. Mayo is possibly the best player on the defense and with Spikes playing solidly in the middle now, Mayo will be freed up to make plays on the outside. In Mayo’s absence, Gary Guyton has filled in pretty well. Guyton is not known as a run stuffer, but as the Pats most athletic LBer. His play has been somewhat inconsistent but remains a good viable option in the sub-packages. Rob Ninkovich continues to provide solid if unspectacular play at the other OLB position.

The secondary has rebounded from a horrible start and is starting to play better. In the first few games, the Pats played man-to-man and with a dearth of pass rush, the secondary was burned constantly. The coaches have switched that going to more of a soft zone, where the big plays have been taken away but are still giving up too much real estate with underneath routes.

With second year CB Devin McCourty struggling to regain the form he flashed last year, and Leigh Bodden battling injuries, CB Kyle Arrington has stepped up and played very solidly and confidently racking up 4 interceptions so far this season.

According to Bill Belichick, Arrington took a list of things he needed to improve upon during the off-season and ran with it, improving his overall play. “Some of the things we talked to Kyle about at the end of the 2010 season, things that he needed to work on and areas he can improve, was playing the ball, handling the ball more,” Belichick said recently in an interview with ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss. “Obviously he’s done that. They’ve shown up from the beginning of training camp.”

Ras-I Dowling this year’s high draft pick came in with a reputation that he is a solid, big corner….when healthy. And so far, that scouting report is spot on. Dowling has been impressive in small doses this season, but has struggled to stay healthy and on the field.

The safety play has solidified lately with the Patriots seemingly finding their two starters in Pat Chung and James Ihedigbo. Both have stepped up their play with Ihedigbo getting the first two starts of his career the past two weeks. Chung is becoming the leader of the secondary with a physical, intimidating style.

If the defensive line continues to improve their play and bring more consistent pass rush, it will take a lot of pressure off of the beleaguered secondary and make the defense able to challenge more.

The Patriots defense is still far from the best or even where they want it to be, but it is improving and with the prolific scoring New England offense, it doesn’t have to be the ’85 Bears for the team to be successful.

After the bye, the next five weeks will tell the story how far the defense can carry the team. Pittsburgh, the Giants, Jets, Chiefs, Eagles all will offer different challenges for the team to overcome. The Patriots, not surprisingly, made no moves at the trade deadline and this should be the team that we will see, barring injury for the duration of the season. Will the improvements be enough to carry them deep in the playoffs? Time will tell.