The New England Patriots were once known as the toughest defense on the planet. They won three Super Bowls in four years due in large part to a stingy defense. In recent years, that reputation has been tainted.

Last year alone, they were at or near the bottom of the league in team defense, including one of the worst pass defenses for much of the season. But they also did one thing very well, get turnovers. Despite being ranked 15th and 14th respectively in team sacks and tackles, they lead the league in total turnovers, forced fumbles, fumbles recovered and touchdowns off fumbles, according to ESPN.com. They were also tied for fifth in interceptions, returning two of those for touchdowns.

Yet, despite having a reputation for giving up a lot of yards (this defense was ranked 25th in yards allowed per game with 373.2) this unit was the eighth stingiest in points allowed at 331 on the season (20.7 per game).

Those numbers are more impressive when you account for the flux that occurred in that unit during the 2012 campaign. The linebackers had to fill more gaps in front of them and behind due to injuries and spotty play (mostly from the secondary).

But, as much as they improved toward the end of 2012, 2013 projects an even greater increase in linebacker stats for the following reasons:

1. Jerod Mayo just keeps getting better and better. He is the clear leader in this group, and he plays the run and the pass very well. He led the team with 147 tackles while patrolling the middle of the field like a jungle cat.

2. Brandon Spikes is tough and in the final year of his rookie deal. He will be motivated to step it up to make the right impression in the minds and pocketbooks of the brass. But he just needs a little improvement in his ability to drop back into pass coverage, especially against the likes of Wes Welker, who he will face in the second half of the season. Stopping him will be the focus of every player on defense for Belichick. And Spikes has the tools to excel in that role.

3. Dont'a Hightower actually led the linebackers with four sacks last year, and will make huge strides going into his sophomore campaign. He already plays the pass well and has a nose for the ball, as evidenced by two fumble recoveries. He will simply become more ferocious and more ball-hawking than his 2012 effort.

4. Dane Fletcher is a capable back-up to the first three of this unit, showing that he can play the run and the pass fairly well, even intercepting a pass two years ago. In 2012 he played enough to gather 32 tackles and forced and recovered a fumble as well. He will be working hard to take a more prominent role on the field.

5. Niko Koutouvides is a versatile player who spends most of his time on special times; but he does have a really cool name.

6. I am pretty excited about the rookies going into training camp. The Patriots used their first pick of the draft to bring another athletic player, Jamie Collins of Southern Miss. into the mix. Collins projects to be another Jerod Mayo type of player, with his speed and athletic ability. With him, and Steve Beauharnais providing depth in the middle of the defense, this projects to be a deep unit that will shut down the run and the middle of the passing attack for opposing offenses.

Overall, the defense has gotten younger and stronger- the best unit, by far, since the Super Bowl squads led by the likes of Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. And the linebackers look to have become the true core of these defensive New England Patriots. Look for the Pats to surprise and move well up in the rankings as the 2013 season progresses.