Belichick hands-on with defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For a good portion of the New England Patriots' organized team activities on Wednesday, the defense was on the far practice field while the offense occupied the near field.

Head coach Bill Belichick stayed on the far field for the duration, highlighting one significant change for the team in 2010: Belichick's increased involvement with the defense.

At one point during the searing session, Belichick could be seen twirling his whistle in his right hand as the defense worked on a pass-coverage drill. When he didn't like what he saw, he stopped the drill and upped the volume of his instruction to the point that he could be heard from far across the practice fields.

It was one of those moments that created little doubt as to who was in charge.

"He's always been involved; he's always been kind of a hands-on guy," third-year cornerback Terrence Wheatley said. "That's just because he's a teacher, man. He's always talking to guys about small technique things. He's always talking to guys about what they can improve on. To me, it's no different."

Maybe the most noticeable difference on this day was that Belichick wasn't a coach on the move, as he's been in the past when he has paced around the practice fields in more of an overseer type of role.

He seemed more locked in on the defense, with quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien and offensive line coach/assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia the primary voices leading the offense on the other field.

The Patriots' coaching changes have been well documented this offseason, with defensive coordinator Dean Pees out after four years on the job and Belichick not naming a replacement (or an official offensive coordinator, for that matter). Instead, he restructured parts of his responsibilities so he could take a more hands-on approach with the defense.

The decision falls in line with other head coaches around the NFL who maintain a coordinatorlike role with their teams, such as New Orleans' Sean Payton (offense), Denver's Josh McDaniels (offense), Dallas' Wade Phillips (defense) and Buffalo's Chan Gailey (offense).

Although Belichick has extensive background on offense, defense and special teams from his 35 NFL seasons, it's probably not a stretch to say that he remains known most for his defensive wizardry. His game plan from Super Bowl XXV against the Buffalo Bills, when he was in his final season as New York Giants defensive coordinator, found a home in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Patriots, with as young a defense as they've had in Belichick's 11-year tenure, could use more of that expertise.

There are some significant questions facing the unit, and none seems more pressing than at one inside linebacker position and both outside linebacker spots. The void at right defensive end thanks to Richard Seymour's departure this past September also has yet to be decisively filled, and the all-important left cornerback spot figures to be manned by a player who was in college as recently as 2008.

Two years ago, the Patriots had the oldest defense in the NFL, filled with coaches on the field like Tedy Bruschi, Seymour, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. The unit was defined, in part, by its championship experience.

Now, it's a much different look, including the coach who is running the show.

"I feel like Bill is doing what he has to do," said outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who is in his second year with the team. "He's trying to get everybody on the same page and have a better defense, a better offense, special teams and everything. This year is a new year, and it's like a fresh start for every team."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.