Last year was an embarrassment for the New England Patriots’ defense, the kind of season they’d like to lock away in the basement and forget about like a troll unfit to face society.

But even though they can’t escape the memories of a pass defense that was the second worst in league history, measures have been taken to ensure rehabilitation. The big, brooding bodies that used to populate the line have been replaced by a group of thinner, more athletic players such as Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Trevor Scott.

 Steve Gregory was brought in from San Diego to close the revolving door at safety, and the hope is that Dont’a Hightower can emerge a playmaker at strong side linebacker.

 The first two preseason games weren’t perfect, but enough progress was displayed to create optimism the defense will be good in 2012.

 “I’m very confident in what we’ve been doing, DT Vince Wilfork said. "The way we’ve practiced, the things we want to do and the communication that we’ve been having. You’re not getting five, six sacks a game; you might walk away with one, you might walk away with none, but that doesn’t mean your rushing isn’t good enough. I’m happy with where we are at.”

 With 26 players not dressing for Monday’s preseason contest against the Philadelphia Eagles, the game served more as opportunity for players lower on the roster to make an impression on the coaching staff. Friday’s game against Tampa Bay should put the starters back on the field and provide a good barometer for the progress that has been made since last season.

 “This third game, I think everyone treats as a regular season game," Wilfork said. "You approach your preparation and everything like that. We’re going to have a lot of quality reps out there and see what we can put together as a team.”

 WELKER, CHUNG SIT: Reports out of Tampa Bay say that WR Wes Welker (unknown) and S Patrick Chung (shoulder) did not participate in Thursday’s practice with the Bucs, bringing the status of both players for Friday into question.

EARLY REVIEWS ON DEMPS: Jeff Demps may still be working into football shape, but the speed of the Olympic silver medalist has been evident to those on the field with him. Bucs rookie LB Lavonte Davis said that Demps has the ability to turn the littlest mistake into huge profits. “He’s a fast back, so when you’re facing a guy like that you have to be real cautious of your technique and things like that,” he said.

Demps should make his debut Friday night against the Bucs.

 UNDERWOOD REWARDED: Former Patriots WR Tiquan Underwood, now a member of the Bucs, was presented with his AFC Championship ring following Wednesday’s practice. “When I got released, Bill kept his word," Underwood said. "He said if we win the Super Bowl, you’ll get a ring, and if we don’t you’ll get a ring.”  

Nick Underhill cover the Patriots for Follow him on Twitter @CBSSportsNFLNE or