The State of the Defensive Backfield for the New England Patriots


Last year had every fan of the New England Patriots agonizing over the team’s pass defense. The Patriots were 31st in the league in that department; only the Green Bay Packers were worse. To address this, Head Coach Bill Belichick went into the 2012 NFL Draft and almost entirely drafted defensive players. With the Patriots getting gashed by a rookie quarterback in their latest loss, the team’s defensive backs have been in the doghouse of every fan in New England.

Sep 16, 2012; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; A pair of New England Patriots fans cheer from the stands during the third quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

As such, it would be prudent to look at each player in the defensive backfield one by one and see what he’s contributing to the team. Before this article goes any further, I would like to make one point abundantly clear: it is never the fault of just one player that a game is lost. To say an individual is solely responsible for a loss when there are 53 players on just one of the teams playing, with several coaches and referees involved, is irrational. With that said, here are the defensive backs for the New England Patriots in alphabetical order.

Kyle Arrington – Cornerback

It’s interesting to see if Patriots fans remember how Kyle Arrington came to start. He was added to the Patriots active roster in 2009 to prevent the Cleveland Browns from signing him, and was a gunner on special teams. In the offseason after the 2009 season, one Patriots beat writer went so far as to explain to fans that Arrington was a special teamer, not a true defensive back (even if he was listed as a DB). In 2010, Darius Butler was named a starter and had two awful games to start the season (giving up 133 yards and this touchdown to Chad Ochocinco and allowing this touchdownto Braylon Edwards). In order to send a message, Belichick benched Butler and started Arrington. Arrington was never truly awful afterwards, at least not enough so that Butler could regain a starting position on the depth chart. Arrington was by no means starting caliber, but the Patriots made do.

September 23, 2012; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (82) catches a touchdown pass over New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (24) at M

In 2011, Arrington’s most celebrated season, the former special teamer snagged seven interceptions, and some wondered if he was Pro Bowl material. However, let’s take a look at these interceptions.

1. This pass was tipped by Pat Chung.
2. This pass was tipped by Donald Jones.
3. This pass was thrown behind the receiver.
4. This pass was a desperate throw under pressure.
5. This pass was an underthrown ball under pressure.
6. This pass was tipped by Steve Breaston.
7. This pass was tipped by Jonathan Baldwin.

This isn’t an attempt to delegitimize the picks Arrington accrued, as he does demonstrate impressive ball skills and awareness, but it’s important to recognize that these turnovers were not the result of Arrington being adept in coverage.

This year hasn’t been kind to Arrington. He starts as a corner on the outside, usually on the #2 receiver, but in nickel sets and subpackages he becomes the slot defender with Sterling Moore or Alfonzo Dennard taking up his position on the outside. When you have your #2 corner giving up this, that and the other thing, teams are going to key on him. He has allowed 81% of passes his way to be completed, allowed 357 yards and four touchdowns; quarterbacks have a perfect 158.3 rating when throwing to him.

Patrick Chung – Safety

Patrick Chung is somewhat misused. Back in 2011, before his injury, Chung was used in the box to defend against the run and short passes; he had a particularly stellar game against the San Diego Chargers during which he held Antonio Gates to one target and zero receptions. However, after a good game in Week 9 against the New York Giants, Chung was injured and didn’t return until Week 17. At that point, the coaches decided to play him as more of a free safety, responsible for deeper coverage; that’s something he’s not very good at. It seemed like Chung was drafted to play more like Brandon Meriweather, an in-the-box thumper who didn’t worry too much about getting beat over the top. Perhaps the New England coaching staff panicked when they realized how many yards they were giving up through the air and asked Chung to help them out, but he really hasn’t been very good at giving help over the top. He’s looked lost at times, which is a shame, because he has the physical tools. Maybe better coaching is what’s needed in this scenario.

Marquice Cole – Cornerback

Marquice Cole was brought in from the New York Jets to be a gunner on special teams, but he has worked his way into the defense occasionally this year. Other than missing a tackle against the Buffalo Bills, however, Cole has shown me nothing. He doesn’t figure to play much as the season progresses when there are not only better corners but better gunners (Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner).

Alfonzo Dennard – Cornerback

This is where Patriots fans get excited, and rightfully so. Alfonzo “Fonzie” Dennard was projected to be an early second-round pick for a team in need of an aggressive cornerback, but he ran into some trouble with the law and fell all the way to the seventh round, where the Patriots picked him up. He had some injury troubles in the preseason and struggled to work his way into even being active for a game, but he was extremely helpful against the Denver Broncos. Dennard was thrown at five times and allowed zero catches while knocking away two of the passes. He shut down Eric Decker entirely, and this was based on his skill. Dennard astutely looked back for the ball on all of the passes and completely outshone Sterling Moore, the nickel corner he replaced. Although he allowed a touchdown to Braylon Edwards (it was an objectively bad call by the referees), fans have got to hope he continues to get more playing time. It may be a bold claim, but Fonzie might be the best defensive back the Patriots have.

Ras-I Dowling – Cornerback

This one hurts for me to write about, because Ras-I Dowling one of the players I’m still holding out hope for, even as his playing time dwindles. Despite showing promise in the first week of 2011, Dowling has been injured constantly, and only earned significant playing time against the Titans, during which he was so-so. The Patriots spent a very high draft pick on him, and they hope he develops into a talented corner, but so far he’s not being misused; he’s not being used at all. Belichick might have Dowling in the injury/toughness doghouse, and it’s up to the young corner to dig himself out.

Nate Ebner – Safety

I’ve already written at length about Nate Ebner, about how I hope he’ll become the next Larry Izzo, but you’ll recall that Izzo didn’t really play much on defense; he was relegated to special teams. Unfortunately, because of injuries and fatigue, Ebner is seeing bits of playing time on defense. Don’t misunderstand the use of the word “unfortunately,” as it’s certainly a good thing to get any player experience in game situations, and Ebner is very physically adept. However, he really doesn’t have enough experience to play safety at the NFL level. Playing him now might get him that experience, but it’s hurting the team sometimes. Ebner’s a good kid, but he needs to stick to special teams or playing in the box.

Steve Gregory – Safety

After the horrendous play of James Ihedigbo last season, the Patriots were clearly in need of a new safety. They came up with two solutions for this quandary: grab a veteran and draft a rookie. We’ll get to the rookie later; for now, let’s focus on the veteran Steve “Names” Gregory. Although Gregory was and is better than Ihedigbo in every way, he is still far below league average. Besides blowing deep coverage and looking confused when his assigned man gets a reception, Gregory is the lead culprit for this team’s safeties taking bad angles. He’s not the only one, as Tavon Wilson and Chung have struggled with their angles too, but Gregory is the leading cause. When you’re allowing Dorin Dickerson to make a reception, you know you have a problem. Gregory is injured now, leading to Tavon Wilson seeing an increase in playing time, and right now it looks like that’s for the best.

Devin McCourty – Cornerback

Devin McCourty is a difficult player to judge. He was picked in the first round, which many fans questioned as Darius Butler and Leigh Bodden were projected to start. Although McCourty outshone both of them and earned a Pro Bowl nod, some of his interceptions came as a result of poor throws rather than good positioning. His 2011 season is considered by most to be a disaster as he allowed more than 1,000 yards (second most in the league), but it seemed as though many of these throws came late in the game where McCourty was trying to keep the play in front of him.

May 24, 2012; Foxborough, MA USA; New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty (32) talks with reporters during organized team activities at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

In the subpackages the Patriots ran in 2011, McCourty was shifted from corner to safety to help with the deep balls, and that actually appeared to help the team. This year has been one in which the fans have turned on McCourty, but only because he’s made some mistakes in the limelight. Let’s break down some of these.

  1. On Dennis Pitta’s touchdown, it appeared as though Devin McCourty missed an easy tackle that allowed six points. However, Gregory was supposed to bring him down and made a very poor tackle. McCourty was actually fine on the play; his job was to play the cutback. Pitta simply went over top of Gregory and into the endzone. That’s on Gregory, not McCourty.
  2. Jared Cook’s 35-yard reception was a near garbage time pass into what appears to be three deep coverage. McCourty leaves his man to match up with Cook, but Wilson is late getting to the tight end which allows the catch. This was a pretty well-schemed play for the Tennessee Titans, as they disguised it to look like McCourty’s man was going deep; in fact, this makes it all the more impressive that McCourty is able to read it and get to Cook – albeit just a step too late.
  3. Torrey Smith’s second touchdown against the Patriots was a spectacular throw and catch by the Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco put the ball where only Smith could make a play on it, and Smith did an excellent job adjusting his route and making a tight grab. Darrelle Revis couldn’t defend this pass. It’s arguable that Smith pushed off to create separation, but there was a lot of contact anyway.
  4. Eric Decker’s touchdown is an interesting case. McCourty never looks back for this ball, and that’s a major problem that he needs to correct. However, this ball is thrown into a very tight window, and Decker makes a spectacular grab to bring it in. That’s a pass only the great quarterbacks can make, and very few great cornerbacks can defend it. Even if McCourty had turned around, I’m not sure he would have been able to stop this pass.
  5. As for Demaryius Thomas’ late 28-yard catch for a fourth down conversion, McCourty has been receiving a lot of criticism for what was really a great play on the ball by Thomas. Peyton Manning only needed one yard to convert, but decided to go long. McCourty wasn’t fooled by this, and defended the deep route all the way; in situations like this, the defensive backs are coached to keep the play in front of them. However, he defends the deep route so well that he isn’t prepared for a rather poorly thrown ball from Peyton Manning. The pass is woefully underthrown, and Thomas has to come way back to catch it, on his knees no less. McCourty is almost there to stop the play, but he was prepared for a better pass than was thrown. This isn’t a case of the corner being inept nor the quarterback being great; it’s just the wide receiver adjusting to the pass despite (and, in fact, partly because of) the great positioning by the corner.
  6. Finally, Golden Tate’s golden reception was a bad play by McCourty. I’ll give the angry fans this one; McCourty got bodied by a 5’10” receiver. The most I can defend McCourty by is saying that perhaps Moore was supposed to provide help over top (with Moore, you never really can tell) and McCourty was keeping the play in front of him, but it really looks like Tate got the superior position.

I’m not saying McCourty is on the level of Revis or Joe Haden, but I do think he’s played very well this season. Some say that he’s faced inferior competition this season, which explains him shutting out good receivers, but I don’t quite buy that. Here are the receivers McCourty has matched up against.

Nate Washington:

  • 0 catches against Devin McCourty (his catches in that game were on Arrington and Gregory)
  • 3 catches for 133 yards and one touchdown against the Detroit Lions
  • 3 catches for 43 yards against the Houston Texans
  • 4 catches for 46 yards against the Minnesota Vikings
  • 3 catches for 57 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 2 catches for 20 yards against the San Diego Chargers

Larry Fitzgerald:

  • 0 catches against Devin McCourty (his lone catch was on Jerod Mayo)
  • 4 catches for 63 yards against the Seattle Seahawks
  • 9 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles
  • 8 catches for 64 yards and a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins
  • 8 catches for 92 yards against the St. Louis Rams
  • 6 catches for 93 yards and a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills

Torrey Smith:

  • 3 catches for 48 yards and a touchdown against Devin McCourty (his other catches were on Arrington, Moore and Gregory)
  • 2 catches for 57 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals
  • 2 catches for 51 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles
  • 6 catches for 97 yards and a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns
  • 3 catches for 60 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs
  • 2 catches for 24 yards and a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys

Steve Johnson:

  • 1 catch for 16 yards against Devin McCourty
  • 4 catches for 55 yards and a touchdown against the New York Jets
  • 2 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs
  • 7 catches for 61 yards and a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns
  • 6 catches for 38 yards against the San Francisco 49ers
  • 6 catches for 82 yards against the Arizona Cardinals

Demaryius Thomas:

  • 3 catches for 52 yards against Devin McCourty (4 catches for 123 yards against Moore)
  • 5 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 8 catches for 78 yards and a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons
  • 3 catches for 36 yards against the Houston Texans
  • 5 catches for 103 yards against the Oakland Raiders
  • 2 catches for 37 yards and a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers

Sidney Rice (McCourty lined against him more than he lined up on Tate):

  • 0 catches against Devin McCourty (3 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown against Wilson and Chung)
  • 4 catches for 36 yards and a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals
  • 3 catches for 33 yards against the Dallas Cowboys
  • 1 catch for 22 yards against the Green Bay Packers
  • 4 catches for 41 yards against the St. Louis Rams
  • 5 catches for 67 yards against the Carolina Panthers

If these opposing quarterbacks are so bad, why do these receivers go off almost every game when they’re not lining up against McCourty? These numbers aren’t put here to say he’s better than any other corner these receivers have faced, but merely that these receivers have the ability to have good games, and that doesn’t usually happen against McCourty. Furthermore, McCourty has shown big play ability. He’s had fantastic interceptions and made some sure tackles. He’s only allowed 44.7% of balls thrown his way to be completed. He’s made nine defensive stops in the run game. I understand many Patriots fans want to trash everyone in the secondary and claim none of them can cover, but one must make an exception when talking about McCourty. He’s the least of the Patriots worries and I have full confidence starting him on the opponents’ #1 receiver for the rest of the season.

Sterling Moore – Cornerback

I’ll get this out of the way before any Patriot fan chews me out for what I’m about to type – yes, Sterling Moore made a very nice play on the ball to knock it out of Lee Evans’ hands, setting the Ravens up for a field goal they would eventually miss, sending the Patriots to the Super Bowl. Now that that’s been taken care of, do Patriots fans really want to defend the guy who allowed Mario Manningham to make that sideline grab in the Super Bowl, keeping the winning drive alive for the New York Giants? That play was all his fault, yet I constantly hear earfuls about McCourty missing plays. Moore taketh a conference championship and Moore giveth away the league championship.

Oct 7, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) catches a pass while being defended by New England Patriots safety Sterling Moore (29) during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-US PRESSWIRE

Actually, let’s go back to that AFC Championship game that Moore played so “well” in. Remember that 29-yard touchdown Smith caught? That one was on Moore. Somehow Patriots fans are able to forget two bad plays and glorify Moore for one good one. That’s all last year. Surely Moore has improved for this season, right?

Well, not so much. Either he shows an inability to read a play, difficulty with covering over the top, or just about everything Demaryius Thomas did to him. Even the last play in which Moore knocks the ball loose involved him getting scorched. Moore is struggling to stay on this roster. Everyone likes great defensive plays, but he’s coasting on one that doesn’t excuse his poor performance in other games. I hope Dennard continues to play over him.

Tavon Wilson – Safety

Tavon Wilson is difficult to judge so early in his career. He was a virtual nobody in college when compared to other safeties, and the Patriots picking him in the second round seemed like the most massive reach of the entire draft. However, he has shown steady improvement, and he looks to be better than Gregory and Ihedigbo. He still takes poor angles to the ball, and the winning 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice was a result of Tavon’s mistake in the Cover 2, but he’s a rookie, and he’ll make rookie mistakes. I’ve seen him make solid plays as well, but I think everyone is in agreement that his interception against the Bills was more of a bad throw by Fitzpatrick than a good play by Wilson.

The Coaching Staff

I don’t know who’s to blame here. Is it Head Coach Bill Belichick? Is it Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia? Is it Cornerbacks Coach Josh Boyer? Is it Safeties Coach Brian Flores? What about Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio? Whatever the case, there has been some boneheaded coaching out there. The defensive backs, with the exception of Dennard don’t seem to know when to look back. When in the redzone, the defensive backs give at least ten yards of cushion, which leaves them out in no man’s land to defend a pass. Brandon Spikes, a middle linebacker who runs a 5.0 40-yard-dash, was matched up man-to-man on Jacoby Jones (one of the faster players in the league), resulting in a 41-yard completion when a speedier player (say, a DB) should have been matched up on Jones. Moore was routinely abused by Demaryius Thomas whenever McCourty wasn’t matched up on him; Dennard was only sent in towards the end, and only then to cover Decker. The linebackers are often stuck in the middle of the field covering absolutely nothing, in no way contributing to the play.

I’m not willing to blow up the Patriots secondary yet. There are some problems, but nothing that isn’t fixable. The Patriots are allowing 288.8 yards through the air per game thus far this season. Last year they allowed 293.9. It’s not a gigantic improvement, but it’s a start. This team is better than it was last season. They’ll be fine.

You can follow Christopher Field on Twitter @ChrisDField.