New England Patriots Midseason Forum, Part 3: Secondary


Sep 30, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty (32) runs by Buffalo Bills tackle Chris Hairston (75) after intercepting a quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) pass during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Patriots beat the Bills 52-28. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIRE

I was always a safety.

In the early 70’s it was kind of an unwritten law amongst football coaches that the fastest guy on the team was always relegated to Free Safety.  In Pop Warner, my coach told me “Just stand back here until the ball is snapped, then run to where the ball is”.  That was my training to be a safety.

Standing 20 yards off the line of scrimmage, checking out dandelions in the grass, looking up into the stands, trying to pick out my sisters in the crowd – I might as well have been on an deserted island.  Every once in a while, one of their running backs would emerge from the scrum, and I’d run and throw my body into the ball carrier.  As those occasions occurred, I learned about taking proper angles and to wrap up when tackling instead of just delivering a shot that would usually hurt me more than it did the ball carrier.

These thoughts came to me as I sat in the empty stands at the local High School’s football field, watching the city public works crew manicure the field for tonight’s game, trying also to come to grips with the struggles that our “local” professional football team were playing through, particularly in the position that I knew so much – yet so little – about.

Sep 30, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots free safety Tavon Wilson (27) in the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIRE

Funny how the senses work.  The smell of the fresh cut grass, the sight of the field crew painting the lines against a backdrop of the leaves turning, as if a frustrated artist threw his palette against the canvas, causing an explosion of color with no discernible pattern…

Ah, autumn in New England.  Not even the dreariness and grime of this central Maine town can take away from it’s splendor.  I sat in the empty stands for an hour, remembering back to my playing days, musing on the fact that football is much more complicated in it’s dynamics than it was when I played school ball…

I was smaller than most of the other kids on the team, but was also faster than anyone else.  I tried out first as a Running Back.  I had good vision and could see the hole form and I could cut sharply and sprint through it, and was at full speed before reaching the second level – but I had a little difficulty holding onto the ball when my 5 foot nothin’, buck o’ five frame took a shot from one of the bigger linebackers.

So I tried being a wide receiver.  I thought, because of my speed, I could possibly command double teams and take 2 guys out of the play with me – but that doesn’t work when your Quarterback couldn’t throw a pass accurately more than 10 yards.

So I was a safety.  Again. Or still, depending on your point of view.

Over the years since, I still have to pop my shoulder back into place on occasion, and my greying beard covers the long scar under my chin that came from taking a helmet under my facemask.  The knuckles on both hands ache, the result of fractures and breaks and getting them slammed between helmets…

So believe me when I tell you that I understand why it seems that Patrick Chung always seems to be hurt – because he is.  He has to be.  It’s a prerequisite to playing the position.  Name another position on the defense where you can really get a head of steam going before you engage in contact.

But, what is a safety in today’s game, really?  A better question may be, what is a safety for the New England Patriots?  An even better question may be, who is really a safety for the Patriots?

Chung has proven in his three years that he’s too fragile.  His heart is in the right place, but he’s taken so much punishment that nothing else on his body could be.  Newcomer Steve Gregory has shown flashes in pass coverage and is opportunistic but he too is fragile – plus Gregory looks so much like Joey Tribiani from Friends that it’s difficult to take him seriously. ..can see him getting knocked out of bounds over by the cheerleaders, getting up, checking them out, chatting, big toothy grin – “How you doin’?”

Chung and Gregory were the starting tandem when the season started.   Seven short weeks later, the duo have spent more time on the trainer’s table than at practice, leaving Coach Bill Belichick no choice but to resort to the Plug and Play option, fitting anyone back there that is capable.

New England’s last line of defense entrusted to rookies and converted corners?  How’s that working out?

Ask Sidney Rice.  The speedy Seattle Seahawks’ wide receiver split Wilson’s and fellow rookie Nate Ebner’s coverage right down the middle in Seattle, scoring on a 46 yard bomb from Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson for the winning points in Seahawks’s 24-23 upset of the Patriots.

Ask Mark Sanchez and Dustin Keller.  They had a successful day throwing the intermediate stuff against New England last Sunday – and “success” is not a word that you see in the same sentence as Mark Sanchez very often.  Of course it didn’t help the secondary that Sanchez had all day to throw, and his receivers, Keller in particular, were so open that the Patriots’ defenders weren’t even in the frame of the tv cameras.

Fact is, New England’s secondary is in shambles – but we’ve seen this before, and this time Belichick has last season’s hardships as experience to draw from.   Perhaps the most prudent of moves is to finally switch cornerback Devin McCourty back to free safety which, as we saw last season, seems to be a more natural position for him.  Coupled with Rookie Tavon Wilson at the strong position, the move solidifies a backfield that has caused much anxiety amongst the cornerbacks, not to mention the coaching staff and fan base.

At the corners, Alfonzo Dennard is exhibiting the skills and physicality that had him projected to be a late 1st round or early second round pick – and may end up being the steal of the draft when he was selected as an afterthought in the 7th round after slugging a cop a few weeks prior to the draft.

I don’t know about you, but anyone who has the stones to do that, I want that person pushing around the opposition’s best receiver.  Opposite Dennard is a mystery, given that oft-injured Ras-I Dowling has been relegated to the season-ending IR, so that he and Kyle Arrington can’t take turns being in Belichick’s doghouse any longer.  That leaves feisty 2nd year corner Sterling Moore to man the corner while Arrington and 4th year man Marquis Cole to fight for the Nickle and Dime snaps.

In my mind, when Chung and Gregory are finally healthy, they should become depth players.  The combination of Wilson and McCourty are solid – so there’s no reason to break up that tandem…but there is plenty of reason to question how Chung, Dowling and perhaps Gregory continue to hold roster spots past this season – there’s still time for Gregory and Chung to make a case for their return, but Dowling is damaged goods and should be released.

The secondary should have been the Patriots’ priority this past offseason, and they did address it somewhat with the selections of Wilson and Dennard.  Now we’re going to see if the selctions were enough to improve the much maligned secondary.

At this point, the Patriots have no choice but to roll the dice and take their chances.  It’s not as if they can just take their fastest player, throw him back there and tell him to run to the ball…