New England Patriots: Safeties Have Become Big Play Makers in the Secondary

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There’s No Such Thing as Too Many Safeties

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The New England Patriots secondary was under intense scrutiny after the massive turnover that saw all three starters at cornerback from the Super Bowl championship team exit along with top backup Alfonzo Dennard. All Pro Darrelle Revis broke the bank to go back to the New York Jets, Brandon Browner cashed in with New Orleans, and Kyle Arrington was signed to multi-year deal by the Baltimore Ravens.

The players brought in by the Patriots in the offseason hardly engendered confidence in the fan base. Veteran cornerback Tarell Brown was a surprise as the team’s most versatile coverage player in the secondary early in the season. However, after returning from a foot injury that robbed him of his 2014 season, he seemed to be a diamond in the rough as he excelled playing outside in the base defense and sliding inside in the sub package.  

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Unfortunately, Brown ended up on injured reserve with a recurrence of his foot injury. He missed a game after playing Buffalo in week two and tried to come back for the Dallas game. He re-injured/re-aggravated the foot after a strong performance and now is lost for the year.

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Fellow veteran Bradley Fletcher was brought in during the offseason to add some length and size to the secondary. However, he was continually beat in coverage in the first two weeks of the season and never fully regained his confidence after a horrific 2014 season in Philadelphia. Fletcher was a liability in coverage and was released after just two regular season games in New England.

New England is down to just four cornerbacks on the roster with second year undrafted free agent Malcolm Butler as the top coverage corner and third year cornerback Logan Ryan as the starting pair. Rookie Justin Coleman has been the third cornerback and Baltimore castoff Rashaan Melvin has been the fourth cornerback and only played in garbage time.

So how has New England managed to slow opponent’s passing attacks? The safeties. The Patriots roll out three and four safety looks in sub packages as the safeties double as extra cornerbacks. Devin McCourty was an All Pro cornerback as a rookie and has become an All Pro safety.

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The Patriots received criticism in the offseason for letting Darrelle Revis go and re-signing McCourty to a huge contract, but the Belichick Way has always been to reward the versatile players who sacrificed for the team and outperformed their rookie contracts in New England over the mercenary free agents. McCourty has anchored a safety group who has been a key and overlooked strength of the defense.

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McCourty has been a multi-purpose tool in the New England secondary playing free safety and bracketing coverage with Ryan while also moving down and playing nickel corner or matching up with tight ends on occasion in single coverage. As McCourty slides down, Duron Harmon comes on the field as the centerfielder at free safety.

Harmon has excelled at free safety with his closing speed and ability to go sideline-to-sideline in help an impressive part of his game. Harmon showed off his impressive pass catching skills laying out intercept Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill on an overthrown pass. Harmon has three interceptions and been involved four pass breakups (per so far this season.

Strong safety Patrick Chung was a surprise last season as he was expected to be nothing more than a camp body and instead started and was a vital part of the defense. In 2015 he has been taken his game to another level as he has been asked to expand his coverage responsibilities.

Against Miami Chung was tasked with tracking Lamar Miller out of the backfield. Miller had 3 catches for 61 yards and a touchdown against Houston the week prior and Chung had him in coverage in addition to helping stop him in the running game.

Chung has been the primary defender of tight ends and running backs and has excelled in that role. Considering how he struggled at free safety in his first go-round in New England, the turnaround is difficult to grasp. Against Indianapolis, the defensive coordinator Matt Patricia even put Chung on slot receiver T.Y. Hilton and Chung was able to help contain the explosive receiver.

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Behind the impressive safety trio the Patriots have second-round draft pick Jordan Richards. Richards is a short-space defender in the passing game with the type of quick feet that the Patriots target in secondary players. Richards has not had as much playing time as fans may expect with a second-round draft pick, but when on the field he has not been a liability.

Already four deep at safety (not counting special teams players Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner), the Patriots added Indianapolis safety Dewey McDonald to boost their special teams and added two more safeties to their practice squad. As they showed against Miami on Thursday night, New England is going to put their safeties in positions other teams simply do not and give them coverage responsibilities.

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So far, it has been one of the biggest surprise of 2015 as the defense has continued to be stingy in the passing game despite turning over their cornerbacks. Credit goes to the superb play of the safeties through seven weeks.