Quick: Name the most important player in the Patriots secondary for Sunday’s game. Let me guess: You went with Malcolm Butler. He is the Pats' top guy.
Or maybe you’re thinking one of the two “bigger” corners, Eric Rowe or Logan Ryan, both of whom will likely see plenty of snaps against Julio Jones.
Then there’s Devin McCourty. He’s always a good choice. The man is an All-Pro. But I’m here to tell you that while all those guys certainly matter, the right answer is Pat Chung.
According to Pro Football Focus, Chung is one of the worst cover safeties in the league. He hasn’t come close to matching the season he had a year ago, when I made the argument that he was a Pro Bowl performer. Still, for the Pats to have success matching this diverse Falcons offense, Chung will need to rediscover that form, a form that he’s flashed but hasn’t consistently found in 2016-17.
“We ask Pat to do a lot of different things, like we do with all of our players,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “It’s not easy, but Pat will do whatever is asked of him and do it well.”
Chung has usually found himself matched up with tight ends this season and the occasional slot receiver. But against Atlanta, if the Pats decide to go man-to-man, or devote the necessary attention to the two-headed running back monster that is DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Chung’s rare combination of skills would seem to be the best match. It’s either that or rely on the coverage skills of the linebackers, none who’ve proven to be effective in that role.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” said Chung when I asked him about his plethora of responsibilities. “I don’t know really know how to say I’m so versatile. I don’t really know. I got blessed with the body I guess so I can do a lot of things. But I work hard man. Bill [Belichick] trusts me to put me in a lot of different roles and I take that as a privilege and I go out there and show them what I can do.”
Dont’a Hightower will often find himself lined up at the same depth as Chung, despite being several inches taller and, more importantly, 50 pounds heavier. Hightower’s respect for Chung is evident.
“Chung is a linebacker in a safety’s body,” Hightower said. “I get what you say, that he’s versatile. He’s aggressive. He’s something you don’t see, a lot of guys his size in the box, taking on pulling guards, whatever it is.”
Hightower continued, “He knows a lot of the blocking schemes, he knows a lot - he has great football sense. He definitely helps us do a lot of things in the back end and in the front. He covers some of the best, if not the best tight ends in the league, or he’s on a slot receiver and he does such a good job with all of it.”
Logan Ryan shares that Hightower’s admiration for Chung.
“He’s not going to like it, but he reminds of the kid from New Jersey at Michigan, Jabrill Peppers,” he said. “I tell Pat that you’re doing the same thing he is at the NFL level. Safety. Some linebacker stuff. Some coverage stuff. He catches punts. He’s such a good athlete. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that. He won’t speak to it too much. That’s the person he is, but I’m happy to play with him. Pat makes my job easier.”
Ryan is right. Chung has never been one who enjoys talking about himself. But when told of the reverence others have for him, he smiled brightly, then elaborated more on what he has to will his body through to play this hybrid role.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “It can be a small receiver or it can be a 300 pounder. I never know what’s going to happen on any play so it is what it is, you gotta do what you gotta do. You have a job. You have to do it.”
Chung has to dial it up one more time before giving a tired body at least a couple weeks rest before he starts the process of building himself up for another season. One would think that task will be a little easier if the Pats win a second Super Bowl in three seasons, and Chung will play an important role in that.