AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - Bill Belichick’s never been shy about getting the players who play the best on the field as much as possible.
So, when he looked at a crowded secondary this summer, the Patriots’ coach didn’t view every spot as a defined position. Instead, he analyzed the skill set of his players and decided that the Pats needed their top three safeties - Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Pat Chung - on the field as much as possible. Just past the midway point of the season, Belichick and his defensive coaching staff have managed to do that quite a bit.
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McCourty missed one defensive snap all season, the last play of the opener (590). Harmon has often times found himself as that single-high safety (479) while - as illustrated earlier - Chung has played 83 percent of the snaps, although about a third of those designated as a cornerback (494 total/333 as safety). There are only two other teams in the NFL that play three safeties as often as the Patriots: the Chiefs (Ron Parker, Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray) and Broncos (Justin Simmons, Darian Stewart and Will Parks).
When I asked Belichick about all that the responsibilities he puts on that safety trio, the coach wouldn’t single out just those three. He also highlighted veterans Nate Ebner and Jordan Richards.
“That’s good group really with Pat, Devin, Duron, Jordan, Nate gives us a lot in the kicking game. That’s five guys that all help us in a lot of different ways…they all are pretty versatile,” said Belichick.
Versatility is a critical element to the Patriots being able to put those players on the field and keep them there, no matter what the opposition throws New England’s way.
“You see Jordan play strong safety, you see Jordan come in in multiple defensive back sets. You see Chung play a corner type of role sometimes. I play a corner type of role. I think it allows us to say ‘if they come out in this personnel, we’ll be ok’” said Devin McCourty. “We’ll just match up these guys in whatever different role in the defense and it’ll work.”
Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done when you consider what personnel the opposing team can employ. In the opener against Kansas City, the Pats tried and failed to match up with an explosive grouping that including Tyreek Hill and DeAnthony Thomas, wide receivers who can line up in the backfield and take a handoff as well.
The opponent Sunday, Oakland, doesn’t have those kinds of pieces, but the Raiders still have players in place that can keep defensive coordinators up at night. The suspicion here though is that Matt Patricia sleeps better than most, in part because of his secondary.
“A team like Oakland will come in what we call ‘oh 1’ personnel where they have four receivers and [tight end Jared] Cook on the field, which is kind of like a fifth receiver,” noted McCourty. “We can easily stay in different groups and say ‘all right, this is how we want to match that.’ Where if we didn’t have that versatility we’d have to start to run corners on and then they keep [Marshawn] Lynch on the field in place of Cook and run the ball. There’s so many different things that the offense can do to mismatch personnel. Having the versatility and players who understand different roles allows players to stay calm and match up.”
There’s also an unseen element to what this safety group brings to the field every week. That’s their experience, not just in the NFL, but together. There’s comfort in knowing the guy next to you has seen the same things you have and can go through their mental Rolodex to recall and adjust to personnel groupings and formation changes that maybe weren’t prepared for during the week (yes, even with Belichick as the coach that happens).
“I’ve been playing with Pat and Dev - all of us being together - this has been four years and you don’t catch that too often, especially three safeties,” said Harmon. “I just think us being able to be in a whole bunch of different positions, being able to learn from each other and playing together has allowed us to even been more versatile with each other and be able to run more things, have a better feel for the defense and put ourselves in maybe different positions that you wouldn’t put anyone else in.”
“We don’t have many groups like us that have been together for the last four or five years,” said McCourty. “We don’t always break things down as the strong safety, free safety, the money back, like a lot of things we did, it’s just a position, a spot on the field. I think we all understand that all three of us or all four of us on the field at any time can play at any of those positions. I think that allows us to say, ‘Remember last time we did this, in this game, you were here and you were there’ but this time because this is what they like you go here and I’ll go there. This that allows us to understand what we do defensively but also match it to whatever the offense does. Obviously, that’s what the coaches want to do. When the players can do that, it always helps.”
Belichick knows this and it’s pretty clear this trait - the ability to adjust on the fly - is something he appreciates a great deal. That’s why over the past five games, you haven’t noticed nearly as much movement and - let’s face it - confusion as there was in that first month. The players have shared history to fall back on and it’s smoothed out the communication and led to a much higher level of play.
“We can definitely go back to things that maybe we haven’t done in a while, talk about how we used this against Tampa or we used this against Buffalo or somebody and there’s good recall and good application of it,” Belichick said. “Yeah, there’s times where that definitely helps. Same thing on the offense, with guys like Tom [Brady], James White, Rob [Gronkowski], Danny [Amendola] - guys that have done things together for multiple years. You got a situation that’s similar to a situation you had awhile back, you can go back and refer to that. You’re not going to be able to do that with Deatrich Wise or [Jacob] Hollister. They just haven’t had that kind of experience. But with experienced players, sure, that comes up from time to time. That’s a good reference.”
So, don’t be surprised Sunday in Mexico City if you see Harmon shaded over the top of Amari Cooper, or McCourty in the box providing an extra run fit, or Chung playing slot corner or linebacker. It’s old hat for a group that is asked to do more and routinely responds well to those challenges.