PATS REPORTER

Perry: Secondary versatility silences Darren Waller

PATS REPORTER

Consider how the Patriots roster would've looked had it not been for COVID. The thing would've been overrun with safeties. 

The Patriots had Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty as their staples headed into the offseason. Then they added Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis via free agency. They started cross-training Joejuan Williams to be able to take on safety responsibilities. They selected Kyle Dugger out of Lenoir-Rhyne with their first pick in the draft. Terrence Brooks had a strong training camp and stuck with the club. Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty have taken snaps in safety roles. 

Even with Chung opting out prior to the start of training camp, the Patriots seemingly have a surplus of versatile defensive backs. But that's exactly how Bill Belichick wants it. He said as much earlier this month when he was asked about signing Phillips, who can play as a strong safety, at the linebacker level and in the kicking game.

"Adrian's a very experienced player and when we signed him, we talked about that and our defense," Belichick explained. "Because we have to defend so many different things from a week-to-week basis, teams are using more and more formations and personnel groupings and motions and just deceptive things for the defense, even though a lot of their plays are the same, they look a lot different. They might run the same play four or five times in a game, but it looks different every time, or they might switch personnel groups and things like that. 

 

"I think that's an advantage to have some versatility defensively and also defensive players that are instinctive and can recognize the play and not get distracted by all the other things going around it are guys that can really be productive and have plays that they just anticipate and are there to make a play on."

Having that type of setup defensively was particularly useful during Sunday's 36-20 win over the Raiders and their uber-productive 28-year-old tight end Darren Waller. 

The epitome of a matchup problem, Waller is long at 6-foot-6 and weighs almost 260 pounds. He's too big for most corners to match up with him in the running game. He's too fast for linebackers to take him in the passing game. And he aligns everywhere. 

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How did Jon Gruden expect the Patriots to try to slow down Waller? Use a shutdown corner like Stephon Gilmore? 

"If," Gruden said quickly, "they can find him."

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As Belichick noted, with all the variety they see from offenses week to week -- including versatile offensive weapons like Waller moving all over formations throughout the course of a game -- Patriots safeties are vitally important. 

On Sunday, just about every versatile defensive back the Patriots have on the roster saw some work on Waller. For the game, after lighting it up just days earlier against the Saints, Waller had two catches for nine yards on four targets. 

His first grab came with just over four minutes left in the game and the Patriots up 36-13.

It's happened often enough that it should come as no surprise, but Belichick's defense erased the opposition's best player. That's no small deal considering the respect the Patriots had for Waller entering the weekend.

"Yeah, I think, Coach Gruden does a great job of trying to disguise his guys and move them around and make it tough for you to actually take him off the field, so to speak," said Phillips, who knows Gruden well from his time with the Chargers in the AFC West. "It's gonna be tough and we know that they're gonna have a lot of shifts, a lot of motions, different personnels in different gimmicks. 

"It really comes down to our base fundamentals and making practice harder than the game and then once we get that out there in a game we'll see how the tempo is going, see how they're trying to utilize them, and then make adjustments so we know that every week one of the best players on the offense, with any team, they know that a certain coverage is coming or a team is going to try to take them out of the game so when you have an offensive guru like Gruden who's going to move them around and do different stuff with them. That actually makes the game more fun and more challenging so it'll be interesting to see how they do that."

 
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Who did Waller remind Devin McCourty of? 

"Probably a guy like Brandon Marshall," McCourty said. "Even like -- obviously not the same -- but like a Calvin Johnson. With his size and speed, he's more like those guys compared to just, you know, a true tight end. He's a guy who, in their offense, he does play outside at the X or Z. He does play (as) a fullback. He does play at the actual true C-area tight end. 

"But he's big, he's strong and he can run, and I think you see that. Last year, they had a quick screen pass to him against Denver, and it goes for like 80 yards. But for like 40 to 60 of those yards, when you see him, see the open field and he bursts, you can see how fast he is. So, challenges he brings, he brings every challenge you can think of. It's covering him, it's then tackling him, it's knowing where he is in their offense, how they might use them. They use him in so many different ways, you're not going to get a true bead on it, but it's just understanding awareness and how he can hurt you and knowing that we all have to be alert. It's not like a, 'This guy's going to go take Waller and take him out of the game.' It won't be like that. It'll be a team effort. You saw Monday night with just so many catches, 16 targets. They're looking for him, so it'll be a whole team effort."

And it was. 

Phillips saw Waller -- who came into the game questionable to play with a knee injury -- in coverage on the first pass play of the game. Jason McCourty saw plenty of early-down work on Waller. Williams was the choice for Waller early in the game on third downs, his length a good choice to match Waller's physical skills. Jon Jones ran with Waller along the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter. Devin McCourty, robbing crossing routes as a free safety, deflected two Derek Carr attempts for Waller -- both of which were nearly picked.

After Williams was flagged a second time for holding Waller, Dugger became the choice to take Waller on third downs. Pretty steep climb for the second-rounder out of Lenoir-Rhyne, but he handled the duties without incident to make good on the trust his team showed in him.

"The first thing that I noticed was he's smart, so we didn't get a chance to meet in person for a long time because we did everything virtually," Phillips said of Dugger. "But going through the meetings, this is a guy that can pick up on the scheme real quick. I would say this isn't the easiest scheme to pick up. There's a lot of things that go into it, but once you get it, you got it. And the way that he just picked it up and he's able to talk ball, seeing that in a rookie, you really don't see that a lot of times. 

 

"The only other time that I've really seen that was with Derwin James. And so I noticed that a little bit. And when you see him in person, it's just his physical stature, like 6-[foot]-2, 6-3, you know, big guy. And he's running and he's able to cover the tight ends, he can get down in the box, he can knock some heads off, so he's solid. It's good to see how much in tune he is with watching film and stuff like that as a rookie, because a lot of times rookies are just trying to find their way, they still might be into the college mentality. But he came in like he's a pro already, so it's cool to see it."

That's lofty praise -- "Derwin James is a really good player, so that's definitely a compliment; I think that's really nice of him, really cool of him to make that comparison," Dugger said -- but it speaks to just how many versatile defenders the Patriots possess. Even the rookie from Division II is ready to go when called upon. 

Plenty of challenges for the Patriots' safety group remain on the schedule. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is next up on the schedule. Could be a job that falls to Phillips. Or Dugger. Or Williams, who helped keep Waller quiet before being penalized twice. Prior to Sunday's game, the Patriots liked what they'd seen from him as well.

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"What his second year looks like now was a guy who's not really just a corner," Devin McCourty said. "He's a hybrid. He's a defensive back. In our defense, he lines up sometimes where he's at kind of a linebacker role, sometimes at a safety role, sometimes at a corner role. And I think that's enabled him to be out there making plays, because he does have a unique skill set where he's long, he's very physical, doesn't mind contact."

Whoever it is the Patriots face -- a true No. 1 wideout, an athletic tight end, a pass-catching back -- they seem to have an answer thanks in part to the versatile secondary they've built. It showed up on Sunday.