Prior to the season, the Patriots made waves by dumping two of their top safeties- and letting a third walk. James Sanders departed to the Atlanta Falcons, Brandon Meriweather went to the Chicago Bears, and Jarrad Page signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots were left with a barren cupboard of safeties behind Pat Chung, and the following players have filled in at safety throughout the season:
That's not a good carousel of players. The low level of play from the safety position has been a point of contention amongst Patriots fans, as the cornerbacks have not been able to trust the safeties to, well, be their safety net. Devin McCourty's production fell off the map as he had zero help from the safety position and the Patriots became the worst team in the NFL at defending the big play. That's an issue.
Now that it's towards the end of the season, we can examine two different points:
1. How did the Patriots still make it to the Super Bowl, with the low level of play from their safeties?
2. How did the safeties the Patriots did not elect to bring back perform?
Luckily for us, Pro Football Focus has an answer to at least part of those questions.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) documents all sorts of statistics and while their grading system may not be perfect, they do a stellar job with the numbers. The went through all of the safeties and evaluated their tackling ability by creating a ratio of made tackles:missed tackles. While angles are not taken into account and many safeties resulted in a non-attempt at a tackle, you'll be surprised at some of the names on the list (minimum 175 snaps, 88 players qualify, Chung, Brown, and Ihedigbo are the only Patriots to qualify for the rankings).
A score of 7.8 is the middle of the league at 44th overall.
Coming up in 17th place is the Patriots Pat Chung who missed 4 tackles compared to his 46 successful take downs for a score of 11.5. Chung was the best safety on the Patriots roster and then there's a huge drop off.
Here are the other rankings:
Matthew Slater 9.0 (did take some terrible angles)
Josh Barrett 7.0
Sterling Moore 7.0
Sergio Brown 5.8 (64th place)
James Ihedigbo 5.5 (67th place)
Ross Ventrone 3.0 #MrReally
Oh dear. It seems as if the Patriots got the raw end of the deal as Brown and Ihedigbo- Sanders/Meriweather/Page's replacements- finished around the bottom 25% of the league. Tough luck for Belichick and Co.
But for fun, let's look at how the three former Patriots finished:
James Sanders 6.8 (55th place)
Brandon Meriweather 5.4 (68th place)
Jarrad Page 5.1 (74th place)
Oh. That puts things into perspective. For how terrible the Patriots safeties performed this season, both Meriweather and Page did worse. As in, worse than Sergio Brown bad. As in, wow, they're both in the bottom 20 safeties of league bad.
Sanders finished better in 55th place and would have been an improvement over Ihedigbo and Brown. Here's a table of the production of the safeties, separated by missed tackles in run defense and pass defense:
Comparing those numbers, a Chung-Sanders backfield probably would have been ideal- although Sergio Brown represents a proportional drop-off. It's interesting how bad all of the safeties are, outside of Chung, at defending the run, while Ihedigbo remains at the bottom in defending the pass.
PFF also makes a list of "yards/coverage" which is a result of how many yards allowed per times dropped into coverage. These numbers might surprise you (85 players qualify):
Sergio Brown 0.25 (3rd in the league)
James Ihedigbo 0.68 (50th in the league)
Jarrad Page 0.69 (didn't qualify, projects for 51st)
Pat Chung 0.74 (58th)
James Sanders 0.90 (73th)
Brandon Meriweather 0.91 (76th)
These show that Brown and Ihedigbo were actually much better cover safeties than Sanders and Meriweather. Their main flaws were their ability to read the play as a back-stop and that is derived from a lack of experience. Brown and Ihedigbo were unable to diagnose the play, which leaves other members of the secondary out to dry while in coverage. When given a player to cover and told what to do, they did very well.
So what does this show? It can project that the Patriots could have made it to the Super Bowl with any of these safeties. It also shows that safety is a huge position of need as the depth behind Pat Chung is a bunch of Brandon Meriweathers.
Belichick ends up on top of his roster projections. I'm sure he wouldn't have minded Sanders still on the team, for both his leadership and his ability, although it's not as if Sanders is such a large step above Brown or Ihedigbo.
At the end of the day, I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots played Devin McCourty at safety for the majority of the Super Bowl.