In order for a team to improve they must first find something to work on. After a loss to the Packers, there should be a lot of food for thought; in my view, the most important place to look comes from the safety position, with a specific focus on Devin McCourty.
McCourty has been outstanding as the single deep safety for most of the season and this isn't an attempt to put him on blast. It's to highlight how the Patriots coverage was beaten by the Packers and what has to change to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The highlight play of the day was Jordy Nelson's huge touchdown in Darrelle Revis' coverage right before the half. While Nelson did a great job of getting free of Revis, the play transformed from a twenty yard gain into a touchdown due to a poor reaction by McCourty. He overran his coverage and opened up the near side of the field for Nelson to run all the way to the goal line.
That wasn't the only play of note. Let's look at the touchdown to tight end Richard Rodgers to see why the Patriots single deep coverage can act as a liability.
This is the play in question. The Packers are lined up with Davante Adams on the far side of the field, lined up in man coverage by Logan Ryan (who, for the record, covered him well). On the near side of the field, the Packers have the tight end Rodgers inline, with Randall Cobb in the slot and Jordy Nelson towards the sideline. Running back Eddie Lacy is in the backfield as an outlet.
The Patriots respond with their man coverage- Revis on Cobb and Brandon Browner on Nelson. Jamie Collins is expected to track Lacy out of the backfield to prevent an outlet throw, while Dont'a Hightower is sitting in the deep zone to defend a portion of the field. Pat Chung is in coverage of Rodgers.
Former NFL safety Matt Bowen highlighted Chung's play in his weekly film review.
I don't know why Patrick Chung opened his hips so early in coverage versus Packers tight end Richard Rodgers on the 32-yard touchdown pass. That created leverage for the tight end on the seam route. Stay square and maintain that cushion through the vertical release.
Here you can see Rodgers splitting between Chung and Hightower to get into the open field. You also see McCourty reacting to Cobb and Nelson by moving to the near sideline. The entire far side of the field is wide open, which is where Rodgers takes advantage of a great pass by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
I asked Bowen to expand on his thoughts with Chung and to explain how it could be fixed. He notes that Chung exited his backpedal far too early. By turning his hips, it allowed Rodgers to run away from Chung- in fact, Chung funneled Rodgers away from the deep safety. Chung should have backpedaled to "maintain his cushion" instead of letting Rodgers get into his route, inside of Chung, and force a late reaction from the Patriots safety.
While Chung didn't maintain his leverage over the tight end's route, it's clear that there was a flaw in the Patriots defense. The Packers stacked the near side of the field with their top tier players to draw McCourty's attention away from the middle of the field, allowing the far side to be completely open.
Again, you should head over to Bowen's film study to see how the Chargers can take advantage of this coverage. He presents a play where Antonio Gates is the benefactor of a hole in the coverage by Seattle, and to be honest Seahawks safety Earl Thomas plays the deep ball in this situation much better than McCourty did in the aforementioned play.
The Chargers have the talented deep threat players to draw coverage, should the Patriots wish to shade both Malcom Floyd and Keenan Allen with McCourty on one side of the field. This would open the far side of the field to their talented tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green to take advantage of either Chung or a linebacker dropped into zone coverage.
Quarterback Philip Rivers loves to throw a couple deep passes per game to Floyd who somehow always manages to come down with the ball. If San Diego is able to confine McCourty to one half of the field, you can be certain they'll take a deep shot down the opposite side line.
How can the Patriots defend this play if they wish to remain in the cover 1? McCourty can't afford to shade one side of the field; instead he needs to follow Thomas' lead, even though they allowed a touchdown on a perfect through. Just like on the Nelson touchdown, McCourty needs to first and foremost uphold the integrity of the deep zone to deter big throws up the middle of the field.
It's an oversimplified solution, but it's a solution nontheless. When McCourty is the only deep player, the Patriots can't afford for him to have a lapse in coverage responsibility.