The New England Patriots have curiously devoted an abnormally large portion of their roster space to the safety position. There are currently eight safeties on the active roster and an additional two on the practice squad. So what's demand for more safeties?
Right off the bat, we see that six out of the top ten special teams players are safeties, and that isn't including Matthew Slater who probably has more snaps at safety in his career than at wide receiver. The other three players are linebacker Jonathan Freeny, running back Brandon Bolden, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
The Patriots are trying to phase Devin McCourty out of his special teams role since the team came out of the bye week. Once a core four special teamer, McCourty is now just a bit player, which is probably for the best. As a result, the Patriots added another safety to the roster to take his position.
Still, that doesn't fully explain Bill Belichick's total affection for the position. I decided to delve into the team's personnel packages over the first half of the season to see how the Patriots deployed their defensive roster.
The Patriots have 5+ defensive backs (DBs) on 84.3% of snaps
The secondary stalwarts of Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler have been on the field a whopping 98.4% of the snaps. While injuries and a rotation have prevented the second cornerback from showing a similar snap rate, Logan Ryan has been an every snap player as of late. Patrick Chung plays roughly 80% of the snaps every game, with the defense turning the keys over to rookie Jordan Richards when Chung needs a breather.
Safety Duron Harmon and cornerback Justin Coleman both have their roles, too, with Coleman playing the primary nickel corner role, while Harmon comes on as the free safety when McCourty is asked to play closer to the line of scrimmage. The Patriots lean towards their safeties when the opposing offense features multiple tight ends in their attack, while Coleman gets his time when opposing team has three quality receivers.
New England has 4 DBs on just 14.9% of the snaps, 3 linebackers (LBs) on 15.7%
There have been four goal line plays where the Patriots have used just two safeties, which have curiously been a unique pairing of Devin McCourty and Nate Ebner. New England has played three linebackers on 81 plays this season. Four of these plays were the aforementioned goal line plays, leaving 77 plays for other packages.
The defense has deployed three linebackers and five defensive backs on just three plays this year, all of which came against the Jaguars with the curious collection of Geneo Grissom, Jabaal Sheard, and Malcom Brown on the defensive line, Jerod Mayo, Dekoda Watson, and Jonathan Freeny at linebacker, and a secondary of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman, Duron Harmon, and Jordan Richards.
The Patriots really only use three linebackers when they field four defensive backs. 42 of these 74 plays have come with Jerod Mayo on the field, where opposing offenses have yielded 22 runs and 20 passes. 50 of these plays have Jonathan Freeny (23 runs, 27 passes) and 58 have come with Dont'a Hightower (32 runs, 26 passes). Jamie Collins has played 72 of these 74 plays so he is clearly the pivot for this package.
The NASCAR package has been used on a mere 27 snaps (5.2%)
The Patriots have had plenty of depth at defensive end, but they rarely use them at the same time, and they haven't really used it since week 2. The package included Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard, and then either Rufus Johnson or Geneo Grissom. Grissom played a lot in week 1 due to Dominique Easley's injury. Johnson hasn't played outside of week 2.
It's no coincidence that the Patriots run defense has been #1 in the league since the team put this personnel group to the side. The Patriots have used four defensive ends on 29 plays, but two of them were goal line packages with two additional defensive tackles.
Three defensive end (DE) packages make up 21.3% of the defense
The Patriots have played just 15.5% of the time with three defensive ends since Jabaal Sheard has been sidelined versus 30.8% of the time when he was healthy. The defense hasn't seemed to struggle, but the loss of Sheard definitely takes a couple pages out of the playbook.
The Patriots don't use three defensive tackles (DTs) very much
Despite having such a wealth of defensive tackles, Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have decided to stay focused on the 4-man front instead of utilizing a 3-4 front to catch opposing teams off guard. The defense has played just 15 snaps with three defensive tackles on the field and opponents ran the ball on 9 of these occasions.