New England Patriots S Patrick Chung started off the season on the wrong foot and appeared to struggle over the first quarter of the season. He was banged up and dealing with minor injuries and he appeared to be a step slow in coverage every single time.
I think Chung is finally healthy because his performance against the Steelers matched the lofty standards he’s set over the past two seasons as one of the most versatile players in the NFL.
“Yeah, Pat’s got really good skills, very tough, very good tackler and he matches up against a lot of players,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Tuesday. “He’s been on receivers, he’s been on fast tight ends, he’s been on big tight ends, he’s been on backs. He’s got good quickness, good strength, instinctive, tough, mentally tough, physically tough, very good tackler. Guys can catch passes on him but usually he tackles them so that keeps some of those plays from becoming bigger plays and that’s important, too.
“He can play zone, he can play man. He’s a versatile player for us. He helps us in a lot of ways and he plays in the kicking game and you’ve seen him make plays on special teams as well. He’s one of our best conditioned athletes. He’s able to play a lot of plays and able to play them at a high level.”
Let’s look how Chung impacted all three plays on the Steelers opening drive and helped force a three-and-out.
1-10-PIT 25 (15:00) L.Jones pass short left to A.Brown to PIT 28 for 3 yards (P.Chung).
Chung starts out as the weak side safety on the far side as he and LB Jamie Collins are trying to confuse back-up QB Landry Jones. Collins pretends like he’s going to blitz, which would result in Jones trying to throw the ball where a blitzing Collins would vacate.
In reality, Collins is dropping into coverage to remove the inside seam pass, while Chung is creeping up to cover WR Cobi Hamilton in the slot. Jones doesn’t bite on the fake blitz and ends up throwing to WR Antonio Brown. Chung is in position to make the tackle (arguably for negative yards after the catch) after creeping up to cover Hamilton.
2-7-PIT 28 (14:19) L.Bell up the middle to PIT 28 for no gain (A.Branch). FUMBLES (A.Branch), and recovers at PIT 28. L.Bell to PIT 28 for no gain (R.Ninkovich).
Chung is covering Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell on the far side of the field. This is a match-up I think the Patriots should utilize more often; Chung should cover receiving backs because the linebackers always seem a step too slow.
If a linebacker had covered Bell, I’m sure Jones would’ve thrown to Bell, but instead Bell is motioned back inside the pocket. The Patriots have a 7-on-6 advantage inside the box so Bell runs away from Chung to the right side of the formation.
Patriots DT Alan Branch managed to grab Bell and forced a fumble, ending the play. But let’s check the end zone footage for a better angle.
Bell (#26) wants to run between the left guard (#73) and the center (#53), but DT Anthony Johnson (#96) actually does a nice job getting the inside leverage on the left guard, forcing Bell to bounce to the right. LB Jamie Collins (#91) actually diagnoses the run and wants to plug the original running lane, but his reaction moves him out of Bell’s second rushing lane.
Branch (#97) has to shed the center to make the one-armed stop, but if you look closely you can see Chung’s impact. Chung is responsible for defending the strongside of the formation and is the key reason why Bell bounces to the right instead of to the left. You can also see Chung hit the center, which likely played a role in freeing Branch and allowing the defensive tackle to make the stop.
“He’s great at [playing at the line of scrimmage],” Belichick said. “Finding the ball, getting through traffic, fitting in the running game, covering in traffic. He knows all of those kinds of things. He’s really good at that.”
3-7-PIT 28 (13:36) L.Jones pass short middle to X.Grimble to PIT 33 for 5 yards (P.Chung).
Chung covered a wide receiver in the slot on first down, a running back by the sideline on second down, and he was asked to cover TE Xavier Grimble on third down.
You can see the Steelers run a pretty obvious pick play to remove LB Jamie Collins from the equation (he’s at the bottom of the screen), but Chung has a clear coverage lane of Grimble on the inside.
Chung’s closing speed is evident and it is what was missing over the first few weeks of the year. Grimble makes the catch, but Chung makes the stop short of the first down marker and Pittsburgh is forced to punt.
Chung finished the game allowing just 17 yards on 3 receptions and two additional passes defended. He continued to play excellent run defense.
If Chung can continue to play at this high level for the rest of the season, the Patriots defense will continue to ascend and improve because the other players feed off of his ability. His run defense allows the Patriots to play with just two linebackers on the field. His coverage ability allows the Patriots to match-up against tight ends and slot receivers.
This is how Chung is best utilized and how he’s been such an important part of the defense in his second stint with the Patriots. Even Belichick admits that he wasn’t using Chung correctly in the safety’s first time around.
“We were trying to deal with other things on the defense and we’ve been able to I would say play him in a much better way in the last three years than we did when he was here the first time,” Belichick said. “I think our utilization of him has been better. He’s been pretty much the same player but I think we’ve been able to utilize him better the last three years and he’s done a great job embracing the different responsibilities that we’ve given him, which he has a lot of different things to do on the defense within the game or from game to game.”
Over the summer, we argued that Chung is a one-of-a-kind player due to his versatility. After a slow start, Chung appears to be back in his top form and ready to help the Patriots defense make a statement to the rest of the league.