The NFL is constantly growing as a passing league. With teams loading up on receivers, the need for defensive backs has never been more apparent. The switch has caused defenses to spend less time in typical 4-3 or 3-4 bases, but rather to use five defensive backs, otherwise known as nickel personnel.
The Patriots have been blessed with versatile defensive backs and incredible defensive minds on the sideline. New England has not shied away from leaving their base formations in favor of nickel, or even dime personnel. In 2015, the Patriots spent an astounding 83.5% of their defensive snaps with five or more defensive backs on the field at once.
After losing Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington, it was predicted that the Patriots would forgo defensive backs for pass rushers; however, the Patriots’ use of sub packages increased by 10%.
Last offseason, the Patriots rewarded All-Pro free safety Devin McCourty by making him the second highest paid safety in the league with a five-year, $47.5 million contract. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Patriots had to keep the leader and playmaker that McCourty had become.
Then, this past April, the Patriots extended strong safety Patrick Chung’s contract by adding on one year and $5.7 million in new money. The versatile safety had reformed himself in his second stint with New England, and he had become one of the most underrated defenders in the league.
These moves showed Bill Belichick’s willingness to fortify his defensive backfield for years to come.
While the Patriots boast one of the top safety duos in the entire league, they also have a backup free safety that is destined to be a future starter. Duron Harmon was an essential piece of the Patriots’ secondary, playing in all 18 games and 53.9% of the snaps. He recorded a terrific 58.5 passer rating - the best of Patriots defensive backs with significant playing time.
A team’s nickel defender is typically the third cornerback - in the Patriots’ case, Justin Coleman - yet, the Patriots used Harmon as their fifth defensive back while Coleman was only on the field for 32.8% of the defensive snaps. It was clear that Belichick and company preferred a third safety on the field due to the range and options Harmon gave the defense. In fact, while Harmon played in a little over half the team’s defensive snaps, about 49% of Harmon’s snaps were with McCourty and Chung also on the field.
According to NFL Game Statistics Information System, the Patriots used 10 different defensive combinations that were on the field at least 10 plays during the regular season; McCourty, Harmon, and Chung were included together in six of the 10 combinations. Of those 10 combinations, the best five in average gain per pass against included the three safeties.
The trio of safeties were able to play to each other’s strengths.
With Harmon on the field as the third safety, Chung was given more freedom. Rich Hill detailed Chung’s value to New England’s defense, and the ability to rely on Harmon as the ‘centerfielder’ allowed Chung to use his versatility.
PFF notes that Chung spent 37% of his time as a linebacker, 33% of his time as a slot corner, and 30% of his time as a strong safety (or as an outside cornerback, but that was usually when tight ends were flexed out wide, so that's still the strong safety role).
Harmon’s presence also gives freedom to McCourty, a former cornerback. While McCourty has arguably the best range of any safety in the league, with Harmon adequately taking over as the deep safety, McCourty can provide support in other ways. With three safeties on the field at once, we’ve seen McCourty trailing receivers, splitting the field with Harmon, or even lining up in the slot. The 29-year-old safety is not as versatile as Chung, but he is one of the best at what he does.
The trio of safeties allows the Patriots to match whatever the offense gives them. Harmon and McCourty are both capable of covering the majority of the field in all deep zone coverages; Chung can assume the “robber” role, moving toward the box and slot; all three allow the Patriots play aggressive, man-to-man schemes to suffocate the offense.
DEN 3RD & 11, (10:01) 1ST QTR, BALL AT DEN 19, B. OSWEILER SACKED AT DEN 19 FOR 0 YARDS (R. NINKOVICH).
On this obvious passing down, the Patriots loaded up on defensive backs, lining up in a 3-1-7 “quarters” package. The Patriots actually elected to use four safeties here, substituting in Tavon Wilson due to their third cornerback, Coleman, being inactive. The Broncos came out in 02 personnel, two tight ends and three wide receivers, and in empty formation.
The Patriots used Cover 1 “Robber” to defend the pass: a man-to-man scheme against the five receivers with Harmon over-the-top and Wilson as the “robber.” With Harmon essentially limiting anything that gets past a cornerback, New England has the versatility with their safeties to use Chung and McCourty in press coverage.
As Owen Daniels motioned to the left side of the offense, Chung followed, and Daniels ended up nearly stacked behind tight end Vernon Davis, McCourty’s assignment (I pointed out McCourty and Chung with my cursor). Daniels was lined up slightly outside of Davis, and at the snap, Davis charged forward, hoping to “pick off” Chung. Daniels ran a drag route across the field, and Chung used his terrific closing speed to close off the gap.
The Patriots’ one-on-one matches were successful and with Harmon providing support deep, the Patriots gained a “coverage sack.”
Yet, the Patriots’ defensive backs aren’t just limited to man-to-man schemes with three safeties on the field. While we know that McCourty and Harmon are extremely successful as deep safeties in zone coverage, Chung can also hold his own in the flats, in the “robber” role, or even in hook/curl zones as a linebacker.
Harmon is typically limited to deep zone coverage, but he’s made it an exceptional strength of his. On the other hand, with McCourty’s experience at cornerback, he is free to cover just about any zone.
KC 1ST & 10, (9:40) 1ST QTR, BALL AT KC 30, A. SMITH PASS SHORT LEFT TO A. SHERMAN TO KC 31 FOR 1 YARD (P. CHUNG).
On this play, the Patriots lined up in their typical 4-2-5 package, their true “base.” Before the snap, Chung rolled down from the box into the flats and McCourty rolled down from deep towards the box. Harmon was left as the lone deep safety to patrol the middle of the field in the Patriots’ Cover 3 defense.
In this coverage, Chung and McCourty were relied on to cover the flats. As soon as the fullback, Anthony Sherman, was motioned to the offense’s strong side, Chung knew where the play was going and stepped up to the line of scrimmage.
Harmon’s presence took away any opportunity of Travis Kelce’s corner route, and Sherman was the only option for Alex Smith. Chung was able to pounce on the play, limiting it to a one yard gain.
This play wasn’t incredible and never seen before, but it shows just one of the many formations that the Patriots can line up in with their three safety package. Belichick and Matt Patricia trust Harmon as the deep safety, and it sure helps that Chung and McCourty can be deployed just about anywhere.
With Harmon becoming an unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason, this may be the last season that we see the Patriots use a three safety package so frequently. He’s projected to be a starting safety somewhere and I can’t blame him if he departs from the Patriots.
Enjoy the versatility that the package gives the Patriots defense while we have it, folks.