File this under something to monitor moving forward: Are the Patriots using FS Devin McCourty to replace SS Patrick Chung in the line-up?
McCourty has played nearly every single defensive snap this year, including every snap over the past three weeks, while Chung has seen his snaps decline from 97% in week 2 to 73% in week 3, and just 54% against the Panthers.
In theory, this would make some sense. The Patriots gave Duron Harmon a nice extension this offseason and he’s played 82% of the defensive snaps this year. With Harmon a pure free safety, the coaching staff would have to move McCourty into Chung’s old role in two-safety sets. So maybe it’s as simple as the coaches believing that strong safety McCourty and free safety Harmon is superior to free safety McCourty and strong safety Chung.
And when Chung has been struggling since the start of the 2016 season and not showing any signs of improvement in 2017, then there needs to be a change.
To go further, head coach Bill Belichick always seems to heap more responsibility on the players he trusts, even if it puts them out of their ideal position. For example, Dont’a Hightower is playing on the edge, even though he’s a great middle linebacker, because Elandon Roberts can only play in the middle; Hightower has to move so Roberts can see the field.
In the same way, McCourty has to play the Patriots’ extremely versatile strong safety role to get Harmon on the field.
But just look at all the ways the Patriots used McCourty in the first half against the Panthers in addition to his numerous snaps at safety.
Coverage of Christian McCaffrey
These responsibilities are exactly what the Patriots asked of Chung over the past few years. Chung was one of the most unique defenders in the league from 2014-15 as he played in the slot covering receivers, at linebacker covering running backs, and at strong safety covering tight ends, and he did it all at an exceptionally high level.
Chung was no longer able to play at that level in 2016 and he’s still struggling in 2017. Now it’s up to McCourty to take on that role, with the added benefit of potentially being more capable than Chung in coverage.
“Devin McCourty continued to play a hybrid role in the Patriots defense as 19 of his 63 snaps came at linebacker against the Panthers,” Pro Football Focus reports. “Overall, McCourty played 29.4% of his snaps at LB this season while he lined up at safety on 45.2% of his plays with the rest of his snaps coming at cornerback.”
So McCourty is splitting up his time on the field with roughly 30% of his snaps at linebacker, 45% at safety, and 25% at cornerback. This is not as balanced as Chung’s time in 2015 (he spent roughly a third of his time equally in all three roles), but it’s certainly indicative of the Patriots finding a way for McCourty to eat away at Chung’s snaps as they try to figure out a starting defense capable of holding an opponent to fewer than 30 points.
If Chung remains sidelined on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then his role will no longer need to be monitored. He will have lost his job to the superior combination of McCourty and Harmon.