The New England Patriots defense played arguably its best game of the season on Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The unit, which gave up only 14 points, looked much improved when compared to its week four performance against the Carolina Panthers. And even though coordinator Matt Patricia's unit still has a long way to go, it made a step into the right direction on Thursday.
In order to achieve that, the coaching staff made numerous adjustments; some more easily noticeable than others. Two of the most important ones came in regards to defensive back Devin McCourty and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who were both used in slightly different roles against Tampa Bay – a trend that might continue in the upcoming weeks.
During yesterday's conference call, head coach Bill Belichick explained why players like McCourty and Hightower get moved around the formation: “It depends on what we're doing and who we're doing it against,” Belichick pointed out before adding that “the long and short of it is we try to put our players in the best position that we can for that situation”.
For McCourty, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, this meant being used as a more traditional free safety as opposed to an in-box player. While he lined up in the box on 45.6% of his snaps entering week five, the 30-year old played that role to on only 21.9% of snaps on Thursday. Overall, McCourty played a season-high 43 snaps as a deep safety.
McCourty was not the lone defender to be employed in a different role yesterday as Hightower also saw a change in usage. “Dont'a's a very versatile player,” Belichick said about the defensive captain. “He’s played a lot of different positions for us on the line, off the line, linebacker, coverage, rushing inside, rushing outside, but I think last night he probably played as many plays as he’s played all year.”
Hightower was on the field for 62 of a possible 72 defensive snaps and according to his coach, this allowed the team to put more responsibilities on his shoulders: “He was in for more plays and he had an opportunity to do more things and be used in different groupings and roles,” Belichick noted. Specifically, that meant moving Hightower away from the edge more often and into the heart of the defensive formation.
Overall, according to PFF, Hightower was used on the interior on 33.9% of snaps against Tampa Bay, compared to only 4.2% of his snaps entering the contest. When listening to Belichick, it becomes clear why this shift happened: “If [players] don’t play very many plays then they’re probably going to play those plays in a more specific role. As the volume picks up and they’re in on more groupings and in on more situations, then a versatile player like [Hightower] would be used in multiple ways.”
That was exactly what happened yesterday – and it was far from the only change for Hightower. One of the under-the-radar story lines of Thursday's game was the 27-year old's return to a role that has more or less been his since midway through the 2013 season: that of defensive signal caller.
Entering the season and with Hightower seeing most of his playing time on the defensive edge, interior linebacker Kyle Van Noy took over play calling responsibilities. Van Noy wore the helmet with the famous green dot on it for the first four weeks of the season and also started the game against the Buccaneers as the defense's signal caller. However, by the time the contest ended, Hightower was back at the wheel.
The change, which appeared to have happened during halftime, might also have been a result of Hightower's added workload. Moving forward, it would therefore not be a surprise to a) see him return as the signal caller and b) see him return as a chess piece along the front line of the defense. Both aspects of his game have helped the Patriots' defense turn the corner in 2016 – maybe they will help in 2017 as well.