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Patrick Chung is New England Patriots’ defensive Swiss Army Knife

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After a rough 2016, Patrick Chung is lining up all over the formation this season, and like the rest of the defense, things are getting better.

Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If you’re like us and you may or may not have watched the Rodney Harrison episode of “A Football Life” twice the night it came out, remember this Tedy Bruschi quote about Rodney?

“We need another linebacker in the box? Have Rodney do it. We need a safety to come down and play man-to-man on a displaced tight end? Rodney’ll do it. OK, we’re in goal line, we need another edge defender...Rodney’ll do it.”

Aside from Bruschi apparently also being one of the cool kids called defensive ends and outside ‘backers “Edge Defenders”, Bru also may as well have been describing nominal safety Patrick Chung playing almost as many positions as LeBron James does this season. The dude’s been lining up all over the place.

Due in part to a slew of injuries at cornerback and due in at least equal part to the Patriots defense starting the season looking like they might not even be able to make the College Football Playoff, New England’s been forced to rely on their three-safety looks featuring a no-plays-off Devin McCourty, Duron “The Voice” Harmon, and the admittedly up-and-down Patrick Chung. The Sunday afternoon eyeball test will tell you that both McCourty and Chung have been playing more snaps in the box than usual (although that eyeball test occasionally tends to get hazy towards the end of the game). What you may not expect is this:

So, doing some quick math here, that puts Chung at playing a bit under two-thirds of his snaps this season as a defensive back, whether it’s at safety or corner. The rest of those are probably best summed up by Chung flying all over the formation on drives like this one from the Broncos game, courtesy of NBC Sports Boston’s Mike Giardi:

Sunday night’s game in Denver allowed us to see all the faces of Pat Chung, football-wise. On one snap, he lined up as the nickel cornerback opposite the Broncos’ third wide receiver, Cody Latimer. On the very next play, Chung found himself lined up in the box, essentially playing the role of outside linebacker. Then later on the same drive, the versatile safety was head-up on the tight end, Jeff Heuerman. Welcome to Pat’s world, where life is rarely the same from one play to the next.

To hear Pat tell it, that’s been his job ever since he signed on for a second go with the Patriots after a rough year in Philadelphia.

Also from NBC Boston:

“Things just change depending on gameplan or the call,” Chung told me after Wednesday’s practice at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. “I practice that throughout the week so it’s not as big a surprise when it happens in the game. That’s just the normal defense since I’ve been here. I have a good grasp on it. Yes, we still have to learn things if they install something new, but I just absorb it and go from there.”

“You can’t really prepare your body for that,” he chuckled. “It’s just a mental thing. You gotta be tough. Sometimes you gotta hit little guys. Sometimes you gotta hit bigger guys. You put that on film that you’ll hit anyone and I don’t know, I guess it shows you’re tough. Whoever’s there, you have to deal with them on that play. If I can make a play, I do it. If my teammates can make a play, it’s just something I’ve gotta do. You can’t really think about it. If he hits you in the mouth and knocks you down…if he hits you in the mouth and you stand…if you hit them…you see? It’s what it is.”

Notably more chill than the aforementioned Rodney Harrison, but same basic idea, right?

And despite us hypothesizing earlier this season that Chung was getting one-upped by Harmon & McCourty, with McCourty playing more snaps in the roles that Chung did in 2014 and 2015, based on this week’s snap counts against Denver, Pat actually out-snapped Duron Harmon. Some of that’s game-planning, sure, but it’s surely notable that the “Big Nickel” with all three safeties on the field appeared to be in full effect again, with Chung playing 87.3% of the defensive snaps, Duron Harmon checking in at 74.6%, and D-Mac playing...wait for it...100%, of course.

Here’s the one part of Pat’s game that hasn’t changed: at any one time in his 2014-2017 run with the Patriots, he’s never been the best at anything, except maybe tackling, if you go by Bill Belichick’s assessment. When his game is on point, though, Chung being able to line up in the box, in the slot, on the edge, over the tight end, or even dropping back could be key to putting the rest of the Patriots defense in position to do what they do best.