Going into the 2017 season, the Patriots seemed to be set at cornerback. Despite constant trade rumors around Malcolm Butler and the departure of Logan Ryan in free agency, they ended up having a very stable starting lineup by week 1. Stephon Gilmore was brought in to replace Logan Ryan as the player who would guard the #1 WR in man coverage. Malcolm Butler returned, even without a new contract, and continued his role of guarding #2 or #3 WRs, often times without safety help. And Eric Rowe, building on a strong 2nd half of 2016, was the clear #3 CB who could matchup with a variety of receivers, both tall and shifty.
However, by week 6 Johnson Bademosi was playing 96% of defensive snaps due to injury. The once deep secondary was missing Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, and the Patriots could not longer matchup their cornerbacks how they liked, without a cornerback on the roster taller than 6’0. Patrick Chung and Jonathan Jones had to step in as slot cornerbacks and while they performed well, they aren’t the top options to play those positions in their nickel defense.
The Patriots now have sort of an issue when it come to playing time. What is the best way to get all of their defensive backs in the game? As of right now, the only defensive backs that have played basically 100% of snaps are Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore when healthy. Malcolm Butler has basically played all snaps except for the week 2 game against the Saints. The other 4 defensive backs, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, and Duron Harmon have all played in specific rotational roles.
As Matt has written about this year, Patrick Chung has been a chameleon on defense this year. Linebacker, slot cornerback, strong safety, deep safety, Chung has done it all. While it may be a little strange to classify Chung as a “rotational player” given his heavy snaps, it’s important to note that there has been a subtle change in usage between this year and last year for him. Last year, Chung had 9 games where he played 100% of snaps and was over 95% of snaps for 12 of them. This year, he’s only gone wire to wire twice and played over 95% of snaps 4 times.
While he’s versatile, it’s clear that Chung’s coverage is not always a strength of his, which lead to him being subbed out for Duron Harmon in specific nickel and dime packages. Now with a clean bill of health in the secondary, I’d argue that the Patriots might need to be even more aggressive with that substitution. According to Jeff Howe’s coverage statistics, Chung has allowed the 3rd most yards out of any New England defender, giving up a passer rating of 85.4 and a 56% completion percentage.
On the surface, these numbers aren’t poor but compared to Devin McCourty’s numbers in coverage as a former outside cornerback (14/27 for 113, 75.1 passer rating), they are clearly inferior. I would make the argument that Chung should not see any time in his standard strong safety position matched up against tight ends in the nickel formation, and should probably be off the field all together in dime packages. In my opinion, the ideal usage of Patrick Chung would be about 70-80% of the defensive snaps, with half of them as a linebacker hybrid and half in the secondary.
In nickel, I believe Chung would thrive as an off the ball linebacker, pushing Van Noy to the edge and Roberts off the field. The primary ILBs in nickel situations, Van Noy, Roberts and Jordan Richards, have allowed a combined 39/46 for 391, 4 TDs and no INTs. That’s a passer rating of 131.1 and a 85% completion percentage. The more that those three avoid having to cover in passing situations, the better. In dime, I would recommend the 6 defensive backs be McCourty, Harmon, Gilmore, Butler, Rowe, and Jones. More on that in a little bit.
Duron Harmon’s usage this year has been very strange. For the first 9 weeks of the season, Harmon was on the field for at least 70% of snaps every single game. Since then, he hasn’t broken the 50% snap threshold, with his snap percentage declining every week. What changed? Harmon has been an extremely reliable player this year and in years past, but for some reason, the Patriots took many of the big nickel 3 safety looks away the last 4 weeks.
I believe that Harmon should be the Patriots’ primary FS from now on, and only come off the field in base and heavy packages. Seeing that in today’s NFL, 5 or more defensive backs are on the field for much more than 50% of snaps, I don’t see a reason why Harmon should ever dip below 50% of snaps. Harmon’s presence in the middle of the field can free up Devin McCourty to move around the field and cover some assignments that either a linebacker or Patrick Chung usually take care of, like covering a tight end in man coverage or covering a running back on the perimeter.
Jones began the year 4th on the CB depth chart, but was quickly pressed back into service when Eric Rowe suffered his groin injury week 4 against the Panthers. Jones was the main beneficiary of the decline in Duron Harmon’s snaps the past 4 weeks, with mixed results. While he did a very solid job in the slot for some weeks, Jones has also had his fair share of poor outings. He was tasked with slowing down Jarvis Landry last week and he was torched.
Ideally, I don’t want Jones to see the field outside of dime packages, which make up approximately 15% of snaps in today’s NFL. If everyone is healthy, Jones is the 4th cornerback on the depth chart, but I do like Jones as a matchup option if he’s contained to purely the slot. In 11 formation (3WR, 1RB, 1TE) it’s possible to isolate the slot wide receiver on the boundary in man coverage through pick plays or crossing routes and Landry took advantage of that on Monday night.
But in dime situations, which usually occur on 3rd and very long or when 4 WRs are on the field at once, the defense can scheme to keep the slot guy inside. The crossing routes and iso pick plays out of the slot aren’t as effective because the quarterback usually has much less time in the pocket to throw and the extra DB for LB substitution allows the defense to poach with the extra speed or play a more effective zone. In my opinion, Patrick Chung makes very little sense in dime packages. He’s a guy that’s known for versatility and all around solid play, but a guy like Jones who can eliminate slot guys and quick reads with his speed would be more effective in those situations.
In addition, the loss of Nate Ebner and the iffy health situations of Matthew Slater and Brandon King in recent weeks further emphasizes Jones’ importance on the special teams units. Playing only a handful of defensive snaps should leave him healthy and fresh for his usual roles as the gunner and gunner blocker on punt units and integral role on the kickoff units.
When Rowe returns to 100% health, and I’d imagine he’ll get there by this week’s matchup in Pittsburgh, I expect him to return to his “Bradley Roby” role in the Patriots secondary: as an outside cornerback in the nickel that pushes the outside base cornerback in Butler (Chris Harris Jr. in Denver) inside to the slot in those formations. For reference, these are the snap counts for Bradley Roby this year.
Rowe has had extensive success in the past against taller guys, and at 6’1, he’s another option alongside Stephon Gilmore as a guy that can cover many types of receivers in man coverage. In addition, his size will allow him to run with tight ends. Against 2 TE sets (12 formation) I would be more than comfortable with him matching up with tight ends; he did that in a few games last year.
Rowe’s combination of size and agility allows him to guard both big guys and speedsters, while passing the small guys and possession receivers to Butler. Against some of the top contenders in the AFC, I expect Rowe to have matchups against Martavis Bryant, Dede Westbrook, Mike Williams, Mike Wallace, and Tyreek Hill. There are no easy matchups in that group and Rowe’s going to have to be ready and healthy for those matchups.
Recommended defensive backs against alignments (for reference)
11: Harmon, McCourty, Gilmore, Rowe, Butler (Chung at LB). Jones in for Chung on 3rd and 8+
12: Harmon, McCourty, Gilmore, Rowe, Butler
21: McCourty, Chung, Gilmore, Butler
13: McCourty, Chung, Gilmore, Butler
22: McCourty, Chung, Gilmore
10: Harmon, McCourty, Gilmore, Rowe, Butler, Jones
Goal Line: Only McCourty
The Patriots head into Pittsburgh reeling after dropping a winnable game in Miami. Although they shouldn’t have any issues offensively, they need to have the correct game plan against the Steelers’ dangerous offensive skill players in Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Jesse James and Le’Veon Bell. Luckily for them, they will have their full arsenal of defensive backs available for the first time since week 2.