The New England Patriots have the worst defense in the league in yards allowed, points allowed, and DVOA and the eye test generally supports those rankings. One big problem (of a handful) for the Patriots defense has been the vulnerability of the linebackers in coverage.
Now not every pass completion is the fault of the linebackers- very few times are Kyle Van Noy or Elandon Roberts or Dont’a Hightower actually targeted in coverage- but they play an important role in clogging the middle of the field and taking away passing lanes for the other team. If the linebackers are in the right position, then the cornerbacks will be better able to cover the wide receivers on the sideline.
This is partially due to the aggression of the Patriots linebackers in trying to stop the run.
You can see Elandon Roberts, the off-the-ball linebacker, crash the line of scrimmage to stop the run, taking six Patriots defenders out of possible coverage as Deshaun Watson rolls out and looks down the field. Now if Watson had actually handed off the football, then Roberts would have looked like a genius.
But in this situation, he is not in position to help. Fortunately, Stephon Gilmore does an excellent job in coverage of DeAndre Hopkins, eliminating Watson’s first target, and the rest of the players win their individual battles, allowing Trey Flowers to recover and push Watson out of bounds. The Texans take note of Roberts’ aggression, which is the hallmark of his style of play, and find ways to take advantage of it.
On this play, the Patriots two linebackers move towards the line of scrimmage to defend the hand off or the end around, leaving Braxton Miller wide open in the middle of the field.
Now there’s a chance that Patrick Chung was supposed to follow Miller and be the man in coverage, but Chung was focused on the running back leaving the backfield. Maybe Malcolm Butler was supposed to trail Miller, but he seems to be responsible for covering the deep third of the field.
So a potential miscommunication in the secondary, along with two aggressive linebackers, leaves Miller wide open. If Kyle Van Noy, the weakside linebacker, stays at the 38-yard line instead of crashing the 45-yard line to cover the end around player, then maybe Watson wouldn’t have risked throwing the ball to Miller.
Even defensive captain Devin McCourty had to talk to Van Noy and Roberts about defending the pass and not biting against the run or scramble in the middle of the game.
“Stay in coverage! Like, I’m [expletive] making it happen.” McCourty said to Van Noy and Roberts on Inside the NFL. “If he [Deshaun Watson] scrambles for eight yards, we’ll be good, but if we leave coverage and he throws it, that’s 40 yards. Just stay in coverage.”
Inside the NFL’s story structure implies that McCourty said that to the linebackers after Watson’s miracle escape and throw to tight end Ryan Griffin where it would be hard to blame the linebackers for the cross-field throw. But the point stands, especially as the Patriots prepare to face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Panthers offense relies heavily on running back Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart and could lean even more on the running backs with the loss of tight end Greg Olsen and potentially limited availability of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
McCaffrey surpassed 30 receiving yards in each of the first two weeks before erupting for 101 yards on 9 catches this past week against the New Orleans Saints. While Carolina often lines their rookie running back in the slot or out wide, or has him run simple angle routes, they were also able to isolate him against a linebacker in coverage.
If the Panthers watched the Patriots against the Texans, then they would have seen the Houston offense running almost the same exact play, with a play action followed by three levels of possible receivers running towards the sideline before ultimately settling on the running back.
The Patriots have allowed 253 receiving yards (2nd worst in the league) and 2 receiving touchdowns (tied worst) on 17 receptions to running backs this year, which aligns with the idea of McCaffrey carrying the Panthers offense.
If I’m Matt Patricia drawing up ways to defend the Panthers defense, I might not even ask a linebacker to cover McCaffrey. I would simply hand that responsibility over to Patrick Chung or Devin McCourty. Opposing teams have targeted the Patriots linebackers for a combined 8 of 10 for 158 yards and a touchdown, according to the Herald’s Jeff Howe, and with Greg Olsen out of the game the Patriots safeties would be better utilized covering McCaffrey than back-up tight end Ed Dickson (3 catches, 34 yards in 2017).
The Carolina Panthers were using misdirection and play action all game against the Saints and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them call similar plays against the Patriots. The New England linebackers have to stay in position, trust their defensive linemen, and be prepared for the pass.