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Football Outsiders: Will Dont’a Hightower fix the Patriots run defense?

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And other thoughts from Football Outsiders.

Washington Redskins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Every year, Football Outsiders releases their Almanac to preview the upcoming NFL season. We spoke with Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders to get the inside scoop on the New England Patriots. Click here to purchase the Football Outsiders Almanac!

The Patriots run defense was exceptionally weak last year. Will Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn help fix the problem? Or will the return of Dont’a Hightower mean the most?

RM: I would be more concerned about New England’s run defense if the Patriots didn’t have a strong historical tendency to take care of the little nagging problems. Even if they didn’t bring in big names like Shelton and Clayborn, I would have expected some regression just on the idea that the coaching staff is usually so good about this. With the big names and Hightower back, I would not be surprised if the unit finished in the upper half of NFL run defenses in DVOA next season.

The New England Patriots ranked 31st against the run according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings and so I was curious to know where the team could improve and whether the addition of Adrian Clayborn or Dont’a Hightower would have a larger impact.

But McCown’s point is interesting in that he considers the Patriots run defense to be a down-year for what is typically a great run defense and for the unit to regress back towards its usual high-quality self.

Over the past decade, the Patriots have typically fluctuated between “really good” and “really bad” against the run. The team ranked above-average in 2008 (11th), 2009 (13th), 2012 (6th), 2014 (13th), 2015 (10th), and 2016 (6th). They ranked below-average in 2010 (23rd), 2011 (25th), 2013 (27th), and 2017 (31st).

It’s worth noting that in four of the past six years, the Patriots run defense has been good, if not great. In the years they’ve struggled, the Patriots have dealt with some serious injuries, notably with stalwart linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower and defensive linemen Ty Warren, Mike Wright, Vince Wilfork, and Tommy Kelly missing time.

So I think the return of Hightower will have a bigger impact on the Patriots run defense than the addition of Clayborn.

One of the trends of the Matt Patricia defenses is how they improved over the course of the season. Do the numbers suggest any changes in styles of play (zone vs man, more blitzes, etc), or just an improved performance?

RM: So I asked head honcho Aaron Schatz to jump in on this since he has access to the Sports Info Solutions numbers that I don’t. Here’s what he said:

“Yes, last year the Patriots played more man coverage later in the season, and sent a bit more pass rush. Attribute these numbers to Sports Info Solutions.

  • Weeks 1-6 50% Man, 18.5% Blitz (5+ Pass Rush), 27.8% rush only 3
  • Weeks 7-12 55% Man, 22.2% Blitz, 18.6% rush only 3
  • Weeks 13-17 59% Man, 25% Blitz, 22.3% rush only 3

The year before there doesn’t seem to be this pattern so my guess is that it’s not a regular Belichick or Patricia thing, it was more of a reaction to what was going on with the defense early last season.”

So … there you have it. More man coverage, more pass rush, better defense.

This is an interesting read into how Matt Patricia developed his defense over the course of 2017 and how he adjusted for the skill sets of his players. The Patriots didn’t have a pass rush last year, but they had solid depth at cornerback. That allowed the team to draw resources away from coverage and put them into getting after the quarterback.

How will this play out in 2018? Will Brian Flores follow a similar season-long developmental strategy?

I think the Patriots have the best depth on the defensive line that they’ve had in a while, so I would expect the team to rely less on blitzing to get after the quarterback. That said, I think the linebacker depth is questionable in coverage and I wouldn’t be surprised if the linebackers crashed the box in order to keep the opposing running backs in pass protection instead of running their routes.

It feels like both Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have had incredibly unique career trajectories. McCourty was an All Pro at cornerback, and then twice at safety, while Chung flamed out in his first stint in New England, busted in Philadelphia, and then has thrived in his return. Who are some historical players that have had the most similar careers?

RM: I mean, history is littered with players that moved from corner to safety. The unique thing about it with McCourty is that it happened so early in his career. This notably happened to Ronnie Lott, but generally if a player is to be moved, it’s because the evaluation on him has changed and the team wants to take him out of such a speed-intensive position. McCourty moving to safety was more, to me, about emphasizing his strength in diagnosing plays.

Chung has been saved by the advancement of the passing game at the NFL level. As a strong safety in the early 2010s NFL, you were asked to be versatile enough to cover wideouts, and Chung couldn’t hack that. However, as teams have gotten lighter and faster, Chung suddenly fit this nickel safety trend as a guy who could tackle in the front seven and also cover running backs and (some) tight ends. It’s funny how that worked out for him. I think of a player like Bernard Pollard (sorry, I know what happened in 2008) who would have been an All-Pro if he’d come into the league in 1992 and played that position as someone born at the wrong time. Chung is the opposite of that: the right player for the right moment in time.

What makes Devin McCourty so interesting and unique is how he was named Second Team All Pro at cornerback as a rookie in 2010, moved to safety midway through the 2012 season, and was named Second Team All Pro at free safety in 2013. He also earned another Second Team All Pro nod in 2016 for his work as both a free safety and as a strong safety on roughly 50% of his snaps with Duron Harmon on the field.

As McCown notes, it’s not weird for a cornerback to move to safety during their career, but it’s usually at the tail-end of their career when they’re no longer physically capable of playing coverage, but they still have the football intelligence to be of value leading a defense- like a Charles Woodson.

But McCourty was playing like an elite cornerback in 2012 before he moved to safety after the acquisition of Aqib Talib. McCourty moved to safety because that was the Patriots’ Achilles heel on defense and his presence on the back-end immediately solidified the secondary.

Ronnie Lott is clearly a high-achieving comparable as the defensive back moved to safety in his fifth season after being an All Pro as a rookie, and then ripped off six-straight All Pro seasons at safety.

Chung, on the other hand, did not have as glamorous of a start to his career in New England and was ultimately benched and cut for reasons I blame more on the coaching staff and front office than on Chung himself. Chung was never a great deep-safety, but thrived when asked to cover tight ends and to play in the box. Injuries in the Patriots secondary- injuries that also led to McCourty ultimately playing deep safety- forced the Patriots to play Chung at free safety instead of in-the-box and it was a disaster.

Now, Chung has a perfect role on the Patriots defense as a jack-of-all trades, where he can cover running backs in the flat and tight ends in the slot, help stuff the run in the box, and even rush after the quarterback. He’s the perfect type of defender that allows the Patriots to play both the run and the pass while keeping the same personnel on the field.

As opposing teams start to rely more on running backs to attack the lighter defenses built to defend the pass, Chung’s role will be in even greater focus, highlighting his perfect skill set for this era of football.