Fielding top-10 units on both sides of the ball, two of the NFL’s most balanced teams will face off when the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers take the field on Sunday. A big reason for both clubs’ success on defense is the performance of their secondaries — two units that are among the best in football. In fact, according to advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus, they are the best remaining in the playoffs:
The Chicago Bears top our 2018 regular season secondary rankings!— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 8, 2019
For all 32 teams, via @PFF_Mike: https://t.co/7MvhJbUUbp pic.twitter.com/VCILsGA0DL
As can be seen, the Chicago Bears are topping the list of the best secondaries during the regular season but a missed 43-yard field goal attempt against the Philadelphia Eagles knocked them out of the tournament. Also eliminated were numbers four and five: the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens — like the Bears — were both defeated at home by lower-seeded teams; one of which the aforementioned Chargers.
Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner has to say the following about the group:
Along with Chicago, the Chargers were the only other NFL team to put multiple members on the PFF All-Pro secondary. Desmond King II earned the first team Flex position for his work as the league’s best slot cornerback and Derwin James was second-team safety as a rookie. The scary thing is, that doesn’t even include Casey Hayward Jr., who just last year won PFF’s award for top coverage defender.
Los Angeles was able to beat the Ravens by using their very own secondary in a rather unconventional way: the Chargers played all but one snap with seven defensive backs on the field. The unit was able to slow down Baltimore’s passing game but also provided plenty of speed against the team’s ground game. On Sunday against the Patriots, however, L.A. will likely return to a more standard nickel defense.
Speaking of New England: according to PFF, the Patriots field the second best defensive backfield in football — and with the Bears no longer in the race for the Lombardi Trophy, the group moves up to the top spot of secondaries left in the playoffs. Renner wrote the following about the unit’s ranking:
The Patriots consistently get more out of their defensive backs than any team in the league. Their cornerback tandem this season of Stephon Gilmore (90.7 overall) and Jason McCourty (83.1) personifies that. Maligned at their last stops before New England, both put up the highest-graded seasons of their careers in 2018, combining to allow only 95 catches on 180 targets.
The play of the two veteran cornerback is indeed a major factor for the success the Patriots’ secondary has enjoyed this season. According to statistics compiled by The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, Gilmore gave up just 37 completions on 90 targets for 403 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions as well as a passer rating of 60.6. McCourty, meanwhile, allowed 40 of 76 passes thrown his way to be completed for 650 yards, five scores, a pick, and a rating of 98.0.
While it has not always been perfect, the duo provided a steady and consistent presence in the Patriots’ backfield all year long. The same has to be said about safeties Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, as well as the other cornerbacks on the roster. One of them in particular needs to be a part of every conversation about the Patriots’ secondary: undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson.
Jackson has been a find for New England and after a slow start to the season established himself as a starting boundary cornerback over the second half of the year. While he still makes his fair share of rookie mistakes, Jackson has been outstanding: he was targeted 44 times during the regular season but allowed only 20 completions for 230 yards, three interceptions and a ridiculous rating of just 33.3.
He and the rest of secondary form arguably the best unit on the Patriots’ roster, and one that will be tested on Sunday against the Chargers. Likewise, New England’s offensive weapons will also need to be on top of their game against Los Angeles’ outstanding secondary. Luckily for them, they face a similar unit every day in practice.