Injuries to starting safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory thrust McCourty into a starting spot at free safety on Sunday against the Jets, a role he played late last season after multiple players tried — and failed — to grasp the position.
Belichick went as far as to say McCourty did the best job out of anyone playing the deep part of the field this season.
"I thought he did a pretty solid
job from what I could see," Belichick said. "I thought the deep part
of the field was more secure than it's been."
The position switch for McCourty also saw a much-needed change in defensive scheme for the Patriots. It may not have worked to perfection, but it was an improvement. After weeks of trying a cover-two approach, with two safeties playing deep, New England changed to a cover-one for most of the game with McCourty playing deep and rookie Tavon Wilson playing a more traditional strong safety role. That left cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling to play in man coverage most of the game.
That switch to man coverage actually plays to Dennard and Dowling's strengths. Dowling has proved to be untrustworthy playing in zone coverage, and Belichick will typically eliminate him from the game plan when the Patriots are using the more complex coverage scheme. Dennard is better in bump and run coverage and both young cornerbacks are physical players who are stronger at staying with receivers using speed and strength than reading and reacting.
McCourty on the other hand, is much stronger in zone coverage as a cornerback, and has proved to have an inability to play in man. Much of the struggles we saw from McCourty last year came in man coverage. Those skills he possesses in zone lend itself well to playing safety. He can keep most plays in front of him, and his quick instincts keep him near plays. McCourty doesn't have the best ball skills, but when his job is to help out over the top, that's less apparent.
Chung is also better in the cover-one system that the Patriots were employing on Sunday, and he should be able to work well with McCourty once he's recovered from his shoulder injury. Chung is much stronger playing inside the box, where he's asked to cover tight ends and running backs, and where he can help out the slower, stronger linebackers that the Patriots seem to love.
A lot of the problems you saw on Sunday in pass coverage can be placed on the shoulders of those linebackers and more importantly the man that signed and coached them — Belichick. Jerod Mayo gave up two of the Patriots' six passing plays over 20 yards. Mayo is a great run defender, as are other starters Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich, but none are strong in pass coverage. Whenever Mayo or Spikes is given the responsibility to cover a tight end deep, they get burned. In a cover two, the safeties are typically too deep to help out, but if Chung was in the box, he could relieve some of the pressure on the linebackers.
If McCourty transitions to safety permanently, which the Boston Globe's Greg Bedard and Shalize Manza Young reported was the team's intention prior to the season and before the Patriots saw a lack of depth at cornerback, that would leave Dennard and Arrington the starting cornerbacks with Dowling or Sterling Moore the nickel corner. Wilson would be able to transition back to the dime role he had earlier in the season — playing a hybrid safety/linebacker position — and Gregory would be the odd man out — once healthy.
Gregory has played four games for the Patriots before suffering his hip injury, and only played a full share of snaps in one of those games. Gregory hasn't been a factor in special teams for New England yet, but he had experience there in San Diego. Gregory could be a jack of all trades for the Patriots, able to fill in at free safety, strong safety, special teams or covering the slot.
While the Patriots didn't see immediate dividends from the new scheme, as demonstrated by allowing 300-plus yards through the air to the struggling Jets' offense, this could be a step in the right direction. Two of the biggest problems the Patriots saw were coverage from linebackers — which a more experienced strong safety could improve — and leaving receivers wide open in the intermediate area of the field — which once again, a more experienced strong safety would improve. The rookie safety Wilson played fine on Sunday, but he was responsible for a couple blown coverages. Using man coverage on the outside, and a cover-one with the safeties plays to as many strengths as possible with the personnel that the team has.
The Patriots' run defense is already stellar, their pass rush is improving and the secondary may finally be on the right track. Stay positive Patriots fans, the sky isn't falling yet.