For the first six weeks of the season, if the Patriots’ secondary wasn’t the best in the league, they were certainly in the conversation.
Then Aqib Talib missed three games with a hip injury. And when Talib returned last week, Alfonzo Dennard was suddenly out with a knee injury. New England has great depth and versatility in its secondary, but they could have used full health in this week’s matchup with the Broncos.
The Patriots’ defensive backfield is far from being at full health, though. Dennard will likely miss his second straight game, Talib is still ailing from his injured hip, Kyle Arrington has a groin injury that just won’t go away and Steve Gregory will likely have a cast on his right hand because he broke his thumb against the Steelers.
Devin McCourty is the only healthy member of the starting secondary. And he may be the most important member of the Patriots’ defense on Sunday night.
Denver has plenty of deep options, with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas, and McCourty will play a big role in stopping those players when he’s playing back deep at free safety. But McCourty also may need to move around the field for the Patriots. McCourty was a cornerback his first 2 1/2 seasons in the NFL and he could spend some more time there again this week.
Bill Belichick always goes with his best 11 players for any situation. And if that means playing someone at a position they’re not best at to get those best 11 on the field, he’ll take that risk. That’s how Rob Ninkovich wound up at strong-side linebacker in 2011 and why Chandler Jones was playing 3-4 defensive end this season.
Since Denver has Thomas, Thomas, Decker and Wes Welker as receiving threats, the Patriots’ defense will likely spend the majority of its time in the nickel and dime. Even when Welker comes off the field, the Patriots may still go nickel to cover Julius Thomas with a defensive back.
Here are two alignments the Patriots could use in the nickel:
—————————————————————————————————————————————————The first has McCourty playing cornerback and Duron Harmon taking his usual spot at free safety. The second has McCourty at safety and Logan Ryan playing the “star,” or slot position.
First, Belichick has to decide if Harmon or Ryan is the better player to bring in and likely start. Harmon played very well against the Panthers and hasn’t made many mistakes in his increasing role the whole season. Ryan has made some huge plays, including a pick-six against the Jets and a strip sack against the Dolphins. Ryan’s also had some rookie moments. He slipped in coverage against the Panthers, allowing a touchdown to Brandon LaFell.
Belichick also has to consider whether he’d rather play Arrington in the slot against Welker or outside against Decker. Given Arrington’s history against Welker in practice, he’s probably the better matchup with the slot receiver than Ryan, who could get exploited by the wily vet.
McCourty probably makes more sense at cornerback in nickel. Harmon has played better in limited time this season than Ryan. Gregory has also played very well this season.
When the Patriots go dime, it could be a different story, though. Here are two possible alignments for that package:
————————————————————————————————————————————————— The two alignments have the same personnel, with Harmon and Ryan coming onto the field. But in the first package, McCourty is playing safety with Arrington outside, Ryan in the slot and Gregory playing the “money” position. Gregory has a history in the slot dating back to his days in San Diego. He’s played well against tight ends this season, so if the Patriots go dime while the three receivers and Julius Thomas are in the game, it may make sense to have Gregory covering the tight end. The Patriots could also bring Harmon or McCourty down to play the money. Tavon Wilson or Nate Ebner are also options for that role.
The second alignment has McCourty outside with Arrington playing his natural star position, Ryan in the “money” and Gregory at safety. It’s nice to have Arrington playing the slot, but Ryan has had trouble against bigger receivers and tight ends this season. Although it’s far from ideal, Ryan’s best matchup in this game may be against Welker.
While McCourty was probably best suited to play cornerback in nickel, it makes more sense to have him back at safety in dime. Either alignment has its pros and cons, though.
Although the Patriots will be in sub for most of the game, they will likely line up in their typical 3-4 base at times. Here’s how that may look:
If the goal is to play the best 11 players, it makes more sense for McCourty to play safety. Although Harmon has played well, Arrington is the more dependable player.
We could see combinations of all of these alignments on Sunday night. And if one isn’t working, Belichick obviously has options to switch to. Demaryius Thomas, Decker and Welker are all great players, but Julius Thomas may bring the biggest mismatch. The secondary has their work cut out for them.