FOXBORO, Mass. — Two weeks ago in the New England Patriots’ divisional-round win, the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense stood no chance against Tom Brady.
The Chargers’ Cover-3 zone defense that was so effective all season, and briefly had a moment during the Seattle Seahawks’ peak Legion of Boom years, simply had too many holes that Brady and the Patriots’ offense could poke through early in the game.
Brady and his weapons were too smart. Brady knew he had space in the shallow part of the field where running back James White could roam free, and he was hitting wide receiver Julian Edelman on zone-beaters all day.
These are some of the same reasons why the Patriots’ defense has trended heavily in favor of man coverage and placed a high priority on rostering talented cornerbacks in recent years under the watch of head coach Bill Belichick, linebackers coach Brian Flores and former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. The Patriots went all-in and led the NFL in man-coverage percentage in 2018. They finished second in 2017. They were much more balanced as recently as 2016.
“I know for us, we watch the quarterbacks. The quarterbacks are too good,” safety Devin McCourty told NESN.com. “They read the zone. Guys know how to get open in zone and do different things.”
“I think more of it is a philosophy. I think just how Bill is wired and how Flo is, when Matty P was here. They want to be aggressive and play man. You see some teams when you play a lot of zone, you get good at it. I’ll watch Seattle play, and it’s zone, but sometimes it looks like man because of how well they read routes and match up. I think it’s preference, but whatever you decide, you just keep repping it, and you get good at it, and we rep a lot of man.”
The Patriots play in a copycat league. If such a reliance on man coverage helps the Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, then other NFL teams likely will follow suit, whether they’re built to do it or not.
When McCourty was selected by the Patriots in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, they leaned heavily on a Cover-2 zone scheme. McCourty thrived, was named a second-team All-Pro and earned his first Pro Bowl nod with seven interceptions.
As the Patriots switched to more man-coverage looks in 2011 after simplifying their defense following the NFL lockout, McCourty lost some of his powers and briefly was considered a first-round bust. That was until he moved to safety the next season. He’s been one of the NFL’s best safeties since switching positions in 2012.
Belichick dismissed the idea that the Patriots base their coverage philosophies on personnel.
“Each game is different, so how we approach this year is based on what we think is best for that week,” Belichick said. “I don’t think we necessarily go into the season saying, ‘This is what we’re going to be or not going to be.’ Again, we have a system that has some breadth to it. I mean, we know we’re going to have to play man, we know we’re going to have to play zone, we know we’re going to have to blitz, we know we’re going to have to deal with outside runs, inside gap schemes, outside zone schemes, all those things.
“So, depending on what they do and how we feel like we match up with that particular team could have a lot to do with how that particular game goes.”
But it’s not a coincidence that the Patriots keep snagging No. 1-type cornerbacks who thrive in man coverage. In 2012 and 2013, it was Aqib Talib. They acquired Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in 2014, had Malcolm Butler from 2014 to 2017, and they spent big on Stephon Gilmore in the 2017 offseason. Gilmore has shadowed No. 1 wideouts all season.
“We had good man corners, and we’ve got good man corners now,” safety Duron Harmon said. “And if you can play good defense with man corners, it can make your defense a lot better.”
McCourty sees it too.
“You look at guys like Steph and when Malc was here, Revis, a lot of those guys are like, ‘Man, just leave me alone. Let me cover — I don’t want to be having to listen to you before the snap if the zone changes.’ I think it’s a gift,” McCourty said. “It’s hard to do, so I know in my career, I’ve been very fortunate when I play safety to play with some really good corners. I know that hasn’t changed.”
It helps that New England has two smart, rangy free safeties in McCourty and Harmon who can provide their cornerbacks with consistent help over the top. There also needs to be a marriage of pass rush and coverage. The Patriots finished 11th this season in pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus.
The midseason insertion of undrafted rookie cornerback JC Jackson into the defense also contributed to the Patriots’ bloated rate of man coverage. Man is simple. Zone takes communication, which can take some work with a rookie.
The Patriots went extremely heavy on man coverage in their AFC Championship Game win over the Kansas City Chiefs. They opened the game with Gilmore on wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Jonathan Jones on Tyreek Hill, Jackson on tight end Travis Kelce and Jason McCourty on Chris Conley. Devin McCourty provided help on Hill nearly every snap. The Patriots feared Mahomes would pick apart their zone defense. So they smothered Hill and dared Mahomes to throw to less explosive weapons. It worked. The Patriots beat the Chiefs 37-31 and held KC to under 300 total yards.
Don’t be surprised if the Patriots suddenly switch to more zone in Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams or next season to keep opposing offenses on their toes. Maintaining the ability to play both is important for New England. But also don’t be shocked if other NFL teams follow the Patriots’ trend and try to play more man coverage.
Here’s the problem for other teams, however: As McCourty said, playing man is difficult. And playing man with subpar cornerbacks leads to disaster in the form of big plays. Not every team has Gilmore to cover dangerous receivers. And without a cornerback like Gilmore, it might be more beneficial in the long run to take chances in zone.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images