FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots enjoyed remarkable continuity in their secondary this past offseason, retaining all seven primary contributors from their Super Bowl-winning 2018 squad.
The group did make one seemingly minor change behind the scenes, however, and it’s helped New England’s veteran-laden crew of defensive backs emerge as arguably the NFL’s best.
One of the departures during the Patriots’ post-Super Bowl coaching exodus was Josh Boyer, who’d served as the team’s cornerbacks coach since 2012. When Boyer left to join Brian Flores in Miami, former coaching assistant Mike Pellegrino was promoted to replace him, and the scope of safeties coach Steve Belichick’s responsibilities expanded, as illustrated by his new title: safeties/secondary coach.
In previous seasons, New England’s corners and safeties met and watched film separately, then converged to discuss matters that applied to both position groups. Now, those groups hold all of their meetings together.
There’s no longer a “cornerbacks room” and a “safeties room” in New England. The entire defensive backfield operates as one cohesive unit.
“We’ve always met together,” safety and team co-captain Devin McCourty said Thursday. “But this year, we do less of just meeting corners and safeties, where in years past, we did a lot of meeting separately and then would meet together sometimes. This year, it’s just been all together, and I think it’s really helped just everything we do.”
McCourty, who’s been with the Patriots since they drafted him in the first round in 2010, said the new setup has done wonders for the group’s communication.
“Whether it’s a safety check or a corner check, both sides just really know what’s going on,” he said. “And I think because of how we’re built as a unit, we have a lot of guys that play corner but in other packages, they really play linebacker/safety. And then we have safeties that in other packages play kind of a nickel. So all of the teaching is cross-referenced, and I think it’s helped us a lot this year of just being able to do different things with different guys, and it’s been a seamless transition when guys have to step in different roles.”
Safety Patrick Chung plays everywhere from slot corner to linebacker. Cornerbacks Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty and rookie Joejuan Williams all have played safety, with Jones starting there in Super Bowl LIII. Corners Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson have bumped inside to cover tight ends.
Having the entire secondary meet, prepare and study as one, Jason McCourty said, “just helps with anticipation.” Players are needing to think less on the field because they’ve already learned every position’s responsibilities in each coverage scheme.
“I think it’s changed our room, obviously,” said the veteran cornerback, who played in a similar one-room system during his time with the Tennessee Titans. “A lot more personalities within one room. But it’s also enabled us to be able to learn what everybody’s doing on any given play, and I think it’s helped us, too, just from a versatility standpoint.
“You look at Jonathan Jones — he lines up all over on defense. Me, I’m somebody that lines up everywhere. A guy like Chung lines up everywhere. So I think the more you hear, ‘All right, the corners are doing this in that defense,’ (you get to know that) ‘All right, if I’m ever in that type of position, I could be doing that same job, and vice versa.’ So I think it’s definitely added not only to our versatility but just (to our) overall knowledge of the defense.”
This inclusive strategy has paid off.
The Patriots enter Sunday’s matchup with the Dallas Cowboys ranked first in the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed per pass attempt, interceptions and interception rate and second in passing yards allowed per game behind the San Francisco 49ers. Of the eight DBs who have played more than 25 defensive snaps, only Jones and Chung have yet to record at least one pick.
New England has allowed 21 pass plays of 20-plus yards this season (tied for second-fewest behind the Niners) and just two of 40-plus yards (tied for fewest), indicating a scarcity of blown coverages.
“I think (communication) is something we’ve leaned on, but I also think that’s expected,” Devin McCourty said. “We have a lot of guys now that are older guys. We have a lot of guys that have played together consecutive years now. So that can’t be a weakness of our defense. That has to continue to be a strength, and meeting together has made it a lot easier.
“We don’t have to seek each other out at separate times to talk about things. Like, if we have any type of debate or conversation about what to do in a certain look, we talk about it right there. We talk about different things right there and kind of just iron everything out right there and then move on.”