The New England Patriots play their most important game of the season Saturday against the Buffalo Bills, and they could be going into that contest without two of their top four cornerbacks.
Jonathan Jones hasn’t practiced this week because of a groin injury, and Jason McCourty has missed three of the Patriots’ last four games with a lingering groin injury. McCourty didn’t play in Weeks 12 or 13. He played four snaps Week 14 and then was inactive Week 15. We’ll see if he can progress enough on a short week to fill in for Jones, who almost certainly won’t play Week 16.
The Bills play 80 percent of their offensive snaps with at least three wide receivers on the field. So, the third cornerback position will be key Saturday.
If McCourty can play, then he’ll join Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson as the team’s top cornerbacks. McCourty would likely take over Jones’ role as the Patriots’ slot cornerback with Gilmore covering John Brown. McCourty has played 105 coverage snaps in the slot this season to Jones’ 279. Jones and McCourty shared that role more evenly last season with Jones playing 255 snaps and McCourty taking on 194 snaps.
The Bills’ top slot option is wide receiver Cole Beasley. Rookie tight end Dawson Knox also plays about one-third of his snaps in the slot.
If neither Jones nor McCourty can play Saturday, then the Patriots will need to seriously adjust. Their No. 5 and 6 cornerbacks are rookie Joejuan Williams and special-teamer Justin Bethel.
Bethel has never been a regular slot cornerback, and Williams, at 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, isn’t a good matchup for the small, shifty Beasley.
The Patriots could either kick Jackson inside to the slot, or they could have Patrick Chung move from safety to the slot — a role he’s played in the past. Chung was actually the Patriots’ top slot option in 2015, and he was their No. 2 slot corner in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
If Chung moves inside to the slot, then Duron Harmon would have to take on a bigger role at free safety, and Devin McCourty could be asked to cover Knox. Williams also could play his biggest role to date and cover the Bills’ rookie tight end.
The Patriots have very good depth at cornerback. They almost certainly have the best cornerback foursome in the NFL, but any team will start to get shallow with two injuries. Williams is a second-round pick, and Chung is versatile enough to switch positions. Relatively speaking, those are solid options at the No. 5 cornerback position in an emergency situation. It will be fascinating to see how the Patriots adjust if Jones and McCourty are down.