Patriots’ Secondary Might Be Even More Dangerous After Losing Key Pieces

The Patriots' new-look defense is heavy on speed and versatility but not size

The New England Patriots leaned into their biggest strength in their Week 1 win over the Miami Dolphins, and we’re not talking about Cam Newton’s rushing ability.

The Patriots deployed seven defensive backs on 17 of 59 total defensive snaps Sunday. The rest of the NFL — all 31 teams combined — used seven defensive backs on the field at the same time in 11 snaps. Every team’s head coach that used a “quarters” package — the New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans and Detroit Lions — has ties to Bill Belichick and the Patriots.

NFL teams typically will match their defensive personnel to the opposing offense’s grouping — four defensive backs to two wide receivers, five defensive backs to three wide receivers, six defensive backs to four wide receivers and seven defensive backs in only the rarest of circumstances. The Dolphins used three wide receivers on 64 percent of offensive plays Sunday. Otherwise, they were in 12, 22, 13, 32 or 30 personnel, meaning there were zero, one or two receivers on the field.

The Patriots’ decision to use seven defensive backs, therefore, was a choice.

New England’s secondary is going to be a nuisance for opposing quarterbacks again this season, and the group will have to be after the franchise lost five key pieces from its defensive line and linebacker corps this spring and summer. And it’s not just the talent in the cornerback and safety room that will cause problems. Quarterbacks also must keep track of where all of the Patriots’ various pieces will align in the defensive backfield.

The Patriots’ secondary was one of the most dominant units in the NFL last season, but they lost starting safeties Patrick Chung (opt-out) and Duron Harmon (trade) this offseason. New England’s defense led the league in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA metric and more traditional metrics like interceptions and lowest passer rating and completion percentage allowed. That was all while the Patriots finished eighth in sacks and 10th in pressure rate.

After letting up a passer rating of 62.8 last season, New England’s secondary got off to an even hotter start in Week 1 by forcing a 44.6 passer rating out of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

It’s no surprise that top cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson each picked off Fitzpatrick. Newcomer Adrian Phillips, who is helping to fill in for Chung, also intercepted a pass Sunday as the Patriots beat the Dolphins 21-11.

It wasn’t just Phillips who replaced Chung. The Patriots dressed 11 defensive backs Sunday and nine of them played at least 10 defensive snaps against the Dolphins. New England’s defense didn’t play a single down in its “base” defense and aligned in its goal line package only three times. They spent 43 snaps with at least six defensive backs on the field, and the Patriots were in a sub-package for 95 percent of snaps, which makes sense against a team like the Dolphins who have a smaller tight end in Mike Gesicki and undersized running backs like Myles Gaskin and Matt Breida.

The Patriots lost Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts and Danny Shelton and essentially threw their hands up and said, “Fine, we’ll just put a bunch of safeties and cornerbacks on the field who can tackle.” And with inexperience at linebacker, if the Patriots’ goal is to put the best 11 defenders on the field, then the majority of them will be defensive backs.

The Seattle Seahawks are preparing to be swimming in defensive backs this Sunday.

“They pose a legitimate challenge,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday. “As long as they don’t have 13 guys on the field we’ve got to figure it out, but they’ve got enough DBs to flood you, kind of. They do a really nice job with their system and approach. It’s as well orchestrated and high tech as you can get. Bill has done a great job over the years consistently adapting and changing and staying at the cutting edge of what’s necessary and they’re continuing to do it. Seven DBs on the field this week. It’s just part of dealing with the opponent. Fortunately, we have a whole week to work on it.”

Here’s how the Patriots’ defensive backs aligned by position, per PFF:

Devin McCourty:
Free safety: 42 snaps
Box: 12 snaps
Slot: 5 snaps
Cornerback: 1 snap
Defensive line: 1 snap

Stephon Gilmore:
Cornerback: 54 snaps

Slot: 5 snaps

Jason McCourty:
Box: 18 snaps
Cornerback: 13 snaps
Slot: 11 snaps

Free safety: 4 snaps

Jonathan Jones:
Slot: 35 snaps

Free safety: 6 snaps
Box: 4 snaps
Cornerback: 1 snap

JC Jackson:
Cornerback: 40 snaps
Slot: 3 snaps

Box: 2 snaps

Adrian Phillips:
Box: 26 snaps
Defensive line: 13 snap
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Free safety: 4 snaps

Terrence Brooks:
Box: 14 snaps
Slot: 9 snaps

Free safety: 2 snaps
Cornerback: 2 snaps
Defensive line: 2 snaps

Joejuan Williams:
Slot: 23 snaps

Box: 2 snaps
Cornerback: 2 snaps

Kyle Dugger:
Box: 6 snaps

Free safety: 2 snaps
Slot: 2 snaps
Cornerback: 1 snap

The majority of those players are also playing special teams, and the “box” role is split into linebacker and more of a traditional strong safety position. Phillips, for example, played the majority of his snaps standing next to Patriots inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.

Linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said this week that Phillips is a “linebacker at heart.”

“He just stopped growing a little early, a little sooner than the rest of us,” Mayo added.

Chung was one of the Patriots’ most versatile defenders with his ability to play strong safety, linebacker and slot cornerback and man up against tight ends. Jason McCourty, Jones, Phillips, Brooks, Williams and Dugger all played positions in which Chung has aligned in the past.

“We’re all trying to challenge ourselves to learn as much as we possibly can,” Jason McCourty said. “Just to give our defense as much versatility as we can. The more we can kind of almost simple-us complex-you and mix around looks and move around and be in different spots, we think that can help us with our scheme to help us as a defense. So, we’ve been working on that throughout training camp. We’ll continue to work on that throughout the season to try to improve as much as we can in the secondary.”

Harmon was typically more confined to his role as a deep safety in passing situations. While the Patriots will undoubtedly miss his communication and ball-hawking skills, he was never the most adept man-coverage player. Jason McCourty, Jones and Dugger seemingly shared Harmon’s normal responsibilities Sunday.

Having Jason McCourty playing as a deep safety on third and long is especially interesting since he’s still so good in man coverage. If he can play outside cornerback, slot or safety, the Patriots have options against a variety of different personnel packages when he’s on the field. Opposing quarterbacks won’t know if where he begins on the field after exiting the huddle is where he’ll wind up by the time the ball is snapped.

It also allows some twin magic in the back half of the defense as Jason shares the split safety assignment with Devin McCourty.

“It’s pretty cool. I’m trying to get him right back there, make sure he doesn’t mess up or make any mistakes,” Jason McCourty deadpanned.

Jason McCourty’s ability to move around the field also could allow Jackson to play more of an every-down cornerback role. Jackson is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and he continued to prove that in Week 1 when he allowed just two catches on four targets for 18 yards with an interception.

Jones, who primarily plays in the slot, and Dugger, who could assist Williams in coverage on tight ends, also have positional versatility.

Ironically, Belichick shrugged off the notion that using more defensive backs on the field at the same time could be a trend prior to the Patriots’ playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Jan. 2019.

“Right now I’m just trying to worry about getting ready for the Chargers,” Belichick said then. “I’m not trying to analyze trends in the league. I have no idea. What’s important to us is what happens this week. What we do, what they do. That’s really all I’m focused on.”

The Patriots used seven defensive backs on 57 plays last regular season. That’s already trending upwards this year.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images