The New England Patriots zigged when everyone expected them to zag in their Super Bowl LIII win over the Los Angeles Rams, as Bill Belichick tends to do.
One of the 2018 Patriots’ biggest strengths was their ability to match up with opposing offenses in man coverage. With Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and JC Jackson on the roster, the Patriots had plenty of defensive firepower at cornerback to keep up with Rams wide receivers Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds.
Instead, the Patriots went into zone coverage on early downs, using Cover-2, Cover-3 and quarters with Jones playing as a safety. The Patriots deployed man coverage on third down with Gilmore covering Cooks, McCourty on Reynolds and Jones on Woods.
Entering this week’s “Thursday Night Football” showdown in LA, the Patriots still have many of the same names in their secondary. Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jackson, Jones and free safety Devin McCourty still are on the team. Strong safety Patrick Chung opted out, and free safety Duron Harmon was traded, but they were replaced by Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger.
Jackson (hip/knee) and Jones (neck) didn’t finish Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers, however, and both players were limited in practice Tuesday. That’s not great timing, though the Patriots do have better depth than most secondaries.
The majority of teams don’t have a fourth cornerback as good as Jason McCourty. The Patriots also have a promising undrafted free agent in Myles Bryant who can man the slot, and 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams who can cover bigger receivers and tight ends.
The Rams’ wide receiver corps also has been shaken up. Cooks is now on the Houston Texans, and Cooper Kupp has returned from an injury that caused him to miss Super Bowl LIII. They also selected Van Jefferson in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
With that shuffling of the roster, and because Belichick likes to stay unpredictable, there’s no guarantee that the Patriots would take the same zone-heavy approach to defending LA’s offense this week even thought it worked in Super Bowl LIII.
If Jackson and Jones are healthy, then it might make the most sense to match up Gilmore on Kupp, Jones on Woods and Jackson on Reynolds with McCourty playing more of a safety role.
If Jackson and Jones can’t play, then it could be Gilmore on Kupp, McCourty on Woods and Williams on Reynolds.
Even without Jackson and Jones, however, the Patriots would still have the bodies to play in Cover-2 or Cover-3. Gilmore and either Williams or Jason McCourty could play the corner positions with Devin McCourty and Dugger as the safeties. Phillips likely will continue to play more of a linebacker role. Bryant, Jason McCourty and Williams also can play closer to the line of scrimmage in hybrid roles.
If Jackson and Jones are healthy, then the Patriots would be in even better shape in zone with Gilmore and Jackson as the corners and Jones, the McCourty Twins, Dugger, Bryant and Williams all available to play hybrid roles.
Jackson suffered a hip injury in Week 12 but played through it in Week 13 before leaving the game with a knee injury. It’s possible that Jones and Jackson didn’t return to Sunday’s win because the Patriots were blowing out the Chargers, however.
The Patriots are in great shape if Jones and Jackson can play. But they do have enough depth and versatility to weather the storm if either cornerback is out, though it does raise the level of difficulty in Thursday’s game.
Both Jackson and Jones likely will be listed as questionable on Wednesday’s injury report. We’ll find out an hour and a half before Thursday’s game whether they’ll be good to go.
And we’ll find out in game whether the Patriots use more zone or man coverage on early downs. Rams head coach Sean McVay probably expects Belichick to switch up the defensive game plan, so it might actually be more of a surprise if the Patriots run back what worked in the Super Bowl.
One thing is certain: Thursday night will be a chess match.