Logan Ryan and Brandin Cooks (Brynn Anderson/AP)

In addition to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, all of New England’s recent Super Bowl teams have another thing in common: strong secondary play. Here’s why a depleted unit could cause problems for the Pats this season

By Andy Benoit
September 10, 2015

The Patriots will come to sorely regret letting Darrelle Revis get away. With all the focus on Deflategate, America seems to have forgotten—or just plain overlooked—the fact that Revis is, without question, the biggest free agency loss any team suffered this past offseason.

When the Patriots get characteristically chintzy and decline to sign players to long-term contracts with major guarantees, they’re often applauded for their frugality. It’s The Patriot Way, critics say, before expounding into a declamation about how Bill Belichick can make things work with whatever players he has.

But as it pertains to Super Bowls—and in New England, everything is framed within the context of Super Bowls—what if contract frugality is not actually The Patriot Way? Strictly talking defense, what if The Patriot Way is building around a quality secondary? Belichick is touted for all the different things he does with his schemes, not just week-to-week but even quarter-to-quarter. But you can only play this way if you trust your players on the back end. Without that trust, your defensive efforts become reactionary and centered around not getting gouged through the air. Secondary weaknesses are often the hardest to hide.

In every year the Patriots have won a title (and in the year they went 16-0), Belichick has had a quality cornerback teamed with a quality veteran safety. Most recently it was Revis and Devin McCourty. In the 18-1 ’07 season, it was Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison. In the ’04 and ’03 title years, it was a younger Samuel, an older Ty Law (most of the time) and Harrison. In ’01, there was Law and Lawyer Milloy.

With an elite corner, you can not only eliminate an opponent’s best receiver and control almost half of the field, but also take more chances and be more diverse in your coverage concepts. This is where Belichick’s genius has shined brightest. But without an elite corner, you’re constricted and must react more to opponents. We’ve seen iffy secondary play in the years where the Patriots haven’t had great playoff success. In ’08, when they went 11-5 (without Tom Brady) and missed the postseason, their top two corners were Ellis Hobbs and a declining Deltha O’Neal. Their most-played safeties were James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather. The next year, the Patriots went 10-6 and got embarrassed by Baltimore in the wild-card round. Their top corners that year were fringe starter Leigh Bodden, Jonathan Wilhite and an aging Shawn Springs. The next year the Patriots won 14 games but went one-and-done in the playoffs. Devin McCourty, a rookie at the time, was their best corner. (He later got moved to safety.)

“Great defensive backs equals playoff success” is not a hard-and-fast rule for the Patriots, but in these dry postseason years, their defense was notably constricted to mostly soft zone coverages. It was just Belichick doing what he always does: playing to his personnel. In the early 2000s, with veteran secondary personnel, he ran a diverse, highly complex scheme. In 2014, with the best corner in the world and a sturdy supporting cast, Belichick played almost exclusively man coverage; it was a classic “we’re better than you are” approach.

There’s no way the future Hall of Fame coach can simply line up and play man-to-man this season. With Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard all gone, Belichick has one of the worst cornerbacking groups he’s ever encountered. It’s one of the least talented cornerbacking units in the league, in fact. Overachieving undrafted second-year pro Malcolm Butler is expected to be the headliner. Joining Butler is Logan Ryan, who was benched multiple times last season, as well as Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher, veteran castoffs who were rightfully dumped by their previous teams. McCourty was re-signed at safety….he’s probably the best one-on-one cover artist on the roster.

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Exacerbating matters is that New England doesn’t have a dynamic pass rush to mask this secondary. They’re very average up front. Rob Ninkovich is a better edge-bender than expected, and Chandler Jones has good short-area lateral movement. But neither burns the corner. Newcomer Jabaal Sheard is more of a run-stopper. And, obviously, so is first-round draft pick Malcom Brown, who will essentially assume the role vacated by Vince Wilfork. (Expect Brown to be employed in more four-man fronts as a rookie; that’s what this particular Patriots unit is best suited to play.)

A year ago, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia jumped on the double-A-gap blitzing bandwagon and had great success. Inside linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both made huge strides as pass rushers and translated the sharp run-defending chemistry they have together over to interior blitz concepts.

But in a tactic like this, you need press-man corners fortifying your D against the quick throws that blitzes invoke. Which brings us back to New England’s original problem. If they had retained Revis, the dearth of talent at all the other cornerbacking spots would not be so discouraging; the Patriots could put their superstar on an island and scheme ways to help the other guys. But you can’t help the other guys if everyone is an “other guy.”

Julian Edelman (Matt York/AP)

Patriots Nickel Package

1. With a depleted cornerbacking corps, the Patriots are nowhere near as good as they were a year ago, but they’ll still win the AFC East. Because they have Tom Brady. At 38, Brady is coming off arguably his finest season, and certainly his most impressive Super Bowl performance. He has mastered this ball-control offense and, last season, showed newfound improvements as an on-the-move passer (granted, he doesn’t do this often). He also maintained his usual brilliant footwork and snap decision-making from in the pocket. And, despite an advancing age, the most underrated part of Brady’s game—his arm strength—has shown no decline.

2. New England’s offensive line struggled throughout most of 2014, markedly in September but even into late December. With the only alteration coming at left guard (Dan Connolly has retired; Josh Kline takes over, with fourth-round rookie Tre’ Jackson possibly in the mix), there’s little reason to think much will change. The only hope is that the younger guys, second-year center Bryan Stork and certainly fifth-year left tackle Nate Solder (who barely counts as “younger” anymore), improve. Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have done a great job disguising this line’s deficiencies through three-step timing pass concepts, as well as a power-infused running game that features a sixth O-lineman and/or a fullback, plus selective use of up-tempo no-huddle, something the Patriots have always done well.

3. Here’s how you defend New England’s two best receiving threats: against Rob Gronkowski, you must be physical with him coming off the line of scrimmage. You won’t often outwork him here, but you at least stand a chance of disrupting the timing of his seam and post patterns, which can also compromise many of New England’s shallow routes. With Julian Edelman, you must play short-area zone concepts and assign man-coverage responsibilities based on his release off the line. (If Edelman goes inside, Defender A takes him; if he goes outside, Defender B takes him.) You can’t play one defender straight-up against Edelman; the Patriots do too good of job at putting the shifty 5-10, 200-pounder in motion and getting him free access off the line of scrimmage. It’s nearly impossible to win with just one dedicated defender against a presnap motioning receiver who’s behind the line.

4. Running back is an interchangeable position in New England’s offense, but Shane Vereen, who’s now a Giant, will prove very difficult to replace. His proficiency as a receiver—both on backfield option routes and as a mismatch-creator when split out wide—was enormous for this offense. The Patriots would not have won Super Bowl 49 without Vereen. Ex-Saint Travaris Cadet was signed to fill this role. He’s underrated, but it’s hard to see him splitting out at wide receiver and achieving Vereen’s level of success.

5. Jerod Mayo is the fifth-highest-paid guy on the team, which typically is a call for one’s release when coming off a second-straight season-ending injury, especially with two young stars (Hightower and Collins) emerging at your position. But cutting Mayo would have cost the Pats $10.5 million in dead money. And so the 29-year-old gets a chance to prove his mettle in 2015 and earn the right to at least play out the final two years of his contract. Here’s hoping he does. Mayo is a smart, fundamentally sound player who more than once has held this linebacking unit together when it had nothing else.

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