- When leader and versatile playmaker Patrick Chung went down, the rest of the Patriots' defense stepped up.
ATLANTA – Patrick Chung winced as a Patriots assistant helped him throw a pea green t-shirt around his neck and over his torso.
His entire right arm, freshly broken just a few hours ago at the 14:06 mark of the third quarter, was swallowed up by a tan cast. Chung fought off a block from Rams receiver Josh Reynolds and chased Todd Gurley as the running back circled the edge, chugging upfield toward the Patriots’ sideline. A high-speed collision with Gurley and a torpedoing Jonathan Jones left him rolling on his backside, thumbing the fracture point with his opposite hand.
It was an emotional pivot for a defense that, until that point in the game, had shut down the second-highest scoring offense in the NFL. Chung was beyond essential over the first two quarters and, after making his way back to the sideline during the game, was informed that his defensive teammates were dedicating the remainder of Super Bowl LIII to him.
It’s the kind of salute one might expect for a player who holds the demanding job in New England’s scheme.
“It’s not like he just goes down and it’s next person in,” Jason McCourty said afterward. “He plays safety, he plays linebacker, he plays the most different positions on our defense. So when he goes down, it’s an adjustment on what guys can do in different roles.”
In quiet moments after winning the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl (and Chung’s third), 13-3 over the Los Angeles Rams, his teammates would call him their leader. They would call him irreplaceable and a brother. He was rarely alone. This was, on a larger level, about getting some invisible bogeyman off the collective chests of the Patriots defense. Players throughout the locker room, and on podiums scattered in the adjacent interview room, talked about a lack of respect they’d received all season and questioned why no one saw in them what the world saw on Sunday. Their message was also about how they were able to reassemble without Chung on a night where their opponents were talented enough to throw at his replacement and tilt the game back toward their comfort zone if they wanted to.
But in the Patriots locker room, while players uncorked champagne and sprayed one another, dancing around a silver Bluetooth Bumpboxx stereo blaring the words to Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba,” Chung was just trying to get himself back together.
“Just trying to go see my family,” he said.
Defensive end Deatrich Wise jogged over from his stall, still in pads, wrapped in about a mile of tape on each of his wrists and over his fingers. He helped the assistant put on Chung’s shirt. His two gold necklaces were another matter, and required the help of a third party to clasp the chain at the back of his neck. Through it all, Chung maintained a sturdy expression, swallowing the pain.
“When I see my brother hurt, I feel for him,” Wise said, before sampling a victory cigar from a polished Patriot-blue humidor being passed around the locker room. “It’s a family here. He’s one of the engines that makes this team go.”
The Patriots’ defensive game plan hinged on duality. They were deliberate and physical one minute, and nebulous the next. Chung began the game playing a linebacker-type role, clawing through tight end lead blocks on jet sweeps or outside runs—one of the most difficult things in the sport for a player who may end up being 30 to 40 pounds lighter, and a few inches shorter, than the tight ends or blocking backs swinging out to corner him. His ability, even on a single play, to switch from that role into a zone defender threw Rams quarterback Jared Goff off several critical reads during the first and second quarters. On one of L.A.’s few competent first-half drives, Chung punched a third-down ball from the chest of Rams’ receiver Robert Woods, forcing a punt.
By the time Chung made it back out onto the field as a spectator, the Patriots had reorganized. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy took on more of Chung’s linebacker responsibilities. Duron Harmon checked into the game and began shuffling through the secondary.
Not much had changed for the Rams, who still dropped Goff back into the pocket on nearly every down to face an unsolvable puzzle. He was out of ideas, so much so that he lofted an ill-advised jump pass with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to dissolve Los Angeles’ best chance of a game-tying touchdown, just because he saw a hint of one-on-one coverage. Stephon Gilmore picked it off, and the Patriots put the game away.
“To be honest, I can’t believe he threw it,” Gilmore said. “I was just like, in my head, ‘I know he didn’t throw this right now. He saw me looking at him.’”
Though the entire point of New England’s defense was to force Goff into a decision like that. The night was sliding that way as each of the wide-open options that had been there throughout the Rams’ record-breaking season vanished.
And Chung, even from the sidelines, made sure to lend a hand in it all.
“He was energized and he still helped this team,” Wise said. “He was pumped up. Yes sir.”
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