NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
Earthwind Moreland, Troy Brown, Artrell Hawkins, Hank Poteat, Antwaun Molden. These are names fans are used to seeing as they glanced over the Patriots depth chart during the last decade. That’s about to change in 2014.
Over the course of 48 hours in March the Patriots secondary went from a complete liability to strength of the team with the additions of two physical man to man corners in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. On paper, the Patriots have an “embarassment of riches” in the secondary, but how will Bill Belichick use them? Here is what I think we’ll see and why it will make them tough to beat.
Darrelle Revis changes everything. Forget the comparisons to Aqib Talib. He’s better, much better. For everything that Talib brought to the Patriots secondary over his brief time in New England Revis will bring more. He’s more durable, more technical, has better instincts and doesn’t get beat nearly as often. When Revis was signed, everyone immediately assumed he’d be assigned to cover the oppositions top receiver week in and week out.
There will be times when Revis is used on the #1 Wide Receiver, however, when all the pieces are healthy and Brandon Browner is back from suspension here is how I believe the secondary will deployed:
1) Brandon Browner will cover the #1 Wide Receiver: Browner is a rare breed. There isn’t a bigger corner in the NFL and he gives Bill Belichick something he’s lacked. Size and strength to match up with the abundance of big, physical WR that litter the Patriots schedule. Browner’s strength are his ability to match size, his ability to jam and disrupt timing within the first five yards, and his length to contest the catch point. Browner can be a liability when forced to open his hips and run laterally or turn to run deep. This is why he often uses bail technique (which he does pretty well).
I think Coach Belichick will use Browner’s size and physicality to match up with the top WR, while also rolling safety help over the top to double team the first option on most plays. Most Quarterbacks will be reluctant to throw into double coverage and with Browner using his strength at the line it will further disrupt the timing, forcing the QB to move to his second option.
2) Darrelle Revis will cover the #2 Receiver and erase him: When the Quarterback moves off his first read because he can’t get a clean release or he’s being doubled over the top, he’ll be forced to turn to his #2 option. The only problem with that is All-World Darrelle Revis will likely be matched up man to man, essentially erasing that WR from the game plan. In 2014, that means Revis taking Alshon Jeffery, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, or Reggie Wayne out of the game.
3) Devin McCourty will be given more freedom: This plan will allow Devin McCourty to use his two best traits: his range and instincts (when he’s facing the play). In the past McCourty has has been mostly limited to deep third, cover-2 looks providing help over the top because the #1, #2 CB couldn’t be trusted to handle opposing weapons on their own. With Revis on one side and the opposite safety helping Browner on the other side, McCourty will be able to move around the formation, disguise his looks, and ball hawk.
4) Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan add depth: In 2014 Quarterbacks will be forced to move through their progression to their #3 and #4 reads on most plays because of the Revis and Browner factor. This has always been part of Bill Belichick’s mantra. If he’s going to get beat, he’s not going to let the opposing teams best players beat him. Belichick will force the QB to dink and dunk or throw underneath to his remaining reads to move the ball. Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan aren’t #1 Cornerbacks, they might not even be #2′s, but they are pretty damn good 3′s and 4′s. Having two talented cover guys to match up with the oppositions 3rd-4th options, it further complicates the Quarterbacks progression and forces him to make a difficult throw into coverage.
Forcing a QB to move through his progression will only help the Patriots pass rush and their ability to apply pressure in key situations. On paper the Patriots didn’t do a whole lot to supplement the pass rush, but when you look closer the pass rush should be a lot better in 2014 because the coverage on the back-end vastly improved.
5) Kyle Arrington plays only in the slot - Unless injuries strike, the days of Kyle Arrington playing on the outside are over and that should make Patriots fans ecstatic. According to PFF 6 out 7 of Arrington’s worst performances last season came when he was forced to play on the outside. Much like Ryan and Dennard, Arrington can struggle when asked to cover top level talents. When forced to cover slot receivers or 2nd tier options he can be very good. The added depth in the secondary should lighten the workload on Arrington as Logan Ryan can slide inside to play some slot corner as well.
6) Jamie Collins locks down the middle: Tight Ends have killed the Patriots over the years, especially in the middle of the field. From Heath Miller to Tony Gonzalez to Jake Ballard the Patriots have been exposed in the middle of the field by even the slowest of Tight Ends. The Patriots will miss Brandon Spikes physicality, but they won’t miss his lack of speed and inability to run with Tight Ends. Spikes’ departure opens the door for Jamie Collins to join the starting lineup and play major snaps. Collins speed and fluidity is something that has been absent from a Patriots LB in quite sometime. In Nickel packages Collins will give Bill Belichick the opportunity to be more creative and flexible with his alignments and play calls. His ability to run in stride with Tight Ends down the seam or buzz the flats to pick up a RB will further complicate the QB progression.
7) Forget the traditional Free Safety-Strong Safety Dynamic: The days of Rodney Harrison are gone and they aren’t coming back. After watching the Super Bowl and witnessing the physicality of Seahawks Safety Kam Chancellor every fan base hoped their team added that type of physical enforcer during the off-season. It’s not going to happen in New England. As the game continues to become more pass happy the need for multiple safeties that can cover in the deep third are necessary.
Devin McCourty is penciled in at one Safety and Duron Harmon will get the first chance to play opposite him, at least while Brandon Browner is suspended. Once Browner is back Bill Belichick will be hard pressed to get his top 5 defensive backs on the field together. For this reason I think we’ll see Logan Ryan get reps at Safety during training camp and ultimately play their more as the season progresses.
8) Expect More Disguises and Creativity – Over the last 4-5 seasons there’s been so much change and uncertainty in the secondary that it has really handcuffed Bill Belichick’s ability to do what he does best; create complex defensive schemes that confuse Quarterbacks. All the new personnel and youth on the back-end has been part of the reason why the Patriots have played so vanilla early in the season and it’s the reason why they’ve given up so many passing yards. Bill Belichick hasn’t trusted them to cover even in the simplest schemes, so there is noway he was going to throw the complex stuff at these newcomers.
This year youth and inexperience shouldn’t be an issue what-so-ever. It will take time for the unit to gel and get used to playing with one another, but in terms of handling complex coverage schemes and maintaining responsibilities this unit should hit the ground running. Not only will we see more coverage deception, but I expect much more blitzing, zone blitzing, and more freedom allowed to players such as Jerod Mayo.
Regardless of how Bill Belichick ultimately decides to deploy these players, when they take the field on October 5th vs. the Cincinnati Bengals (Browner’s first game) they will do so with one of the most talented secondaries in the NFL. Even if it’s only for one season the secondary will be the strength of the 2014 Patriots and the addition of two players (Browner and Revis) will dramatically effect the way the entire Patriots defense plays the game. It should be fun to watch.