One for Safety: Patriots Secondary Shows New Wrinkle vs. Buccaneers in Week 3

The Patriots appeared to be in a nickel defense against the Buccaneers, but strong safety Steve Gregory was missing. (Photo: NFL Game Rewind)

NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas

“We’ve done that in the past. It’s not a big thing.”

Those were the words of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when asked about the defense’s three-cornerback, one-safety display against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3.

“I think more of that look came against their three-receiver sets,” Belichick added. “So our third corner was with their third receiver. Yeah, it’s just a different matchup for us.”

It was a different matchup for the Patriots secondary. It allowed the defense to maintain a 4-3  front, and it allowed the cornerbacks to ship out in a “nickel” alignment – even though only four defensive backs were on the field at once.

The single-safety personnel grouping was showcased for just six plays in New England’s 23-3 win over Tampa Bay, but its implementation alone was enough to draw attention.

In its use, Chandler Jones, Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich manned the defensive line. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower manned the linebacker spots. And in the third level, Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard manned the cornerback and slot duties.

On the surface, all the “starters” looked to be on the field in the sub package. There was, however, one exception:

Free safety Devin McCourty manned center field alone, as the 11-man restriction sent strong safety Steve Gregory to the sidelines.

Now, the single-high safety scheme may be commonplace among NFL defenses. With that said, utilizing a single-high safety without an in-the-box or underneath counterpart is not an every-down or every-game occurrence. It has its merits and its vulnerabilities.

It is a play call for select situations and select opponents.

Against the Buccaneers on Sunday, the Patriots went with three corners and one safety only on early downs – first and second. This afforded the defense a chance to win the battles in the front seven, containing the run while also creating backfield pressure. And in regards to the outside, the formation also afforded New England’s top three cornerbacks a chance to beat their man assignments without much assistance over top.

Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia considered another variable before sending out the light safety package, though:

The offensive personnel.

When New England pulled the trigger on the lone-safety defense, it was because the Buccaneers were in “10” or “11” personnel – with either one running back and no tight end, or one running back and one tight end.

Reacting to the position tally in Tampa’s huddle, the Patriots did their due diligence in keeping the Doug Martin running game honest with Spikes in the middle as the run-stopping “Mike” linebacker and the Mayo-Hightower tandem nearby. In doing so, the Patriots challenged the Buccaneers to pass the ball with quarterback Josh Freeman – who has since been benched in favor of rookie third-round pick Mike Glennon.

In theory, it was a creative idea worth exploring. Although in practice, its effectiveness was mixed.

When the Buccaneers’ three- or four-wide receiver sets encountered New England’s 4-3-3-1 design, Freeman dropped back and passed the ball three times. And he obtained completions for 62 yards in the process. Now in hindsight, that could have been attributed to Bucs wideouts Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson simply out-executing the coverage. Then again, Belichick and Patricia’s decision also suggested complete confidence in the cover abilities of Talib, Arrington, Dennard and McCourty.

There are two sides two every coin. Still, inevitably, one question will be asked:

Would those receptions have been acquired if Gregory or rookie safety Duron Harmon were in the game instead of a third linebacker?

It’s a reasonable notion. But what New England’s seldom-seen dimension also did was minimize the Buccaneers ground game. The Tampa Bay offense opted to run the ball once versus the one-safety defense. And when that transpired, Patriots were prepared to halt it, holding Martin to a modest pickup of three yards.

Aside from the three passes and the one run by Martin, there were two undeniably positive Patriots results from having McCourty on an island. New England benefited from a false start by the Tampa offensive line and a sack of Freeman for two negative yards.

The cumulative total came down to 58 yards of net offensive production – roughly 9.6 yards per snap in the single-safety defense. For all intents and purposes, the Patriots’ experiment was over by the second defensive series of the third quarter.

Nevertheless, if the down, distance and personnel call for it, don’t be surprised if you see McCourty back deep by himself once again.

After all, new wrinkles take time to develop.

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