Success of secondary major driver in Patriots’ 10-0 start
New England remained undefeated last night by beating the Bills 20-13 in Foxborough. Although the Patriots’ offense spluttered for one of the few occasions this year, they were able to rely on their defense to come away with the victory. Darrelle Revis may have left town in the offseason, but the loss of his star quality has been negated by an improvement to the secondary unit as a whole.
Each member of the Patriots’ secondary graded positively on Monday Night Football, and they combined for a +7.6 grade in coverage. New England’s corners and safeties shut down Tyrod Taylor’s deep game—and he’s not the kind of quarterback to methodically drive down the field. Without the explosive plays, the Patriots were able to keep the Bills at arm length, and remain two games clear for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The strength of the Patriots’ secondary lies, not in having elite players, but in having an elite unit. At safety, they have three players in the top 12, but none in the top four. Patrick Chung is the closest at fifth, but he’s more of a reliable contributor than a playmaker. At corner, neither Ryan nor Butler can claim a spot in the top 10—but both are ranked in the top 15.
Performing on the perimeter
Malcolm Butler holds everything together at corner. His grade is slightly misleading, considering he’s asked to track the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver on most occasions. Butler has performed that role well, having recorded five green graded games (above +1.0) and just two red graded games (below -1.0) this season. He’s allowed 44 receptions from 77 targets for 691 yards, five scores, one pick, and 10 pass deflections. Only Eric Decker and Antonio Brown have gotten the better of him this year.
Equally important to the emergence of Butler, however, has been the improvement of Logan Ryan. After finishing with a negative coverage grade in 2014 (-0.9), he’s taken a big step forward in his third year as a pro. His coverage numbers are outstanding, as he’s allowed just 34-of-57 targets to end up as completions, with one touchdown, four interceptions, and five passes defensed. Overall, he’s allowing a QB rating of just 59.0, the seventh-best mark amongst corners so far this year. New England’s corners might be the best under-the-radar guys around.
Security at safety
Patrick Chung is an interesting player. He’s graded positively in five out of six years for New England, but looked completely lost in 2013 when he moved to the Eagles’ roster in free agency. He recorded a -6.8 grade that year (-7.3 in coverage) before being promptly cut. Since his return to the Patriots, he has a +25.0 grade in about a year and a half. He’s been particularly effective this season, and is in fine form, with grades of +1.6 or better in six out of his last seven games. Overall, he’s allowed just 21-of-39 targets to be completed for 222 yards, one TD, and seven pass deflections. Chung is one of the better safeties that can move down and cover the slot, allowing just 0.71 yards per cover snap, 11th best in the league. His versatility has been a big help to New England, making him a key part of their secondary.
Beside him, it was touch-and-go as to whether Devin McCourty would still be around after his contract expired this offseason. He decided to return to the franchise that drafted him, and he’s repaying their investment. Overall, he’s allowed 20-of-30 targets to be complete for 193 yards, one touchdown, has one interception, and four PDs. Those aren’t elite numbers, but they’re very respectable. With solidity at both outside corner positions, along the versatility of Chung and McCourty’s range from center field, the Patriots have no weaknesses on their back end.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning Duron Harmon, who replaces Chung at safety when he moves down to cover the slot in the nickel. His numbers this year are simply ludicrous. He’s allowed just one completion from four targets for 9 yards, but has three picks and a pass deflection. He’s shown impressive playmaking ability in obvious passing situations, suggesting the Patriots’ secondary could be even stronger moving forward. Harmon now has seven interceptions in his career, despite only allowing 13 completions. Although most of his interceptions have come on misplaced passes rather than jumped routes, that’s still some stat line.
Overall there are few “names” starting for the Patriots’ secondary, but the five players who have taken the most snaps there all have positive grades. Butler is able to do enough to prevent No. 1 receivers from taking over games, leaving Ryan with chances to make plays. Chung can mix it up in the box and cover slot receivers, while McCourty patrols center field. Then Harmon comes in on obvious passing situations and looks to take the ball away. The unit has everything you look for in a secondary, making it one of the best in the NFL