Safety trio lifting Patriots' secondary
Before the season started, it was expected that the Patriots would have a weakness in their secondary. Darrelle Revis was gone, and it wasn’t clear who would be the starting cornerbacks on the team. However, earlier this week, we ranked New England as the fifth-best secondary this season, thanks in large part to the team’s safeties. After their play against the Dolphins on Thursday night, there is a case for them to be even higher.
Most teams are lucky to have two good safeties, but the Patriots managed to get three. According to our PFF Player Grades, starters Patrick Chung (89.6) and Devin McCourty (89.4) the fifth and sixth-ranked safeties, respectively. Backup Duron Harmon (81.1) isn’t too far behind at 17th. Their roles change depending on the game plan, but typically McCourty is their free safety, Chung their strong safety in base, and Harmon coming in on passing downs as a free safety. The Patriots will, at times, have a nickel defense with all three on the field, either using it to face 12 personnel, or having Chung act as the team’s third cornerback. All three are good enough that you want them all on the field as much as possible.
Against the Dolphins, McCourty’s highlights included a pass defense, a tackle for a short gain, his first sack since his rookie year, and a special teams tackle. On the year, he has three passes defended, tied for third-best among safeties. He has now gone 17 straight games without allowing a pass for more than 26 yards.
Patrick Chung is having the best four-game stretch of his career. The game against the Dolphins was his second-best ever, and all four games now rank in his top 10 performances in the NFL. His highlights against Miami consisted of a pass defense, a third down stop, a tackle for no gain, a pressure, and successfully reading a screen, which stopped the screen from happening. His four pass defenses tied him for the league lead among safeties.
In the fourth quarter against Miami, Duron Harmon had an interception to stop any chance of a Dolphins’ comeback. His hit on the receiver prevented another catch, and he had close coverage on another play, leading to his sixth straight game without a catch allowed. Over the last two seasons on 423 coverage snaps, he has been thrown at five times, has allowed one catch for 9 yards, has five interceptions, and one pass defense. That’s a yards per coverage snap of 0.02, and an NFL passer rating allowed of 0.
The improvement of these three players are one of the several reasons the Patriots remain the best team in football in 2015.