Devin McCourty played all 57 snaps against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. But three others played the safety position along with him.
It wasn’t the first time personnel usage within the New England Patriots’ defense rotated. It was, however, a time that revealed the value in doing so.
The Patriots have dispersed in single-safety looks, two-safety looks, three-safety looks and even four-safety looks to counter offensive packages and situations in recent memory. Along the way, the back end has played two-deep, single-high, cover-zero and a core special-teamer as a hybrid linebacker in the dime defense. Yet there is something to be said for how the group has assembled those pieces for those alignments.
And there’s something to be said for how head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and position coach Brian Flores have incorporated more than one free and one strong safety into the 11.
That was on display in San Diego.
It started with McCourty, whose range and experience as a cornerback afforded New England with the opportunity to dig deeper down the depth chart. The Rutgers product aligned deep and also opposite Chargers tight end Antonio Gates in man coverage during Week 14, broadening the secondary’s options as a whole.
McCourty was responsible for one catch for four yards and also disrupted what would have been another.
His presence was layered, however, and so was the safety group at Qualcomm Stadium. 2009 second-round pick Patrick Chung also illustrated that.
The 5-foot-11, 210-pound strong safety has earned a spot in the defense after few expected him to earn a spot on the roster upon re-signing last April. Since then, Chung has totaled sixth-most snaps of any Patriots defender, according to Pro Football Focus, and he’s made his impact in man, in the box, in the flats and in the backfield.
He rushed the passer once against San Diego. He’s collected three quarterback hits on the season when doing so.
And on the season, Chung has registered starts in all 13 of New England’s games to record 66 tackles and five pass breakups. Yet his resurgence after a difficult year with the Philadelphia Eagles may be less about a shift in his performance and more about the capacity in which he’s been assigned.
Chung has covered tight ends in the middle of the field, and he’s closed down on running backs in the backfield. In some sense, those are are features of his game that were lost in time over his previous tenure with the team, and not necessarily by his own doing. Yet with McCourty’s multidimensional play, as well as the coverage of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington, Chung has been able to find those features again in a scheme now tailored for him.
He looked the part across from the Chargers. The former Oregon Duck conceded one catch for four yards to tight end Ladarius Green on Sunday.
He played 45 unofficial snaps, with 29 coming against the pass and 16 against the run, though he also stepped off as the Patriots filtered in two reserve safeties next to McCourty.
One of them was 2013 third-round pick Duron Harmon.
“When Duron Harmon came into the game, we used [McCourty] in a little bit more in pass coverage and he was matched up on Gates on several occasions,” Coach Belichick said Monday on WEEI’s Dale & Holley. “And it’??s just a little bit of a different look, a little matchup for us. Devin’??s a versatile player playing the deep part of the field, can play closer and play in coverage, and he’??s an excellent tackler for that position and his size. He’??s a versatile player that helps us in a lot of ways.”
Harmon helped the Patriots in his own way over the course of his 16 snaps. He was in coverage on each of them, often for third down. And he assumed McCourty’s vicinity as the single-high safety as well.
The 23-year-old, who started three of 16 games as a rookie last season after injuries took their toll, is familiar with that territory. He dropped back and closed in from there, delivering hits on slot receiver Eddie Royal and halfback Donald Brown down the sideline in the process.
Tavon Wilson delivered hits as well, just from elsewhere.
The 2012 second-round pick by way of Illinois played just 22 defensive snaps last season, serving as a core special-teamer after falling out of favor behind Steve Gregory and Harmon. Yet this season, the third-year pro has carved his way back to the defensive huddle, tallying at least 10 defensive snaps in nine contests while remaining a key part of the kicking game in all 13.
Wilson played one snap last week against the Green Bay Packers, down on the goal line after Chung left with an injury. Yet on that one snap, he broke through on a safety blitz to hit quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the throw.
This week against San Diego, it was a similar setting for the 6-foot, 215-pound Washington, D.C., native. He reinforced short-yardage situations and finished with 11 snaps by the time New England had won, 23-14.
He was targeted once over those 11 snaps. It went for a loss of three.
Yet on his final snap, Wilson made a play on a receiver he wasn’t responsible for.
Chung was in the game, so was Harmon, and so was McCourty. All four were on the field to defend the 4th-and-5 and the nine-point lead.
And the end result was the game’s deciding stop on Gates, just one yard short of the sticks.
It was one of three tackles Wilson was a part of over his limited duty Sunday. Yet, in a way, neither Wilson nor Harmon were limited behind McCourty and Chung. Both were marking their place at a position without a defined one.