Three games, three starting lineups. Three games, six members of the Patriots secondary that have taken the field for the first defensive series.
Three games, 11 players who have received snaps at either cornerback or safety for the Patriots, who seem to be treating their defensive backfield personnel and groupings like some seasonlong experiment.
Which, in many aspects, it is.
Roster turnover happens on every team, every year, at almost every position. One of the bigger question marks for the Patriots before the season was the secondary, because four players who combined to play 2,266 snaps last season left the team and headed elsewhere.
Replacing Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and Alfonzo Dennard requires a group effort, and so the Patriots have attacked it multiple ways. They’ve promoted from within, with Malcolm Butler starting all three games after being used in a reserve role last season.
They’ve addressed the need through the draft, plucking safety Jordan Richards in the second round. And they’ve turned to free agency, bringing in veteran cornerbacks Tarell Brown (seven seasons with 49ers, one with Raiders) and Bradley Fletcher (four seasons with Rams, two with Eagles), plus undrafted rookie cornerback Justin Coleman.
Combine the newcomers with holdovers Butler, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, and Nate Ebner, and the secondary has the parts. The fun part for the Patriots has been figuring out where and when to use them.
“We ask a lot of those guys and everybody on the team to do that. They do a good job of it. They have versatility. They’ve all played multiple roles – inside, outside, man, zone, flipping over, not flipping over, matching up, not matching up — a lot of different combinations,” coach Bill Belichick said on Tuesday. “We do that in training camp and in the spring to try to give ourselves some versatility and flexibility. Sometimes we end up using more of it or less of it, but eventually it seems like we always need it, so we work on those things and how they come up from game to game just really depends on that individual game and the game plan.”
There has been some continuity. Butler has started all three games at left cornerback, and figures to get the start there on Sunday afternoon in Dallas against the Cowboys. The starting safeties for all three games have been McCourty and Chung.
Brown started at right cornerback against the Steelers and Bills, then Ryan got the nod there against the Bills. In the season opener against the Steelers, when the Patriots started the game with five defensive backs, Harmon joined Butler, Brown, McCourty, and Chung.
Nickel and dime packages bring a fifth or even a sixth defensive back onto the field, and the Patriots have a number of choices, depending on who is in uniform. Coleman (twice), Wilson (twice), Fletcher, and Ebner have all been inactive for games.
Based on personnel and opponent, the Patriots might seem to be tinkering with the lineup, who plays and how much. Nine of the 11 defensive backs have been on the field for at least 50 percent of the plays in one or more games. The exceptions are Ebner, who is used more on special teams, and Wilson.
But from Butler (who has played 98 percent of the defensive snaps so far) and McCourty (96.5) to Coleman (20.8) to Richards (14.4), the Patriots are mixing and matching, to see which groups work well together.
“We have some players back there that weren’t with us last year. We have quite a few players that were. There is definitely a mixture,” Belichick said. “We’ve always been a team that’s tried to do what we feel is best to play the specific opponent that we have, and that includes different personnel groupings, sometimes different positions, sometimes different schemes.
“Some games may look a little more different to the fans or the media or even ourselves than others. Some may look kind of the same. Again, it’s all an attempt to try to put ourselves in the most competitive position we can.”
It’s a group that so far has combined for five interceptions and is allowing 251 passing yards per game, with six touchdowns thrown against it. The lineup on Sunday might be different than it was for any of the first three games, or maybe it will be the same. Brown, who sat out the Jaguars game, might return. Or he might not. Maybe Fletcher is active, or Harmon plays more than the 19 snaps he received against Jacksonville.
The secondary, as you’d expect, is a work in progress. But at least it gives the Patriots options.
“We ask them to do quite a bit so we have some versatility back there and then we try to do the things that we feel are best,” Belichick said. “It’s a good group to work with. They really work well together, help each other out, study together, have a lot of good camaraderie and communication, and we still have a lot of work to do. We’ll see how it all comes together this week.”