FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick doesn’t often deal in superlatives or singling out a player, so when he does, it makes an impression.
Asked about his experience having his son Steve on staff as the Patriots safeties coach this year, Belichick earlier this season pointed out that his son had one of the more enviable assignments in terms of position group.
“Those guys are good players,” Belichick said. “They’re some of our best players with the five guys that we have at that position. There’s been a lot of continuity there. It’s unfortunate that we lost Nate [Ebner], but they’ve all been productive. They’re all are strong players both in the kicking game and defensively. It’s been a strength of our team.”
Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, and Nate Ebner make up the Patriots safety group, though Ebner played exclusively on special teams before his season-ending knee injury in November. Particularly in the cases of McCourty and Harmon, their leadership skills are often noted. But on the field, they’ve been the glue that’s kept the Patriots defense from unraveling, which it has threatened to at times.
With Chung, who’s nominally the strong safety but plays a variety of roles from coverage linebacker to nickel corner, and some combination of Harmon and McCourty patrolling the middle of the field, they’ve helped compensate for a depleted front, filled in the gaps so that others can play to their strengths, and led the charge in the red zone, where the New England defense has been remarkably stout.
“You can trust your guys behind you that they’re going to do their job and they’re going to make you look right,” defensive end Trey Flowers said.
With the exception of Ebner, the group has been healthy all season. McCourty, Harmon, Chung and Richards have played in every game. Harmon had his playing time increase to 66 percent this season after playing 49 percent of defensive snaps in 2016. That has meant the Patriots spend more time in their big nickel package — with three safeties — since McCourty and Chung rarely leave the field.
McCourty leads the team in tackles (77) with Chung second (67). Harmon leads the team in interceptions (4) and the group has accounted for 22 of the team’s 67 pass defenses.
The coaching staff’s confidence in that group was evident in Week 17, when the Patriots used a package with seven defensive backs to defend several third-and-long situations against the Jets.
Flowers said there could be a worry that an opponent would react to a defense going so small up front and try to exploit it with a run play, even in an obvious passing situation. The coaching staff clearly believed they weren’t unprotected up front in that package, and Flowers said that just the presence of a player such as Chung is a big reason. Overall, the Jets went 0 for 12 on third down.
“Just his physicality, just playing down, playing the run and playing that linebacker statue as far as shedding blocks, getting off blocks and things like that,” Flowers said. “You know, it just gives us that confidence that we can play fast. We know that Chung’s got the inside gap. We know that we’ll be outside and we can play fast and physical just like that. Just him being able to not only stop the run and things like that, being able to cover guys, cover people, cover backs and things like that. It works out well for us.”
Chung, at 215 pounds, can match up on shifty running backs such as Alvin Kamara, slot receivers, or take on top tight ends such as Travis Kelce. Other strong safeties might not have the quickness to grapple with a player such as Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu but, with Chung able to hang in coverage, McCourty and Harmon can help on other assignments.
“I would say Pat’s role just of being able to cover tight ends, slot receivers, running backs has been huge,” McCourty said. “For the most part of when you play free safety and you’re able to cancel out coverage things — like ‘Hey, Chung’s not going to really need my help’ — that frees you up a little bit more. I think it’s great for us as a defense. We can sit there and say, ‘Hey, Chung’s going to cover that guy.’ ”
Chung’s versatility makes things easier on the free safeties, who in turn can help out the other defensive backs. There’s the case of Stephon Gilmore, the $65 million corner who struggled early in the season, but put together a strong stretch of games once the Patriots started asking him to play more man-to-man coverage and lock down on a specific assignment.
McCourty and Harmon already were a help to Gilmore on the field, resources who could remind him what the coverage was and where to line up, but even as the defense simplified for Gilmore, he needed to feel confident that the other areas of the field were taken care of.
“It definitely helps,” Gilmore said. “Devin is one of the smartest players I’ve ever played with and Duron, Chung’s smart. It allows you to play more [freely].”
Even with those contributions, the defense has been porous this season, at least until they get into the red zone. There’s often been a bend-don’t-break quality to Patriots’ defenses, but this year’s unit has taken that to new heights. The Patriots ranked 29th in yards allowed (366 yards per game) but fifith in points allowed (an average of 18.5).
Most players on the team attribute that to situational awareness, an acute focus that sweeps over the group when the field gets short, and having internalized all the things such as down and distance, clock management, and opponent tendencies. Most on the team also say the safeties, McCourty and Harmon in particular, start running the point in those situations. Just by virtue of the condensed field, the free safeties are closer to the players in the front seven. It’s simple, but everyone can hear each other better.
“Those guys, [McCourty] and Duron Harmon and Pat Chung from the safety standpoint, down into our linebackers, Kyle Van Noy when he’s out there certainly and Elandon Roberts . . . those guys have to really tie everything together from the coverage to the front, from the run game to the pass game and that’s critically important for us down there,” Patricia said.
Flowers said hearing McCourty’s voice in the red zone helps him focus. It makes other players feel calm. That’s especially important to a group that’s been ever-changing over the course of the season, with inexperienced players such as Marquis Flowers and Eric Lee asked to play significant roles.
“You’re dealing with veteran guys on the back end and on the front end you’re dealing with some guys who — we’ve got a lot of different parts, we’ve got a lot of moving parts,” Trey Flowers said.
“So even just having that, that source behind you, I guess, just understanding that they’ve got everything situated for us on the back end so you can just play straight forward, you can trust your keys and play fast and they’re going to take care of what they have to.”