With injured Patrick Chung out, Patriots secondary filled the void
ATLANTA — The Patriots defense was rolling, confident, dominant and shutting out the Rams when the right arm of hybrid safety Patrick Chungsnapped tackling Todd Gurley at the start of the third quarter of Super Bowl LIII.
“Was it bad?” Jason McCourty asked Matthew Slater.
“I think he broke his arm,” Slater replied.
Chung did break his arm, he said after the game, falling at the wrong angle. For several minutes he lay on the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, wailing in pain while the training staff put his arm in an air cast. A cart came out to take Chung to the locker room, but he waved it off with his good arm and insisted on walking off on his own.
Safety Devin McCourty ran over to defensive play-caller Brian Flores to talk about adjustments. They were playing a near-perfect game, but losing Chung was a blow. He plays safety, linebacker and nickel corner and can’t be replaced by any one teammate. It was still a close game.
Two hours later, Chung was cradling the Lombardi Trophy in his left arm, smiling. Right arm casted and in a sling, he’d come back to the sideline in time to watch his teammates in the secondary put the finishing touches on their 13-3 win, a defensive masterpiece.
“I’m OK,” Chung said, smiling big. “I’m going to celebrate.”
Celebrate, because he saw Stephon Gilmore’s game-sealing interception at the 4-yard line with 4:17 left. Chung smiled as he watched Jared Goff’s throw to Brandin Cooks flutter and settle in the outstretched hands of a leapingGilmore. Chung had been back on the bench in time the series before to hear Gilmore predict the defense was going to get a pick.
“He’s going to throw us one, we’ve just got to make sure we squeeze it and hold onto it,” Gilmore told Jason McCourty.
“I knew he was going to chuck it up and I made a great play,” Gilmore said after the game.
“Best corner in the game this year,” Jason McCourty called Gilmore.
Pressure on that play came from Duron Harmon, who’d made another huge play just before to stop Cooks from making what probably would have been a touchdown catch. Harmon barely played in the first half, but he filled a major role when Chung went down, working the middle of the field with Devin McCourty playing more in the box. With the Patriots playing a relatively large amount of zone, the free safety role was critical and teammates credited Harmon with making great breaks when he stepped in.
“We knew nothing was going to stop us tonight,” Devin McCourty said. “We had to make a quick adjustment, play a little different roles, but we knew we could adjust and get it done.”
They got it done thanks to plays like the one Jason McCourty made in the end zone, flying in to break up a near-certain TD pass from Goff to Cooks. He’d seen the same play develop earlier in the game, but Goff didn’t throw the ball, and McCourty was waiting to see it again. When he did, McCourty was far from Cooks and had to cover a lot of ground.
“I just took off,” he said. “I saw Cooks wide open and really wasn’t sure if I was going to get there in time, but I was able to get the ball out of there and we lived to see another play.”
“Oh my God, J-Mac,” said Bill Belichick. “We made two mistakes in coverage [that drive]. Tremendous play, tremendous effort, a great play on the ball. Jason McCourty, that was a tremendous play. Cooks, it was Cooks, right? He was waiting there for the fair catch and then, my God, J-Mac came from nowhere.”
Without that play, or the ones by Gilmore and Harmon, Super Bowl LIII might have gone differently. After losing a critical, versatile piece, the Patriots secondary held this year’s second-ranked offense to 4.3 yards per play. They made adjustments and critical stops, and they made sure their injured teammate had a celebration later that night to numb the pain.