FOXBOROUGH — During last season’s AFC divisional-round playoff game, Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa was mic’d up. The upshot of this was that anyone with cable or Internet access could hear an in-game conversation between Bosa and Tom Brady about why the Patriots were winning.
“Stop throwing the ball so fast, Tom,” Bosa said.
It was a perfect example of one of the biggest on-field battles in today’s NFL — that between quarterbacks whose release times are shorter than ever and pass rushers whose athleticism seems more freakish with every draft — made that much more interesting because it took place in the middle of a playoff game.
We know who came out on top in that one, and the two that followed it. In three playoff games, including their Super Bowl win, Brady and the Patriots took on Bosa and Melvin Ingram of the Chargers, Dee Ford and Justin Houston of the Chiefs, and Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh of the Rams. In the three games combined, Brady was sacked just one time. Credit the Patriots’ offensive line, but also credit Brady’s release, the fifth fastest in the NFL last year among starting quarterbacks, according to the league’s Next Gen Stats. Brady’s average time from snap to throw in 2018 was 2.62 seconds.
“He really is ridiculous,” Bosa said. “Like, how quick he can get rid of the ball, what he sees. Impressive.”
In that game and the two that followed, the Patriots’ defense watched three of their counterpart units rendered relatively toothless. They were thrilled to be winning. They were also a little mesmerized it could happen like that.
“We were sitting on the bench in the Super Bowl like, this is crazy,” safety Devin McCourty said. “It’s like, they barely touched Tom.”
It’s hard to miss that all three of those defenses were built through their lines. Conventional football wisdom says that’s the way to do it, that to defend the pass you have to be able to rush the passer. Look at the Patriots’ defense, though, one that has a legitimate chance Sunday against the Jets to become the first defense since 1937 to hold opponents without a touchdown through the first three weeks of the season, and you see a unit that’s built first and foremost on its secondary. It’s a defense designed to avoid the issues that frustrated the Chargers, Chiefs, and Rams last postseason and, perhaps, one that offers a counterpoint to that rush-first conventional wisdom.
“If you don’t have guys that cover, you don’t have a chance,” said cornerback Jason McCourty.
The Patriots certainly do have those guys, because they’ve invested in them both in free agency and the draft. The two highest defensive earners on the team in 2019 are Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore, according to the website Spotrac. Those two have the biggest active contracts on the team and make the highest annual salaries of anyone other than Brady.
The Patriots are also 26th in the league in positional spending on defensive linemen but 18th on cornerbacks and first on safeties, that trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon forming the versatile core of the defense.
They have not all (or even most) worked out, but the Patriots have drafted a defensive back in the top two rounds in four out of the last five years, the only year they did not do so being 2017, when their first pick was in the third round.
There’s some good, non-anecdotal evidence more teams would do well to build this way. The fine folks at Pro Football Focus conducted an analysis this spring that would make your head spin, but ultimately arrived at the conclusion that defenses that had better coverage were more effective against the pass overall than defenses with better pass rush.
“PFF grades in coverage explain more about what happens in the passing game in a given season than pass-rush grades do,” summarized Pro Football Focus staffers Eric Eager and George Chahrouri in a written piece accompanying their findings.
It’s also in some ways happening, with nickel cornerbacks getting more expensive and coveted and a raft of safeties who are really converted cornerbacks with excellent cover skills. The Patriots aren’t the only ones to have this thought, though they’ve executed it better than most.
“I remember two years ago being with the Browns and them studying how fast different quarterbacks were getting the ball out,” Jason McCourty said. “It didn’t really matter who was rushing the passer because there was no time to get it out. One thing we’d always say is like guys, if we’ve got to get pressure it’s up to us to jam the receiver, whether it’s just covering a guy up to be able to cause a reason for the quarterbacks to hold the ball.”
Conventional wisdom, though, is tough to break free from. One theory Devin McCourty posited on why defensive roster priorities league-wide lean toward pass rushers is that they’re just more fun, superhuman joysticks that coaches can deploy as wrecking balls. Those players are considered most valuable — the average annual salary for a secondary player is a little more than $2.5 million, while defensive linemen earn on average more than $3 million, with those classified as defensive ends or edge rushers making more still, according to Spotrac — because they’re considered rarer, in part because they just don’t look like many people walking around the street.
“I don’t think anyone thinks just anyone can do that, or have the ability to do that so they’re still like, I still want a guy who can get 15 sacks,” Devin McCourty said.
Most important is having a balanced defense, because just about any offense can recognize a glaring weakness and attack it. It’s a cliché, but it’s critical to marry pass rush and coverage. It’s just that the scales between those two might need to be reweighted.
There’s nothing like an elite quarterback to expose that. Lucky for the Patriots, they have one to test their defense in-house whenever they’d like.
“It’s not fun having to go against one of the smartest quarterbacks ever and having to disguise against him,” said safeties coach Steve Belichick of going against Brady every day.
If they’re built to do that, though, it might save them some frustration. Just ask Joey Bosa.