Patriots’ unheralded secondary has been key to their dominance

Malcolm Butler is among the players in the Patriots secondary having a great season.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

By Kyle Schroeder

When the New England Patriots lost their top two cornerbacks this offseason, All-Pro Darrelle Revis and above-average starter Brandon Browner, there was tremendous concern that their secondary would go back to being below-average. Bill Belichick  received a lot of criticism for not re-signing Revis or Browner and instead putting his trust into two young, inexperienced corners. 

One of the corners who had big shoes to fill was Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, who was a coming off a rookie season in which he only played 17 percent of the defensive snaps according to Pro Football Outsiders. The other corner, Logan Ryan, was coming off his second season in the league in which he was very inconsistent and unreliable as a fourth corner. 

The concerns seemed justified, because in seasons without a Pro Bowl corner — think Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib, or Darrelle Revis — the Patriots had a bad secondary. In the years 2008-11 when they did not have the aforementioned corners, New England ranked 24th, 16th, 17th, and 28th in pass defense DVOA (a measure of team efficiency) according to Pro Football Outsiders. Based on the track records of Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, it was a common prediction by fans and media that the Patriots' pass defense would drop back to the bottom third. 

Fast forward to the present and the Patriots boast an 11-2 record along with the 12th best pass defense DVOA in the league. This has largely resulted from the unexpectedly great play of Butler, Ryan and their three safeties, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald has been keeping track of pass defense stats and these are the numbers through the first 13 games.  

Although Malcolm Butler is giving up a touchdown to interception ratio of 6-1, quarterbacks are only completing 54.8 percent of their passes in his direction, and quarterbacks targeting Logan Ryan are only completing 50 percent of their passes. Pro Football Focus has Ryan ranked as the 11th best cover corner in football and Butler as the 25th best cover corner in football. Coming into the season, it was thought that Butler and Ryan would get exposed after Revis and Browner left. Butler and Ryan have instead proved everyone wrong by not just playing well, but playing at anelite level. 

In fact, Bill Belichick looks like a genius. Ryan and Butler have both outplayed the two guys he let walk in free agency: Revis is currently ranked as the 32nd cover corner and Brandon Browner is having an abysmal season ranked as the worst cover corner in football.

The pass defense has also been much better than people expected because of the great play of the three safeties on the Patriots: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon.

McCourty is playing at his normal elite level, having only 50 percent of passes completed against him and he ranks as the seventh best coverage safety in the game. But the real surprise has been the play of Patrick Chung who has had an otherworldly season. Quarterbacks are only completing 45 percent of their passes against him and Pro Football Focus ranking him as the second-best cover safety in football. Chung was regarded as an average safety through the first four years of his career. He left for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 and had a miserable year, playing only 60 percent of the snaps and was released after the season. He came back to the Patriots in 2014 and had a nice year but this season, he's shocked everyone with a breakout performance. 

Finally, Duron Harmon has played 50 percent of the snaps, which is an unusually high amount for a third safety. But in those snaps, he has been very effective, having only one pass in seven attempts completed against him while also securing three interceptions. His play secured his rank as the fourth-best cover safety in football by pro football focus. With Devin McCourty reportedly expected to miss a few weeks with an ankle sprain, Harmon will get his chance to shine in a starting role.

The play of the secondary really speaks to the greatness of Bill Belichick as an talent evaluator and team builder. Being able to let his top two corners, who just helped his team win a Super Bowl, leave in free agency and then to have the confidence to appoint his fourth and fifth string corners as the top two corners on the depth chart the next season. That gamble Belichick made helped save salary cap space for the team, and with a secondary significantly exceeding expectations paired and the second ranked offense in DVOA lead by Tom Brady, the Patriots are in great position for another deep Super Bowl run.

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