The New England Patriots defense had a tremendous night against the San Diego Chargers, allowing just one drive of more than 30 yards and recording four sacks en route to a 23-14 victory in NFL Week 14. The unconventional use of Devin McCourty as a man coverage defender against the Chargers’ most reliable third down target, Antonio Gates, proved critical.
As part of a well-crafted and well-executed defensive game plan that shut down the San Diego Chargers offense in Week 14, the New England Patriots made a significant adjustment in their third-down defense. Instead of leaving safety Devin McCourty responsible for a deep portion of the field on every snap, the converted cornerback returned to some familiar territory on third downs. McCourty often manned up with tight end Antonio Gates – quarterback Philip Rivers’s favorite target on third-down conversion attempts.
Heading into the game, cornerback Brandon Browner, safety Patrick Chung and the linebacker corps had been expected to handle Gates utilizing a combination of man and zone coverage. And while this did occur on first and second down plays, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s decision to use McCourty in a traditional cornerback role on third downs was a twist few could have predicted.
The unexpected wrinkle paid dividends as Gates, entering the game with 16 first down catches on third down plays, picked up zero such completions.
In retrospect, the thought process behind the third down approach seemed simple enough: match size with size by putting Browner (6’4”) on wide receiver Malcolm Floyd (6’5”) and staple your best cornerback, Darrelle Revis, on San Diego’s most targeted wide receiver, Keenan Allen. Who better to take on San Diego’s second-most targeted weapon (Gates) than New England’s second-best defensive back (McCourty)?
With McCourty in man (and occasional underneath zone) coverage on third downs, the Patriots turned to Duron Harmon (18 snaps) as the traditional deep safety when playing Cover 1 and paired him with Tavon Wilson (11 snaps) or Chung when showing two deep safeties:
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The Patriots defense faced 14 third- or fourth-down attempts, using McCourty on Gates in man coverage 9 times. McCourty blitzed from the slot (while aligned on Gates) once. The safety-turned-corner played man-to-man on Floyd twice, including this play shown below in which McCourty is in lockstep with the receiver on his fade route:
New England used zone coverage on the other two third-down attempts, but both coverage schemes used Harmon and/or Wilson as the deep safeties with McCourty aligned underneath.
McCourty was also deployed as an underneath defender in Cover 3 on a 1st-and-20 in the third quarter (a play ending in an interception by linebacker/defensive end Akeem Ayers) and in man coverage on Gates on a 2nd-and-10 late in the fourth quarter.
While in man coverage, the Chargers only targeted McCourty twice, with both pass attempts going to Gates. McCourty broke up one pass (see video below) while the other was caught by Gates for a 4-yard gain.
Whether McCourty gets used similarly on third downs in the weeks to come or merely served as a one-time matchup-specific adjustment remains to be seen. But the confidence of the coaching staff to call on McCourty to take on a new (but familiar) role 14 weeks into the season adds an extra layer of flexibility to a secondary that is already performing at a high level.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
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