There are many question marks regarding the New England Patriots secondary entering training camp. One of those questions is Logan Ryan’s role in 2015. Dave Archibald, Inside the Pylon‘s secondary expert, takes a deep dive into the many different roles Ryan played last season, hoping to give us clues into his usage in this upcoming season.
The spotlight is bright on third-year cornerback Logan Ryan of the New England Patriots, who played fewer than 50% of the team’s snaps in 2014 but figures to take on a bigger role with the offseason departures of starters Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington. The shape of that role is unclear, as Ryan played in many different capacities throughout his sophomore season, lining up outside, in the slot, or even at safety, and playing a variety of man and zone coverages at various depths. His versatility gives defensive coordinator Matt Patricia options to determine how best to fill out the rest of his secondary.
The Patriots played a lot of press man coverage last year, setting up their cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage to jam receivers, preventing them from getting into their routes and disrupting the timing of the play. At 5’11”, 191 pounds and 31 3/8 arms, Ryan has an average frame for a corner, but he plays with a physical edge and usually jams effectively on the line. Ryan (#26) employs great technique here, matchup up against Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse (#15). He slows the wideout with a stiff arm, turns to run with him, sticks close without bumping Kearse, and turns his head in enough time to make a play on the ball. Ryan’s technique needs to be spot-on, since his physical attributes are middling. If he loses at the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t have the deep speed to recover against faster receivers.
Off man is perhaps the most difficult coverage to play in the modern NFL. Since defensive backs are not allowed to hit receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage, they cannot rely on force to disrupt receivers and have to react to what they see. Like many corners, Ryan struggles to find the balance between giving enough cushion to defend the deep ball and too much cushion to react to short throws. In the Super Bowl, Ryan aligns against Ricardo Lockette (#83), playing off man. He sets up with inside leverage – shaded to the middle part of the field, facing the quarterback – like he would in a Cover 3. This could be just a miscommunication, since the rest of the defense appears to be in Cover 1, but Ryan does this again on the next play. Since he is facing the quarterback and not Lockette, Ryan is slow to react and in poor position to drive on the receiver’s route when he stops and turns. Seattle is able to convert the first down with ease.
Cover 3 Zone
When Browner was suspended the first four games in 2014 and Ryan played extensively, the Patriots mixed both man and zone concepts. As the season wore on, New England turned toward more man-to-man looks. With Browner and Revis gone, the Patriots will likely mix things up in 2015. Zone defenses require less physical skill, but demand all defenders understand what the opponent is doing and where their teammates are.
The Bears align in a bunch formation to Ryan’s side, with Brandon Marshall (#15) on the inside and Alshon Jeffery (#17) on the outside. Each receiver runs a route through Ryan’s zone, causing an overload. Marshall runs up the seam, while Jeffery runs toward the sideline and then upfield. Ryan has to respect the seam throw, which allows an easy completion to Jeffery along the sideline for a 22-yard gain. But, free safety Duron Harmon (#30) positioned himself well to defend the seam pattern, which should have led Ryan to cheat toward Jeffery. Zone defenses require great coordination among the individual defenders to keep teams from attacking the seams and holes in coverage. Ryan, and the rest of New England’s secondary, will have to improve in this area to run more zone effectively in 2015.
Cover 2 Zone
Pure Cover 2 has fallen out of favor as a primary defense league-wide, but every team uses it from time to time. While outside cornerbacks in Cover 3 are responsible for deep zones that often leave them running with receivers well downfield, the underneath zones of Cover 2 require less speed but more physicality, as corners must tackle running backs on outside runs or flat passes. Ryan lines up across from veteran Greg Jennings (#15) and jams him shortly after the snap, but then releases him to the safety as he finishes the drop into the zone. Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel (#16), under pressure from the defensive line, dumps the ball off to his checkdown, running back Matt Asiata (#44). Ryan sees this unfold and responds quickly, taking down Asiata with a physical tackle and forcing a Minnesota punt. Cover 2 may not be sound enough to run as a base defense in today’s NFL, but Ryan can play it well, and the tackling and toughness he shows here will serve him well in other defenses and on special teams.
Since the Patriots cut longtime nickelback Kyle Arrington in May, the slot cornerback position is unfilled. Since the Patriots spent about 70% of their defensive snaps in the nickel last year, the slot is virtually a starting position. Newcomer Robert McClain, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, is one candidate for the job, but Ryan saw significant playing time inside in 2014, including against some top wideouts like Golden Tate of the Detroit Lions. The Patriots show Cover 3 after the snap. Since Ryan is in the slot, he is responsible for the underneath curl zone, but he stays with Tate as the receiver pushes the route up the seam. Under pressure, quarterback Matthew Stafford’s throw comes in high and toward the sideline, and Ryan is able to box out Tate and make the interception. Ryan’s average size and physical play give him an edge against slot receivers, who are often small.
New England defensive backs rarely blitz, but on those rare occasions they generally come from the slot. Ryan has just 1.5 career sacks, but when he lines up in the slot the Patriots will send him from time-to-time. Ryan doesn’t get a great jump at the snap but he comes in unblocked. Ryan and Jamie Collins (#91) are able to force Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (#6) to step up in the pocket, where he runs into Akeem Ayers (#52) for the sack.
Ryan did not get regular action at safety in games last year, but he did get work there in the preseason. His understanding of the roles and the responsibilities of the position can come in handy when offenses shift pre-snap. Ryan lines up across from Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson (#84). When Patterson moves in motion to the other side of the formation, Ryan drops to free safety rather than following his man, with free safety Devin McCourty (#32) shifting to the other side. Ryan’s flexibility to play some safety gives the Patriots options for defending different looks or motion plays like this one.
A Plethora of Options
Less than three months from the regular season opener against Pittsburgh, little is settled in the New England secondary. Between Ryan, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, newcomers Bradley Fletcher and McClain, and dark horses like rookie Darryl Roberts, the Patriots have options. Ryan’s role will be determined not just by what he shows, but what the team needs. As head coach Bill Belichick once said of Jamie Collins, “If he can do multiple things and do them at a high level, maybe he’ll go where he’s needed or maybe he’ll go where he’s best.” Whether Ryan plays a starring role or fills trouble spots so others can excel, he figures to play a major role in New England’s secondary.