Patriots Strong Safety: A Dangerous Weakness?

The Patriots’ secondary received plenty of attention this offseason after the signings of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. With Devin McCourty locking down the free safety spot and plenty of depth, there are the makings of a top-notch unit. But what about the Patriots strong safety spot?

Duron Harmon had a promising rookie season, but is he physical enough as a tackler? Patrick Chung, who fell out of favor with the Patriots after spending his first four years in New England, returns to Foxboro after a disastrous 2013 with Philadelphia. Tavon Wilson has failed to justify his selection in the second round in 2012, playing just 21 defensive snaps last year. Will someone emerge to win the job outright? Will defensive coordinator Matt Patricia platoon downhill thumper Chung and the ball-hawking Harmon as he did at times during the preseason? Or will fans see more of the one-safety set employed occasionally both last year and this summer, with a third cornerback effectively playing as the second safety?

Aside from the “who?” questions, there are also the “where?” and the “how?” Departed starter Steve Gregory played a lot of “robber,” where he was not responsible for any particular opponent but focused on disrupting middle zones. Harmon has looked his best in deep zone coverage, while Chung and Wilson have been stronger in run support close to the line of scrimmage. Is the strong safety going to cover tight ends and let the linebackers bring extra pass rush? Or is that going to be emerging linebacker Jamie Collins’s responsibility? The rest of the defense looks solid so Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick have options, and it will be interesting to see who plays, how they’re used, how well they play, and how that affects the defense as a whole.

The Patriots’ secondary received plenty of attention this offseason after the signings of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. With Devin McCourty locking down the free safety spot and plenty of depth, there are the makings of a top-notch unit. But what about the Patriots strong safety spot?

Duron Harmon had a promising rookie season, but is he physical enough as a tackler? Patrick Chung, who fell out of favor with the Patriots after spending his first four years in New England, returns to Foxboro after a disastrous 2013 with Philadelphia. Tavon Wilson has failed to justify his selection in the second round in 2012, playing just 21 defensive snaps last year. Will someone emerge to win the job outright? Will defensive coordinator Matt Patricia platoon downhill thumper Chung and the ball-hawking Harmon as he did at times during the preseason? Or will fans see more of the one-safety set employed occasionally both last year and this summer, with a third cornerback effectively playing as the second safety?

Aside from the “who?” questions, there are also the “where?” and the “how?” Departed starter Steve Gregory played a lot of “robber,” where he was not responsible for any particular opponent but focused on disrupting middle zones. Harmon has looked his best in deep zone coverage, while Chung and Wilson have been stronger in run support close to the line of scrimmage. Is the strong safety going to cover tight ends and let the linebackers bring extra pass rush? Or is that going to be emerging linebacker Jamie Collins’s responsibility? The rest of the defense looks solid so Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick have options, and it will be interesting to see who plays, how they’re used, how well they play, and how that affects the defense as a whole.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

10 thoughts on “Patriots Strong Safety: A Dangerous Weakness?

  1. As someone who has advocated this “use a CB as a safety” thing all summer long, I have to say…week one was not encouraging. Greg Bedard said today on Felger & Mazz (on 98.5 The Sports Hub, so no link) that Darrelle Revis lined up as the strong safety on a play or two. 
     
    As a fan, I have no idea what they are doing back there. Tavon Wilson looked shaky, Patrick Chung looked like Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon seems more like a FS than a SS to my (untrained) eye. 
     
    Is finding a two good safeties really this hard?

  2. As someone who has advocated this “use a CB as a safety” thing all summer long, I have to say…week one was not encouraging. Greg Bedard said today on Felger & Mazz (on 98.5 The Sports Hub, so no link) that Darrelle Revis lined up as the strong safety on a play or two. 
     
    As a fan, I have no idea what they are doing back there. Tavon Wilson looked shaky, Patrick Chung looked like Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon seems more like a FS than a SS to my (untrained) eye. 
     
    Is finding a two good safeties really this hard?

    Per PFF they gave hard-hitters Chung and Wilson 48 and 22 snaps respectively, while the rangier Harmon got just 5. That might have been gameplan-related, though. They may have wanted the run-stuffers to help combat Miami’s ground game. I wouldn’t be surprised if they mix-and-match much of the season, with Harmon getting more time against pass-heavy teams and Chung / Wilson against rush-heavy squads.

  3. Per PFF they gave hard-hitters Chung and Wilson 48 and 22 snaps respectively, while the rangier Harmon got just 5. That might have been gameplan-related, though. They may have wanted the run-stuffers to help combat Miami’s ground game. I wouldn’t be surprised if they mix-and-match much of the season, with Harmon getting more time against pass-heavy teams and Chung / Wilson against rush-heavy squads.

    What about Browner? Are you convinced he’s getting the CB position opposite Revis? As Collins appears to struggle against the run, I’m wondering if maybe the best option is Browner at Strong Safety with Collins dropping into coverage. Of course, a lot of it will be match-up driven, based on the size of the opponents’ receivers and TE, but against teams like Miami, I think Browner makes the most sense back there.

  4. I think the argument against that was that a lot of Browner’s coverage skill comes from jamming at the line and in a safety role he’d do that a lot less and his lack of speed gets exposed.

  5. Yeah, Browner is safety-sized but he’s not safety-style. The knock on him is he’s not good in zones or space; but he can use his size to disrupt and funnel routes and his speed/length to stay with a receiver. 
     
    I think it is more likely that every other CB on the roster plays safety before Browner does. 

  6. This is something i’ve been thinking about for a while. Aren’t we really talking about a position that is somewhat disappearing around the league anyway? More teams are using a LB that can cover or a Corner that can hit. That’s basically what a SS is anyway, right? I think the fact that it’s so difficult to find a good one is because in today’s NFL the SS has to be a hybrid kind of player because of the difficult assignments that position draws. I think its getting to the point where we’ll end up seeing a lot more one deep “Safety” with either a LB or a DB playing the extra position depending on the situation. Wesley Woodyard would have been a great addition as a SS.

  7. I think the argument against that was that a lot of Browner’s coverage skill comes from jamming at the line and in a safety role he’d do that a lot less and his lack of speed gets exposed.

    While true, I don’t think Bill would be taking full advantage of Revis if he wouldn’t consider using Browner in this role. Part of the reason Revis is so valuable is that you don’t need to be sending two safeties deep, as I believe Reiss reported we saw a fair amount against Miami, and you can afford to have a guy like Browner roaming around the box more often. If Bill is desperate enough to line up Joe Vellano along the DL, he’s going to need a guy like Browner manning the box to help out the linebackers.

  8. Ed, I think you’re missing that Browner A.) has never done that in the NFL, B.) doesn’t have the skill set to play in zones or off the LOS, and C.) isn’t the best tackler among the CBs. Yes, he has SS size. And that’s it. None of the other skills for the role are in Browner’s tool box. 
     
    Ryan and Arrington are better choices, even though they lack ideal size. Both are stronger in zones and Arrington is terrific in run support and tackles very well for a CB. 

  9. While true, I don’t think Bill would be taking full advantage of Revis if he wouldn’t consider using Browner in this role. Part of the reason Revis is so valuable is that you don’t need to be sending two safeties deep, as I believe Reiss reported we saw a fair amount against Miami, and you can afford to have a guy like Browner roaming around the box more often. If Bill is desperate enough to line up Joe Vellano along the DL, he’s going to need a guy like Browner manning the box to help out the linebackers.

    I could see situations this makes sense, like Browner playing the role Talib did against Jimmy Graham last year. For the most part, I think you want Browner on the outside. It’s harder to press inside because slot receivers don’t have to line up on the LOS and can be in motion prior to the snap. You don’t want Browner trying to cover Welker-type receivers.

  10. While true, I don’t think Bill would be taking full advantage of Revis if he wouldn’t consider using Browner in this role. Part of the reason Revis is so valuable is that you don’t need to be sending two safeties deep, as I believe Reiss reported we saw a fair amount against Miami, and you can afford to have a guy like Browner roaming around the box more often. If Bill is desperate enough to line up Joe Vellano along the DL, he’s going to need a guy like Browner manning the box to help out the linebackers.

    Just use Browner at corner and let one of the corners play that robber/underneath role or live with the coverage limitations of Wilson. They played plenty of single high last year with worse personnel. Not going to do a lot of good do have Revis take away an outside guy while they get killed with underneath routes because they have Browner doing something he’s bad at.

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