The Prodigal Chung Returns

Patrick Chung returns to New England after a season with the Philadelphia Eagles and has surprisingly claimed the starting strong safety role for the Patriots. The former second-round pick had been written off by fans and media alike, but his strong play is one of the reasons for New England’s strong pass defense.


When the Patriots re-signed Patrick Chung in the spring, few heralded it as a significant move. The Boston Globe looked at his modest contract ‒ he’s the 58th-highest-paid safety in the NFL ‒ and wrote that “it reinforces the belief that Chung has been brought in as a backup, more likely to be used for special teams.” Chung had fallen out of his favor at the end of his previous stint with the Patriots, relegated to the bench behind journeyman Steve Gregory. His reunion with college coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia also ended poorly, with the Eagles cutting Chung after just one season.

However, the 27-year-old has played a major role with New England in 2014, playing 76% of defensive snaps thus far and solidifying the strong safety position that was a question mark heading into the season. Against Denver, Chung turned in arguably his best performance of the season, allowing just four catches on nine targets in coverage. For the first time in his career, Chung is being used as a traditional strong safety and, for the first time, he’s delivering on the promise he showed coming out of Oregon.

Thinking Inside the Box

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has long been a proponent of having safeties that can play both the classic free and strong positions, explaining, “offenses have done a much better job of trying to make your strong safety play free safety, make your free safety play strong safety.” Belichick appears to have re-thought things, likely due to the presence of Devin McCourty, probably the purest free safety the Patriots have had under Belichick, and certainly the purest free safety that has started next to Chung. In case you’ve blocked out of your mind the secondary “talent” New England has rolled out in recent years, below is a chart showing the safety partners Chung had in his first go-round with the Patriots (some in three-safety groups):

 

Safety Starts with Chung
Brandon Meriweather 11
James Sanders 6
Steve Gregory 6
James Ihedigbo 5
Josh Barrett 3
Tavon Wilson 2
Brandon McGowan 1
Jarrad Page 1
Sergio Brown 1

 

Gregory and Sanders are probably the closest to conventional free safeties, while Meriweather and Ihedigbo fit the strong safety prototype more than the free safety profile. As a result, Chung was forced to play a lot of deep zone, which is not his strong suit.

Paired with McCourty, who is rangy enough to patrol the deep part of the field by himself, Chung has become more of a pure box safety. Against Denver, the Patriots used him as follows:

 

Snaps Role
34 Man Coverage
25 Underneath Zone
7 Linebacker

 

Chung did not drop into a deep zone once. The Broncos game is an extreme example, as the Patriots have used some two-deep shells in other games, but the trend towards a traditional free/strong safety split is clear. Chung now has a running partner in McCourty that lets him play to his strengths, providing run support in the box and covering tight ends, backs, and slot receivers in zone or man coverage underneath.

Providing Tight (End) Coverage

Chung spent the game against the Broncos primarily matched up against three players: slot receiver Wes Welker and tight ends Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme:

 

Plays Receiver Success
18 Jacob Tamme 0 catches on 4 targets (3 official)
8 Julius Thomas 1 catch on 1 target for 18-yard TD
6 Wes Welker 0 catches on 2 targets
1 Emmanuel Sanders Not targeted
1 Ronnie Hillman Not targeted

 

Chung drew most of his work against Welker early, with four of the six snaps on the former Patriot coming in the first quarter. Most wide receivers can burn a corner in coverage, but Welker lacks straight-line speed and Chung used his size (5’11”, 210 pounds) to disrupt the smaller slot man (5’9”, 185 pounds) at the line of scrimmage.

The safety had no such size advantage on Thomas, who is 6’5”, 250 pounds. In the third quarter, the Broncos recognize the discrepancy and split Thomas out wide.

Chung does a solid job staying with the tight end’s fade route, but Thomas’ superior length create a window for Peyton Manning’s perfect touch pass. After that, the Patriots made an adjustment and put 6’4”, 220-pound cornerback Brandon Browner on Thomas. It’s unclear whether that’s because Browner is a better physical matchup for the tight end, or because Denver shifted to a two-tight-end lineup with Tamme after Welker was injured on the next play. At 6’3”, 230 pounds, Tamme is small for a tight end, but his quickness and savvy make him an effective receiving threat. Chung lined up on Tamme for most of the rest of the game, and Manning attacked that matchup on 4th and 8 in the red zone:

Chung gets a good jam at the line, forcing Tamme wide, and stays so tight that he avoids getting picked by the outside receiver’s in-cut. He stays in Tamme’s hip pocket the whole time and looks back for the ball, raising his hands to make a play on it. Manning drops in a perfect throw, but because Tamme is trying to fend off Chung he can only attempt a one-handed catch and the pass falls incomplete.

In the Zone

The Patriots kept the same deep coverage most of the day, but varied the underneath coverage, switching Chung and the linebackers between man coverage and zone. In a shallow zone, Chung is an effective downhill player, attacking underneath routes aggressively and limiting yards after catch. However, he does not always get enough depth on his drops, allowing receivers to get behind him:

Chung is focused on the action in front of him and stays shallow instead of continuing to get depth as the play develops. Emmanuel Sanders runs an over route, crossing behind the underneath zone. Chung’s shallow positioning leaves him unable to make the tackle after Sanders catches the pass, allowing the speedy receiver to run for an extra 10 yards. This lack of discipline in zone coverage shows why Chung is better suited to playing close to the line ‒ such a lapse in deep coverage could lead to a long touchdown.

Helping the Run Defense

The Patriots shut down Denver’s run game, holding the Broncos to 43 yards on 17 carries. For the most part, Chung’s assistance was by proxy ‒ the coverage he provided underneath was a man or zone that a linebacker didn’t have to account for ‒ but at times he mixed things up from a linebacker-like position.

Chung identifies the run and closes towards Hillman immediately, and shows the agility and instincts to make the tackle when the Hillman cuts back towards the middle.

A Better Fit: In the Box

Chung has been a pleasant surprise for Patriots fans and played a terrific game against the Broncos. While the sixth-year veteran may have made some subtle improvements in his game since he was in New England before, we can attribute much of his success to being used in a way the accentuates his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. With McCourty covering the deep part of the field, Chung can cover tight ends and backs and attack downhill. The Patriots never had the complementary talent in the secondary to play to Chung’s strengths before, but now that they do the former second-round pick is blossoming into the player the Patriots hoped he could become.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

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

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