In the 2019-2020 season the Patriots defense received a lot of praise for creating lots of turnovers, limiting points and carrying a team for the first time in a while with Tom Brady under center. The unit led the NFL in points allowed per game at just 14.2 points per game, sixth in rushing yards allowed per game, and second in passing yards allowed per game. Moreover they had the Defensive Player of the Year leading the charge on a stacked defense with personnel to play against every type of offense.
Unfortunately in NFL life, nothing lasts forever and some pieces of the defense have since moved on such as Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, and Elandon Roberts. However, even with those losses this defense is still set up to easily be a top of league due to one thing: a top notch secondary that may be one of the most talented back end units seen in a long time.
This unit will easily once again by the strength of the defense, even if their stats don’t match last year’s insane output. Last year the Pats’ defense earned the highest secondary grade in the NFL, according to PFF. Moreover, the secondary collects 25 interceptions (5 more than the 2nd place Steelers). They also allowed the fewest completions and the lowest passer rating in the NFL. All of this while playing the most aggressive form of defense with a lot of Cover 0, meaning no help over the top.
Despite that this unit has a chance to be just as good this year if not better. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, returns and can play both inside and out. Gilmore steps up no matter who he covers, and where he lines up as evident by holding opposing quarterbacks to a 34.1 QBR and snagging four interceptions.
The Best of the Rest
Aside from Gilmore though, Belichick can also trot out J.C. Jackson. Jackson may not be a household name outside of New England, but he had an outrageously good coverage season allowing just 181 yards all season on just 19 completions. None of those completions went for touchdowns and he also collected five interceptions on 46 targets. That means about 11 percent of the targets his way were picked off. Throw in his opposing QBR allowed of just 13.3 (best in the NFL) and Jackson proved to be one of the best man coverage players in the league.
Aside from the top two corners, the Patriots also have two other starter caliber corners in Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones. Both of whom are among the best as well. Jones is more of a slot corner, but is dominant in the slot and earned himself a nice extension this past season. Jones may be the fastest player on the Patriots and is technically very sound, erasing slot players often. While the latter was successful, the former was no slouch either. McCourty, like Jackson, also didn’t allow a single touchdown in man coverage this past season despite playing a heavy amount opposite the Defensive Player of the Year or Jackson.
Even if the list stopped now the case could be made New England had the best secondary, but they also possess an excellent free safety and a strong in the box safety. Devin McCourty is ultra versatile playing at the line or deep and is still excellent in coverage. McCourty is extremely intelligent, has fantastic closing speed, and instincts that make opposing quarterbacks question if receivers are really open or not. He also is a playmaker managing five interceptions, two forced fumbles and recovering one. He is a one man wrecking crew.
While McCourty is super versatile, Chung is also a solid part of the defense with a strong tackling ability, ability to cover tight ends and slot receivers, and very strong ability to diagnose runs and make plays on the edge. His ability to deliver big hits and stay strong taking on blocks on the edge allow Bill Belichick multiple secondary players who are strong and more importantly willing tacklers.
Those players make up a strong nucleus of what is arguably the strongest collection of secondary players of all-time. This year should be no different as the key pieces all figure to have major roles and have shown no signs of slowing down, while also having key chemistry together in what is sure to be a turbulent offseason. In a year where practice time may be at a premium, this secondary unit has a chance to capitalize on out of sync offenses and their strong connection from the past season. Both allowing them to once again continue their reign as the top unit in the league.
–David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani