Breaking Down the New England Patriots Safety Play, Big Plays a Team Effort
Give the Patriots credit: At least they're trying to fix their spotty situation at safety.
To this point, though, the position remains a focal point for offensive game plans.
Through five games, the Patriots have given up 27 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the most of any NFL team this season.
Does that sound familiar? It should. They also finished dead-last in the same category last year, giving up 79 pass plays of 20 yards or more. On their current pace, they would surpass that number by seven.
The cornerbacks are playing relatively well, although there are still some lapses in fundamentals, but the safeties were exposed on some of the Denver Broncos' biggest plays on Sunday.
Most of their big plays came in the third and fourth quarter while the team battled back from a 31-7 deficit, but there were a pair of notable early plays, both of which exposed the Patriots safeties.
The first of the big plays resulted in a 43-yard gain—or at least it would have, were it not for cornerback Sterling Moore punching the ball out and scooping up the fumble.
For starters, it looks like safety Patrick Chung (the safety at the top of the screen shot) is changing the coverage before the snap—he is seen here pointing to his head, and he continued to do so following the snap of the ball.
It's hard to tell exactly what went wrong here, but it just looks like a miscommunication between the two safeties, Chung and Tavon Wilson, and neither of them go deep to help out on Thomas.
What's more, Wilson takes what could only be termed an awful angle in pursuit of the ball. He continues running toward the sideline, presumably to make the tackle if the pass is going to wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who is running a crossing pattern.
If he had headed for the aim point, he might have been able to put a lick on Thomas and prevent the pass from being completed.
CBS analyst Phil Simms pointed it out on the broadcast call of the game, saying, "They caught 'em all looking underneath. The safeties were aggressive. They come up."
He added, "It's almost like the Broncos and Peyton Manning knew that formation, that they were going to be aggressive to it, because he looked at that defense and immediately went over the top."
This play resulted in a 30-yard pass from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas down the left sideline. Both Thomas and tight end Joel Dreessen ran a "sluggo" route, which is basically a double-move route that is designed to draw the secondary in one direction and throw in another direction.
The routes they run are near mirror images of each other. It's designed to attack Chung, forcing him to pick between the tight end and the wide receiver. With both Dreessen and Thomas breaking in at the 40-yard line, it's understandable why Chung would stay closer to the hash.
As a result, though, he leaves the sideline open, and because Peyton Manning is...well, Peyton Manning, he's able to throw the ball in the one spot where only the receiver can get it, hitting Thomas in stride for the big play.
Manning is a student of the game, so getting exposed by him isn't anything to be ashamed of. That being said, this isn't the first team to attack the safeties.
Interestingly enough, a look back at last week's contest against the Bills reveals that Chung was exposed on a much different route combination for the exact opposite reason.
The Bills attacked the Patriots safeties on this pass play, which capped off a long touchdown drive in the first half. The two receivers on the left of the formation run go routes, with tight end Scott Chandler running a seam pattern right through the middle of the defense.
The safeties stay on the outside to defend the passes on the perimeter, but they leave the middle of the end zone open. The pattern attacks that opening perfectly.
What is a safety to do?
Teams know that the safeties can be caught out of position, and that with enough time in the pocket, those safeties can be attacked. ProFootballFocus.com's grading metric has Chung and Gregory rated negatively in coverage, while Tavon Wilson is far and away the team's best safety in coverage by their standards.
Chung rates out as a better safety overall, but is helped by a very high grade in run defense.
Most importantly in this case, none of the Patriots safeties rate in the top 32 in pass coverage.
One might think the pass-rush is the culprit—a look at the screen shots above indicates the quarterback has a solid pocket to step into. In the three examples provided here, the quarterback had the ball out in 2.7, 2.6 and 2.4 seconds (in that order).
The Fearsome Foursome might certainly get there in time, but the throws are almost certainly by design; if it's not the first read, it's definitely the second. The pass rush has been better in spots, and although some of the big plays fall on the men up front, the guys in the back aren't holding up their end of the bargain.
Whatever the reason, the Patriots safeties are getting exposed in coverage. They're not getting the right reads on routes, they're losing receivers and leaving big windows for easy completions and the route combinations opposing offenses are running are geared toward attacking them.
Teams may pay the price for taking too many deep shots against the Patriots, but until the Patriots prove they can stop it, there's no reason to take the foot off the gas.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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