The New England Patriots had a deep problem in 2012.
Their defense had trouble stopping anyone from picking up chunk plays through the air. On the season, they allowed 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more, for what was the worst mark in the league. This year, through two games, they have allowed just four such pass plays, tied for the third-lowest mark through two games.
That's a remarkable turnaround, and it's thanks to improved play from their safeties and corners.
They got some help from a schedule that had them face two rookie quarterbacks, the Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel and Geno Smith of the New York Jets. Both have a big arm, though, and their offenses have plenty of speedy receivers to pick up those big plays.
The improvements for the Patriots began last year, when the team played musical chairs in the secondary: Devin McCourty moved from cornerback to safety; Kyle Arrington moved from the outside to the slot; Alfonzo Dennard moved from the bench to a starting role, and Aqib Talib moved from Tampa Bay to New England.
In the first nine games of the 2012 season, the Patriots gave up 19 passing touchdowns, 10 of which went for 20 yards or more, and allowed an average of 5.2 pass plays of 20 yards or more per game. In the final seven games, that number dipped to 3.6. Of the eight passing touchdowns they conceded in the final seven weeks, five went for 20 yards or more.
Nitpick all you want over which move that the "most" impact on the improved results, but the facts are the facts: Talib's arrival was the final domino to fall in solidifying the Patriots secondary.
Smith was the quarterback responsible for all four of the 20-plus pass plays against the Patriots this season, but he had to take eight shots downfield to reach that number. Even when it was clear the Jets wanted to go downfield, the opportunity wasn't always available.
On this play, for example, the Patriots rushed just four defenders, and the Jets sent wide receiver Stephen Hill (circled in yellow) on a deep post. The Jets lined up in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) and the Patriots matched with their base 4-3 defense.
Smith dropped back to pass, but as you can see, the coverage downfield was very good. He held onto the ball for 4.1 seconds (read: all of eternity) before Patriots defensive tackle Tommy Kelly was able to work his way around the block of right tackle Austin Howard for the sack.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock got on Smith's case for "burping the baby" (when you tap the ball repeatedly while staring downfield), but the quarterback really had no choice. As you can see, everyone was covered.
Wait, "everyone was covered?" That might be the first time I've uttered those words in a Patriots column in a long time.
Part of the Patriots shuffling in the secondary included putting their corners in man coverage more frequently. Before last season, the Patriots mixed up their coverages between man and zone but mostly played a read-and-react defense, in that they would keep their eyes on the quarterback and break on the ball only after it had been thrown.
Credit the Patriots defensive coaching staff for having faith in its guys to stick to their assignments and keep those windows tight in man coverage.
Some credit for the improvement against the long ball must also be given to the safeties. Devin McCourty's switch from cornerback to safety was part of the success in 2012, and Steve Gregory has stepped up in a big way to start this season.
In fact, McCourty and Gregory are both currently among the top-12 rated safeties in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Patriots used a lot of "Cover 1 Robber" on the back end against the Jets. This means that although both safeties start out giving the look of deep coverage, one safety (usually McCourty) has deep responsibility, and the other safety (usually Gregory) "robs" the underneath throw.
Once again, the coverage downfield was very good. McCourty (circled in blue) was in position in the middle of the field, while Gregory is ready to take away the deep throw over the middle (blue arrow). Smith held onto the ball for 5.2 seconds before being brought down.
Another coverage sack.
The safety play has helped tremendously, and it's clear the Patriots have confidence in McCourty's instincts and speed to cover sideline to sideline on the back end.
That being said, you can sometimes find the safeties on the wrong end of a big play.
The Jets sent three receivers on deep routes on this play, and the Patriots were once again in Cover 1 Robber with their cornerbacks in man coverage.
McCourty once again was the lone deep safety, and he stayed on the hash mark instead of getting right to the middle of the field.
Perhaps he was trying to be in position to take away the post pattern by tight end Kellen Winslow (circled in red), but either way, he was just a split second late getting to the middle of the field. With McCourty out of the picture and Dennard trailing in coverage, Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill has enough time and room to make a big catch down the right sideline.
This play is not entirely McCourty's fault. Cover 1 can be exposed on sideline throws, since the safety has to get all the way over to the side of the field.
The secondary can't do all the work all the time. At some point, the Patriots defensive front is going to have to carry the burden. To this point, the Patriots haven't created as much pressure as they might like. According to PFF, they've pressured the opposing quarterback on just 32.4 percent of all dropbacks.
The solid coverage on the back end has helped the pass rush, but if quarterbacks consistently have all day to throw, the Patriots will at some point resume giving up big passing plays.
The Patriots defensive front will have a tall task this week against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line that has allowed quarterback Josh Freeman to be pressured on 36.2 percent of his dropbacks.
Freeman's big arm, combined with the big-play ability of wide receiver Vincent Jackson, poses a threat to the Patriots defense this week, and even though Freeman has struggled to this point in the season (45.3 completion percentage, 63 passer rating), Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knows the challenge he presents:
He can throw the deep ball, he can throw sideline routes. ...He can scramble, he does a good job on bootleg passes on the run, throws well in the pocket, utilizes all his receivers, the outside receivers, tight ends, backs. I think he’s got plenty of skill.
To this point in the season, Freeman has hit on three of his seven pass attempts that traveled 20 yards or more through the air, according to PFF, and the Buccaneers have seven total pass plays that gained 20 yards or more.
Wide receiver Vincent Jackson has accounted for six of them.
The Patriots typically lock their corners into a specific spot with Talib on the left, Dennard on the right and Arrington in the slot, but with Jackson moving frequently between the perimeter and slot-receiver positions, the Patriots may break the mold a bit and have Talib trail Jackson all over the field, as he did against Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson and Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin last season.
As long as their coverage technique remains sound both at cornerback and safety, and if they get some improvement in the pass rush, the Patriots should be able to limit the big plays against the Buccaneers and future opponents.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.