Going back to the tape from the 2013 season, the New England Patriots were a heavy man-coverage team on the defensive side of the ball.
However, after losing veteran Aqib Talib to free agency, plus the need for size at the cornerback position versus today’s NFL offenses, Bill Belichick once again proved that he can adapt to the game by adding cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
Today, let’s break down how Revis and Browner will upgrade the Patriots secondary from a physical perspective, discuss why safety Devin McCourty will benefit in the middle of the field and take a look at some creative schemes Belichick could use in the game plan.
Matchup ability outside of the numbers
We can talk about basic Cover 1 technique, the ideal way to mirror a release and the proper hand to punch with on the initial route stem.
These are the same fundamentals that are taught at the college level from a press position and drilled consistently in the pro game, starting in spring minicamp during one-on-one drills.
However, the addition of Revis and Browner is more about the physical style of play (and matchup ability) Belichick is looking for at the cornerback position. Players that will jam, re-route, intimidate and beat up wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.
That was an issue in the AFC Championship Game after Talib left with an injury, as the Denver Broncos won at the line of scrimmage on their core Hi-Lo schemes, within the route stem on intermediate concepts and down in the red zone on the slant/skinny post.
Here’s a look at the Broncos' Hi-Lo Crossers from the AFC Championship Game:
With reduced splits (receivers tight to the core of the formation) out of a bunch formation, wide receiver Eric Decker wins on the release, forces the cornerback to fight through traffic (trail position) and works away from the initial leverage for an easy reception that produces a positive gain.
That’s just one route, but given the top-level coverage ability of Revis, and the size/length of Browner (6’4”, 221 lbs), the Patriots should expect their new cornerbacks to get hands on the receiver, flatten the inside release and stick to the hip to avoid “bubbling over” the inside traffic created by the Hi-Lo concept.
Look at it this way: The NFL is getting bigger and stronger at the wide receiver position with players such as Demaryius Thomas, Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery, etc. And it is going to continue with rookies Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and more in this year’s draft class.
Plus, we can’t forget about the flexibility the tight end position brings to offensive game plans when they are removed from the core of the formation as the backside X receiver in a 3x1 alignment (Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, etc.).
The need (or the demand) for size at the cornerback position is at an all-time high. Belichick recognized that this offseason by landing both Revis and Browner.
And even though Browner has to sit the first four games due to a suspension, the Patriots have enough depth with Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington to play that press-man technique across the board in both base and sub-package schemes until the former Seahawk returns to the lineup.
Squeezing the field for safety Devin McCourty
With the addition of both Revis and Browner, the Patriots should “squeeze the field” for McCourty at the free safety position.
Think of the angles the safety has to take versus the 9-route (get to the bottom of the numbers), the dig (square-in), post, deep curl, etc. With cornerbacks who consistently play (and win) on the release using physicality, those routes are delivered to the free safety like room service at a five-star hotel.
Cornerbacks can buy more time for the safety to get over the top of the fade by winning on the release/stacking on the receiver or funnel inside-breaking routes to the middle of the field by sticking to the hip and driving through the upfield shoulder.
McCourty played at a Pro Bowl level last season from my perspective and has the range, plus the transition skills (hips, footwork, speed out of his pedal), to benefit greatly as a middle-of-the-field defender with Revis and Browner on the field.
Here’s an example with the Seahawks playing Cover 3 (Seattle will pattern/match vertical releases outside in its zone scheme):
With both cornerbacks maintaining their outside-leverage position (and funneling the receivers inside of the numbers), they squeeze the field for free safety Earl Thomas. This allows the Seahawks safety to put himself in a position to drive top-down with a clean angle.
As I wrote last week, safety Jairus Byrd cashed in on a $28 million signing bonus with the New Orleans Saints because of his range, ball skills and the ability to close the seam/post in Cover 1. That brings tremendous value to any defense or any scheme.
And given the amount of man-free the Patriots are going to play in 2014, plus the ability of both Revis and Browner, I believe McCourty will be in a position to make a lot of plays on the ball as a middle-of-the-field defender.
Creativity in the defensive game plan
I expect the Patriots to use man pressure often with the amount of depth they have at the cornerback position. Look for five- and six-man pressure schemes out of both nickel and dime packages.
Here’s a five-man nickel pressure the Patriots used in their first meeting with the Broncos in 2013:
Send the nickel off the slot (safety rolls down to play No. 2), play press and eliminate the inside release. This forces Peyton Manning to unload the football and results in a Logan Ryan interception.
But what about playing some combination man, or Cover 7?
This gives the Patriots the ability to “set some traps” in the secondary and disguise their pre-snap alignments while also bringing pressure with five or six defensive backs on the field.
And with a talent like Revis, the Patriots can roll their coverages, eliminate a slot receiver (bracket) and play man trail (2-Man) away from the cornerback in Cover 7.
Let’s take a quick look at a playbook diagram of Cover 7 versus a static 2x2 Doubles alignment with the offense in Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB).
Check out the secondary “calls” on the field:
The defense is going to bracket the slot (“slice” call) with the free safety (FS) and nickel (N) to the open (weak) side of the formation.
To the closed (strong) side, the strong safety (SS) rolls to the deep half. That allows both the Sam ‘backer (S) and closed-side cornerback (C) to play trail-man technique with the protection of the safety over the top (“fist” call).
However, the key is Revis playing the open-side cornerback position. In this diagram, he is in a “solo” call. That means man coverage with no help over the top initially (can pick up the free safety).
You utilize his skill set as a coverage corner to eliminate the X receiver while you take away the slot and put a tent over the closed side of the formation.
Cover 1 (or any single-high-safety defense) should be at the top of the call sheet every week for the Patriots defense after picking up Revis and Browner via free agency, but there is always room to get creative and use game plan-specific schemes when you have corners who can win in man coverage.
And that’s why Belichick’s decision to add the veteran defensive backs (and adapt his personnel to fit today's matchups) should be viewed as positive as the Patriots prep for 2014.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.