On Friday, cornerback Ty Law was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. As part of a secondary that included the likes of Lawyer Milloy, Otis Smith, Rodney Harrison and others, the Patriots secondary was a physically imposing group that dominated opposing offenses during the team's run of three Super Bowl victories from 2001-2004.
With veteran free agents Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner joining Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Duron Harmon and others, there is some hope in New England that the 2014 Patriots secondary can emulate that legendary group and help lift the team to its first Super Bowl victory in nearly a decade.
The players are not letting those expectations wear on them.
"There's always pressure for us as NFL players, by going out and just playing every Sunday," Revis said. "Those guys are legends, they're definitely legends. I respect all of those guys. I think one thing that you look at is you just try to enjoy the moment. Those guys got honored today, and you just enjoy their success and what they did and go from there. You don't really want to try to compare the two teams together. I mean, they had great teams when they played. The only thing we can control right now as a team is finish up training camp strong and get ready and get prepared for the year."
Whether this year's group lives up to those lofty expectations and reaches those same mountaintops is yet to be seen, but on practice performance alone, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick must be salivating at the sight. There's been more competition between the offense and defense in this year's training camp than in years past, with each side winning its share of battles.
But that should come as no surprise; the Patriots are more talented across the board than they've been in some time.
McCourty has emerged as a premier safety in the NFL as one of the smartest safeties in the league, with excellent sideline-to-sideline speed and play recognition skills. His experience in the defense and his role as the signal-caller on the back end of the secondary have made him one of the primary leaders in that group.
Revis and Browner were brought in to provide a new dynamic to the Patriots secondary that's been missing for years. In the early going at training camp, they have done exactly that.
For Revis, that's meant solid coverage regardless of his assignment: man-to-man, zone, deep or short. You name it, Revis has excelled in it and has probably come down with at least a pair of interceptions doing so.
For Browner, that's meant imposing levels of physicality and size. We see his size every time quarterback Tom Brady tries to connect on a deep pass over his head. Oftentimes, receivers have a hard time tracking the ball with Browner's massive frame standing right in front of them. We've seen his physicality manifest itself with powerful jams at the line of scrimmage that have drawn the ire of players and coaches alike.
|Patriots defensive backs|
|Player||Year in NFL||Year with Patriots|
In the NFL, cohesion and communication must be at their best in the secondary, and that unit is only as strong as its weakest link. Maybe that's why Revis got the defensive backs together in Phoenix this offseason for private workouts—not just for the benefit of the unit as a whole, but for his own benefit as well.
"Yeah, you can say that," Revis said of using those workouts to pick the brains of his teammates, who are more familiar with this defense than he is. "I remember when we were in OTAs, I said I had to take a step back to learn the terminology and those types of things. These guys have been here for a couple years, and you've got to take a step back. It’s a new system for me. It's different from what I've played in the past. It's good to be around those guys as much as I can to learn and get feedback from them and also ask them questions. Any question I need to ask I can ask those guys."
One of those guys is surely McCourty, who has seamlessly transitioned from up-and-coming safety to unquestioned leader of the secondary. Last year was the first time he played a full season at one position since he was a full-time cornerback as a rookie.
He played some safety after struggling most of the season at cornerback in 2011 but was off to a good start at corner in 2012 before injuries—and a litany of long passes thrown over the heads of the team's starting safeties—forced him to play safety in the second half of the season.
He took that starting spot and has not looked back. His skill set has proved to be a perfect match for a deep safety in Cover 1 and Cover 2, with the instincts to go to the ball before it is even thrown.
He has earned a lot of praise from his teammates and coaches about his deep understanding of the defense, his ability to read the offense and to communicate what he sees to his teammates in a meaningful way and for making adjustments when needed.
"I try to take some leadership role and with some new guys back there and some younger guys," he said. "I try to make sure that my experience is felt throughout the secondary just from being here for so long now where myself, Kyle [Arrington]—two guys that have been here for a good amount of time—we can step up and help guys out, get guys in the right position. I think that's key when you’re trying to develop a good secondary, is have guys that go out there and try to line people up and get everybody set."
The only spot of uncertainty is strong safety, where there's been quite a bit of shuffling going on. Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung and even special teams ace Nate Ebner have gotten opportunities to work with last year's starting lineup at practice. For one member of that group, the relationship with McCourty is much deeper than that.
"He's like a big brother to me, so I sit right next to him in the meetings," Harmon said of McCourty. "We're always together. He's always trying to coach me up, but the best thing [is] he's not trying to belittle me as he's coaching me. He's coaching me literally like a big bro and as a coach and saying it all in positive ways and teaching me things that I might not have seen before. So it really helps out when [we're] coming onto the field because now, when he teaches me stuff, I know what he's thinking, and we're both thinking the same thing at the same time."
Harmon has also tried to assume a leadership role as a communicator and has gotten a chance to do so by working with some of the younger guys on the second team.
Some players might see it as punishment, but Harmon clearly views it as an opportunity.
"Sometimes I might not be out there with Dev or [linebacker Jerod] Mayo, so communication could fall heavily on me," said Harmon. "It makes me open my mouth, be more of a leader, and then it just helps me know the situation, know who I'm working with, let's me know, OK, what's this guy's weakness? What's their strength? What type of position should I put them in? So it just makes me an overall better football player."
Harmon is exceptional in the mental aspect of the game—route recognition and instincts are both strengths of his. He isn't the best athlete—he lacks the fluid hips to excel in man coverage and the sideline-to-sideline speed of a player like McCourty—but his skill set is still a fit for the strong safety position.
That's not the only spot that's up for grabs, technically speaking.
With Browner set to serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, the Patriots need someone to start for them in his absence. That responsibility could fall on either Ryan or third-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
Ryan started seven games as a rookie and displayed the instincts, quickness and ball skills that enticed the Patriots to draft him in the third round. Ryan became the first rookie to lead the team in interceptions since his former Rutgers teammate, McCourty, did it in 2010. For a brief moment, it looked like he was in line to start this year with the departure of Aqib Talib, but that was short-lived following the arrivals of Revis and Browner.
Dennard has only recently started practicing again after offseason shoulder surgery, but he has started 16 games for the Patriots in his first two years in the league. He has a compact frame and a competitive attitude, delivering jarring jams at the line of scrimmage, but he also has the recovery speed to keep up with the receiver once he enters his route.
One of those two will likely start with Browner out, and once he returns, there's no telling what happens. Kyle Arrington has been the team's designated slot cornerback for awhile, but he could be in a bit of competition for that spot with Ryan and Dennard.
There's no such thing as too much depth in the secondary, but clearly, there are still some spots that need to be decided during training camp, and the communication will have to come along as well.
"I think communication starts with, No. 1, knowing what to do and No. 2, being decisive and doing it with confidence," said Belichick. "Even doing the wrong thing can be OK as long as we're all wrong together. If we're all wrong together, we can still be right. The problem is when half of us are doing one thing and half of us are doing something else, then it's almost impossible for that to ever work well."
The Patriots play their first preseason game Thursday night, and that could be our first look at the new-look secondary, but even that will only be a test run. There is still plenty of time for the new pieces and old pieces to fit together and get on the same page.
When that happens, this secondary will be tough to beat.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes obtained first-hand or via team news release.