Discussing the New England Patriots' defensive strategy is like reading a "Choose Your Own Adventure." Even when you think you know what you're getting yourself into, you turn the page and suddenly you're stuck in a reptile's petting zoo.
The Patriots have been known to mix it up with different looks that may make you feel as though you're dealing with a different kind of reptile, a chameleon, adapting to its surroundings to best confuse its predators and prey. With all the bouncing back and forth between different defensive schemes, one would think finding trends would be a thankless task.
There is at least one trend we can pick up from Bill Belichick's wily defensive game plans over the years. No matter what, you can almost always expect that they will spend a majority of their time in some form of a sub-package, with extra defensive backs spread out across the field to help out in coverage.
|Patriots base vs. sub defense|
With no Darrelle Revis and no Brandon Browner manning the perimeter, the Patriots' depth will be tested at cornerback this year. Sure, the Patriots are likely to find some cornerbacks that will play a majority of the snaps and others who will come in off the bench, but with no surefire top guns in the secondary, we're liable to see even more mixing and matching of personnel than ever before.
And with the Patriots' substantial use of the sub-package, the possibilities are innumerable. Of course, it may not always be that way. In the past two-plus months, the Patriots have lost Revis, Browner, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Chimdi Chekwa—the latter of whom had been signed two months ago.
It may not be long before the Patriots are forced to get creative with their defensive calls—like, really creative.
OK, so it will probably be awhile before they're forced into that precarious position, but if the Patriots were losing blood at the rate they're losing cornerbacks, their locker room would be shut down by crime scene investigators more quickly than David Caruso can fire off a one-liner.
As we speak, though, the question of who will play most frequently in the Patriots defense is just as much about who is best as it is about who is left.
Between holdovers Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, veteran additions in Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher and rookies Darryl Roberts, Jimmy Jean, Brandon King and Eric Patterson, the Patriots have a lot of bodies in their battle but not a lot of certainty.
Ryan and Butler have started a combined 14 regular-season games (Ryan has 13, Butler has one), but they have the right skill set to execute a zone scheme (route recognition, quickness to break on the ball, sound tackling).
Even if Ryan and Butler get a majority of the playing time at cornerback, the Patriots will probably mix it up more than you think in the secondary. According to Football Outsiders, five Patriots cornerbacks played at least 20 percent of the team's snaps last year. All but one of them (Ryan) are no longer with the team. Butler played 16.9 percent of the snaps.
|Patriots snap counts, 2014|
|Player||Def. snaps||Snap %|
Yes, even when things seemed so much more stable at the top of the depth chart, the Patriots were still mixing and matching in the secondary. Granted, some of the increased playing time for other players was due to the absence of Browner, who missed time due to a drug-related suspension.
Along with Ryan and Butler, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain could be two more cornerbacks who factor in atop the depth chart/rotation. Fletcher fell hard in 2014, but while some of his struggles may have been self-inflicted, others may have been due to a lack of talent around him on the Philadelphia Eagles defense.
Granted, Fletcher will not be surrounded by a group of world-beaters in the Patriots secondary, but when accounting for some of the insanely talented receivers he faced last year (two games apiece against DeSean Jackson and Dez Bryant, one game against Jordy Nelson), Football Outsiders ranked Fletcher as the 36th-best cornerback in the league last year—or just outside the reach of what could be considered a No. 1 cornerback.
McClain is expected to assume the slot role left vacant by Arrington's departure; he has spent a majority of his time in the slot, and at 5'9" and 190 pounds, it stands to reason. He doesn't have the frame to match up with big-bodied wide receivers on the boundary, but he does have the toughness to provide support against the run and the quickness to match up with slot receivers over the middle.
Behind Ryan, Butler, Fletcher and McClain, there's a deep group of cornerbacks ready to compete for roster spots. There are rookies Jimmy Jean, Brandon King, Darryl Roberts and Eric Patterson, as well as holdovers Daxton Swanson and Justin Green. Trying to peg any of them as a front-runner for the spot right now would be beyond premature, much less trying to pigeonhole their role in the defense.
The Patriots have a lot of options for how to deploy their defense in 2015, but also have a lot of questions. Until they find some answers, we'll probably see a similar approach to what the Patriots did on the offensive line in 2014, where they mixed and matched their personnel for the first four weeks of the season while they found a combination that worked.
For their sake, let's hope the results are a bit better.