How the New England Patriots defense has rebounded behind Pat Chung


Four takeaways and advanced stats from a comprehensive film breakdown of the Patriots’ 38-24 win over Indianapolis on Sunday.


1. Pat Chung is at the heart of the Patriots’ defensive jump


How do you fix a slow and unthreatening defense in a matter of 11 days? Well…

1) Play two opponents who can’t run the ball.

2) Get Pat Chung healthy again and put him to work.

Since the Patriots took an unexpected bludgeoning at Detroit, they’ve produced two straight positive defensive performances. Thursday’s 38-24 triumph obviously belongs in a separate category from the mashing of Miami in Week 4. New England’s method of corralling the Colts, however, was quite similar.

The Pats predominantly played dime defense, meaning they deployed six defensive backs on more than half their snaps before the game was out of reach. The executed most fo the same coverages, and game-plan points for jamming tight ends and running backs carried over, too.

The heavy use of dime defense is impossible without Chung. From a versatility standpoint, he’s the most irreplaceable defender on the team.

Listed on the team’s depth chart as a safety, Chung fulfills traditional linebacker duties in most defensive packages. These help explain his stat line from Thursday, an All-Pro linebacker-like 11 tackles, one interception and half-sack. 

They’re easiest to spot during Chung’s man-to-man assignments on running backs (as seen above and on his interception) and tight ends, a major upgrade from when Dont’a Hightower or Elandon Roberts assume these jobs in nickel packages.

But watch below as Chung, from the Mike linebacker position, also drops down the middle of Cover 2 and instantly discouraging Andrew Luck from pulling the trigger on his primary read.

Against the pass, Chung injects needed speed into the second level of New England’s defense, which otherwise is among the slowest in the league. Most importantly, he provides such speed without incurring a cost of lesser run defense like most safeties across the league would if given the life of a linebacker.

In the clip below, Indianapolis runs in Chung’s direction and behind the strong side of an unbalanced line. He ditches blocking tight end Ryan Hewitt — who holds five inches and 40 pounds him– and helps make the tackle.

Unbalanced looks were fairly common for the Colts, who ran out a sixth offensive lineman on a dozen snaps; one of a few tactics they leaned on to outmaneuver the Patriots’ base nickel defense. But more beef didn’t lead to more success until the second half. However, the Colts did find a rhythm early by going no-huddle — until Chung stopped them.

To start Indy’s second series, Andrew Luck completed three straight passes around one hand-off and pushed the tempo, thereby keeping Hightower and Roberts on the field in New Engalnd’s nickel package. Luck attacked the deep middle, short middle and flat with his throws. Sound familiar?

These are the same areas Matthew Stafford killed New England in Week 3 when Chung sat out with a concussion. 

But when Luck’s first incompletion hit, the Pats immediately jumped into dime. Indy then smartly turned to its run game, converting initially in short-yardage and then stonewalled on a first-and-10 snap. Chung, in concert with the team’s other two top defenders in recent weeks, Lawrence Guy and Kyle Van Noy, had come to the rescue.

New England next forced two outside throws from Luck at its 20-yard line. Both fell incomplete. This stretch encapsulates where the Patriots are defensively. 

They’re going to lean on percentages: forcing opponents to make long drives and throws to win. Their optimal personnel grouping exchanges Roberts for a nickelback and lets Chung roam at the second level. Stopping the run — whether in nickel or dime — starts with continued improvement from their defensive tackles. 

And Van Noy’s versatility has been vital, too. He’s long overdue for some love; setting the edge, applying enough pressure, crushing crossers over the middle, dropping into zone. Just playing smart, physical football at multiple positions.

New England won’t be able to jump into dime this frequently moving forward. Teams with superior offensive lines and/or running games would punish them for it, so they’ll down shift into their big nickel package with Roberts and Hightower likely seeing more than half of all defensive snaps together. (Ja’Whaun Bentley’s injury absence will resurface in the post-game dissection of the Pats’ next loss, I promise.)

But in the last two weeks, Chung and Van Noy have allowed the Patriots to find themselves and play the type of defense demanded in the modern NFL: flexible and fast. What a gift.


2. Waning pass rush and McCourty’s mismatch fueled Colts’ attempted comeback 


Speaking of gifts, Tom Brady’s two interceptions were the spark to Indy’s attempted comeback last week. Failing to affect Andrew Luck in the pocket was a steady drip of gas the Pats put on that fire.

New England pressured Luck on just 12 percent of the Colts’ second-half snaps, most of them concentrated inside the drive capped by Jonathan Jones’ interception. Some of that pocket comfort can be explained away by Luck’s quick trigger, but mostly the Pats need to sync up their best pass-rushing performances. 

Adrian Clayborn played by far his best game as a Patriot, yet none of his teammates produced near that level. Without pressure on Luck, the former No. 1 overall pick fit throws into tight windows and sustained drives with the special quarterback play needed to carry an offense. 

Luck also found chunk-play success targeting Devin McCourty against Eric Ebron and later Erik Swoope. 

McCourty was in coverage on the first and final touchdown Luck threw, initially in man coverage, then zone. In between, he surrendered an 18-yarder to Ebron on third down.

McCourty’s struggled in the past against athletic tight ends. The clearest example was the Eagles’ final touchdown in Super Bowl LII scored by Zach Ertz, who by design had been isolated against the free safety. McCourty, 31, is best suited playing center field.

It was an unfortunate downer Thursday for the player who made the best defensive play of the night, single-handedly forcing a fumble and recovering it on the same play in the third quarter. But the Colts’ attempted comback is partly on him. McCourty’s defense of tight ends also bears watching in the coming weeks because Kansas City will try to isolate him Sunday against Travis Kelce, the second-best tight end in the league after Gronk.

Then comes Chicago with Trey Burton and two weeks later the Packers will arrive with Jimmy Graham. The Patriots’ defensive captain should have his work cut out for him. 


3. New England had a better handle on RPOs, one problematic pass play


Shorter takeaway here because I was longwinded with the first, and we haven’t talked about the 38-point offensive performance yet. We’ll get there.

Time now for kudos for the coaches.

To review, in Week 2 Jacksonville killed the Pats with shallow crossers; picking off their basic man-to-man coverages and seizing on any slight misstep or major bust. The Jags ran a few RPOs, too, taking notes from Houston’s second-half momentum in the opener and parlaying it into a 21-3 halftime lead. New England was slow to adjust and got torched. 

A week later, Detroit incorporated some elements of those plans into its Week 3 win and beat the Pats soundly. They also beat them up with a suddenly respectable run game. And then in Week 4, it was New England’s turn to play bully, which it did by knocking the snot out of the Dolphins’ crossers and smaller receivers at the line.

Better yet Thursday, they employed this physical approach within ideal defenses for combating the RPO/crossing plays they’d been defeated by before. Specifically, Jacksonville — as the Eagles did last February — gouged New England with this version of Mesh, a passing concept built on two shallow crossing routes intersecting over the middle.

One of the Patriots’ answers, which could be run from nickel or dime, called on the defenders at each end of the line of scrimmage to drop into short zones outside the tackle box, obstructing throwing lanes on RPOs that feature an inside slant. These zone drops also served as help against potential crossing routes that usually free receivers after they’ve passed the middle of the field.

Lastly, had the running back slipped out to either side in a pass route, these same defenders would’ve taken him in coverage as part of a “funnel” technique. Except he instead fired up the middle on a play fake and then picked up Hightower on a blitz. Hightower had been afforded a clear path thanks to the defensive line pinching late in the play clock, thereby occupying the interior offensive linemen.

To be clear, New England has plenty of solutions in its playbook for RPOs and Mesh. Mesh — even the version diagrammed above that’s become widely popular across the NFL — has been around for decades. The execution of their defense was simply better both on the field and on the sidelines Thursday.

We’ll see if it holds up with the league’s most explosive offense coming into town Sunday.


4. Opponents can’t play the Patriots offense straight up much longer 


Rightfully, the return of Julian Edelman and emergence of Josh Gordon caught most of our attention post-game. This — in addition to the unsung nature of Chung and Van Noy’s heroics to date — is why we’ve spent so much time in defensive discussion. You know opposing defenses are in danger.

Now, any offense would benefit greatly from adding receiving talent like the Patriots have. But what Edelman, Gordon and a fast-developing Sony Michel have done is allowed New England to grow into the game-plan offense it aims to become every season; a shapeshifting attack that can condense into a power running machine one week, then spend all four quarters in spread sets and let Tom Brady pick the defense apart the next. 

The latter strategy is how New England spent most of its time against the Colts.

The Patriots played almost as much 11 personnel (packages with three receivers, one running back and one tight end) as they had in their four previous games combined. This is directly tied to the deeper receiving corps, but also the fact Indianapolis plays a fairly straightforward zone-based scheme. Spreading the Colts sideline to sideline created natural creases and holes in their coverage, exactly the kind Edelman and James White nestle in and earn targets. 

Entering kickoff, White had led the Pats in targets out of desperation. New England’s receivers couldn’t get open, so Brady kept looking for the only skill player outside of Gronk he could trust. Against the Colts, White extended his team lead in targets for a different reason: it’s what the game dictated.

Indianapolis stuck in its two-deep zone coverages, with underneath defenders drawn toward Edelman and Gronkowski and away from other targets. The Patriots were, as they’ve long been, happy to deal the Colts a death by 1,000 cuts throwing at those vacancies.

We could go into greater detail about how New England scored 38 points. Those, frankly, are immaterial compared to the big-picture message the Patriots sent this week to the rest of the NFL: We have options now; legitimate receiving options to complement our star tight end and two-headed backfield.

Teams cannot play New England as the Colts (who admittedly were brutally banged up) did, lest they boast a Pro Bowl-studded defense like Jacksonville’s. The Patriots are too smart and too loaded now to sit back, face basic defenses and be defeated 1-on-1. Opportunities for mismatches will exist on every snap.

Disguising coverage against Brady (as the Dolphins did on their first interception in Week 4) now shoots back to the top of opposing defensive coordinators’ to-do lists. 

The NFL’s ultimate cat-and-mouse game is back on.


PROTECTION STATS 


Marcus Cannon: 1 holding penalty, 1 hurry, 1 run stuff

Trent Brown: 2 QB hits

Joe Thuney: 2 QB hits

David Andrews: 1 false start, 1 holding penalty

Rob Gronkowski: 1 run stuff

Team: 3 run stuffs, 1 hurry


PRESSURE STATS: 14.8% of defensive snaps


Trey Flowers: 0.5 sack, 1 run stuff

Pat Chung: 0.5 sack

Adrian Clayborn: 3 QB hits, 1 hold drawn, 1 hurry

Dont’a Hightower: 1 QB hit

Danny Shelton: 1 QB hit

Kyle Van Noy: 1 QB hit

Deatrich Wise Jr.: 1 QB hit

Elandon Roberts: 1 QB hit

Team: 4 run stuffs, 1 hurry



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Adam Jacob

Military veteran and medically trained.

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