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New England Patriots: Here’s why their safety trio is the best in the NFL

New England has the best safety trio in the game. That alone gives their secondary a high floor heading into 2019.

 
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The New England Patriots safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon are entering their sixth consecutive season as teammates. In the free agency world of vast personnel turnover, that type of continuity is rare. It brings intangible benefits along with it.

The remainder of this article is going to quantify this trio’s play. What cannot be quantified, however, is how much of this play has been positively impacted due to the familiarity these three share with each other. They’ve developed chemistry, communication, trust, and perhaps even telepathy. Staying together and learning to see the game the same way for six seasons is quite atypical.

The big picture results speak for themselves. While no one is suggesting these three are the sole reason for New England’s most recent postseason success, it is worth noting that Chung returned to the Patriots ahead of the 2014 season. In the five ensuing seasons with him back on the roster, New England has appeared in four Super Bowls and won three of them.

Devin McCourty

As the longest-tenured member of the trio, McCourty was widely criticized for having lost a step in 2018. The narrative made sense as McCourty was playing through his age 31 season. However, there isn’t any evidence he was worse than in 2017.

  Targets Receptions Catch Rate Yards Yards/Reception TDs INTs Passer Rating

2018

52

35

67.3%

351

10.0

5

1

110.3

2017

65

40

61.5%

471

11.8

5

1

102.8

2016

36

21

58.3%

186

8.9

3

2

76.9

While there does appear to be a drop off in McCourty’s play, it really happened in 2017, as 2016 was the last year in which McCourty posted an elite grade per ProFootballFocus.

Is it a “lost step”? It depends on how you’re defining lost step. When it comes to straight-line speed, McCourty still has plenty of giddy-up. Remember this?

As you can see, that tweet is dated October 29th. Fun fact, to that point, McCourty’s game-clinching pick 6 was the fastest a ball carrier had been clocked all season, according to Next Gen Stats.

Straight line and top-end speed don’t appear to be the issue. The lateral quickness and acceleration elements are the better bet to be what has experienced an age-related decline. Given the importance of a centerfielder’s ability to flip his hips and explode in the other direction at a moment’s notice, this seems to provide cause for concern.

McCourty is entering his 10th season in the league, all with New England. One day he will be honored in the Patriots’ Ring of Honor. He has been to five Super Bowls and won three of them. There was a five-year stretch in which only Earl Thomas was preventing McCourty from being proclaimed the best free safety in the league.

Those days, however, seem to have passed. McCourty is still an impact player. Despite the decline, he finished 2018 as PFF’s 11th rated safety. As New England looks to repeat in 2019, McCourty will play a substantial role in those efforts. But his highest highs seem to be in the rearview mirror.

Duron Harmon

A lot is made, rightfully so, of Dont’a Hightower‘s Super Bowl heroics. While Harmon certainly is not on that level, his postseason lore is vastly underappreciated. Before Stephon Gilmore functionally iced Super Bowl LIII, Harmon prevented the Rams from tying the game late in the 4th.

(Yes, Gilmore probably got away with pass interference)

Similar to Malcolm Butler’s interception overshadowing Hightower’s stop at the 1-yard line, this pass breakup is lost to the memory of Gilmore putting New England on the doorstep of their sixth championship.

What about New England’s fourth championship? While Harmon didn’t save the day during Super Bowl XLIX, he clinched the Patriots wild comeback against the Ravens.

And who was Johnny-on-the-spot when Ben Roethlisberger was literally throwing the game away in 2017?

Yes, the last clip is from the 2017 regular season. In defense of its inclusion, that victory handed New England an inside track to the one seed that year. Knocking off Pittsburgh put the Patriots at 11-3, with a tiebreaker against the Steelers, and only home games against the Bills and Jets left on the docket. New England won those games by a combined score of 63-22.

Patrick Chung

If you ever questioned not only how prescient “Amazing Grace” was, but who it was written about, look no further than Chung. The once lost ex-Patriot spent a year downtrodden in Philadelphia. Afterward, he was found again by Bill Belichick, he was no longer blind, and his play immediately improved.

Chung posted a PFF grade of 55 in his lone season with the Eagles. Since returning to Foxborough, Chung has posted grades of 77.6, 78.1, 54.4, 70.6, and 72.7. He has mostly stayed in the solid starter range during his second stint in New England.

Belichick doesn’t always praise his players by name, but when he does, it carries a lot of weight.

“Without (Chung), then we’re not really — you’d have to do it differently, let’s put it that way,” Belichick said. “There’s a lot of players that are versatile, but I mean, to be able to do it at the level he’s done it at consistently, we’ve seen a lot of good tight ends,” Belichick explained. “He’s out there against pretty good guys every week, not to mention practice. To be able to play at that level without having to help a guy on every play — yeah. I wouldn’t say the versatility is as big of a deal as the high level of versatility. There’s a lot of guys who can go out there and take up space, but they really can’t perform against that level of competition the way you need it. To make some of the tackles that he’s made, to make some of the tackles Devin’s made against some premier receivers, premier backs in space in 1-on-1 situations, those are — they don’t look like big plays on the stat sheet, but they’re huge plays.”

That versatility is self-apparent on game day. Chung seamlessly switches from safety to slot corner to linebacker. He is the perfect Belichickian weapon. Positional flexibility resulting in a lack of weakness. The Patriot’s entire philosophy is to have the fewest weaknesses, not to chase the most strengths.

The aggregate

If you still aren’t convinced New England boasts the league’s top safety trio, well, here’s Belichick again:

“So, yeah, those three guys have a lot of — there’s a lot of value to all three of those players, what they do and how they mix together. They’re not all the same, but they do some things that are somewhat interchangeable. They’re smart, they work well together, they have a good chemistry, good system of communication and ability to make adjustments and trade off where they need to trade off and things like that.

“They’re all three valuable, they’re all three critical. Pat has a lot of position flexibility and Devin has a lot of position flexibility in terms of the fact that he’s played corner at a high level. … Pat does a great job in the multiple roles he fills between safety, nickel back, linebacker if you will. There’s a lot.”

Belichick agrees with the original premise. These three have a unique advantage in chemistry and communication due to how long they have been teammates. They will be the backbone of the Patriots defense in 2019.

Jonathan Rosenberg is a writer for PFN covering the New England Patriots. You can find him @frosted_takes on Twitter.

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