Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ryan, Harmon presence signal a return title years mindset

Some defensive backs have it, some don't.

In the New England Patriots recent past, many haven't despite overwhelming success and resultant superior draft status, which has been documented ad nauseum in an attempt to discredit coach Bill Belichick by the Ron Borges' and Albert Breers of the world - and they are right to a certain extent.

In the past, Belichick had been looking for starters, players that could come in an contribute to a secondary that has been in shambles since the Championship days - and it's tough to hit on cover backs when you're picking so late in the process, as the NFL's parity-making draft design has had the perpetual AFC East division champs choosing in the latter part of the first round...

...long after the sure-fire prospects had gone to the talent-starved teams picking through the early part of the draft.

Perhaps Belichick's thinking was flawed during these drafts that brought in names like Ellis Hobbs in 2005, Brandon Merriweather in 2007, Terrence Wheatley the year after that, Patrick Chung after that and Ras-I Dowling in 2011 - even though all came with headlines and accolades out of college but either couldn't or wouldn't fulfill their potential in a starting capacity.

But despite the Dowling disappointment in 2011, the team's fortunes started turning around the year before when Belichick selected cornerback Devin McCourty out of Rutgers - who was a pretty decent corner, but an outstanding free safety, as Patriots' fans have discovered lately - and then taking a big chance on a cop-punching cornerback out of Nebraska named Alfonzo Dennard in 2012...

...but it was a seemingly curious decision by Belichick the day after Halloween last season that has allowed him to focus on what he does best - picking up versatile depth, developing them and slowly integrating them into his system as situations permit.

Aqib Talib came to New England in a trade with Tampa Bay with a reputation preceding him as a hot head with an affinity for firearms - which is a bad combination - but also with measurable talent as a shutdown corner who apparently just needed some direction and a chance to play for a winner.

And when Talib fulfilled his enormous talent, his presence allowed the members of Patriots' secondary to evolve into their natural positions - McCourty to free safety, Kyle Arrington to slot corner and Dennard emerging as the number two corner opposite Talib, and also allowed Belichick to enter a training camp for the first time in a decade with his secondary intact with solid starters...

...which meant that he could hit free agency and the 2013 draft with pure depth on his mind - and with not having to desperately fill holes in his secondary with top draft picks or washed up free agents, the hooded one killed it in the offseason, and set up the secondary for success going forward.
Harmon has two interceptions on the season

In the space of eight selections in the third round of the draft, Belichick brought in Rutgers' teammates Cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon, developed them behind the starters - playing sparingly and only in situation for which they had shown aptitude in practice, so when Talib went down with a hip injury, Dennard became limited due to a bum knee and safety Steve Gregory broke a thumb, the rookies were ready to assume their positions.

But they have done more than just fill in - Ryan and Harmon are legitimate rising stars in a secondary suddenly jam-packed with talent.

The numbers aren't eye-popping, but what the two rookies bring are intangibles that can't be measured on any sort of ledger, though between them they have seven interceptions and have allowed less than a 50% completion rate.  They have proven to be instinctive, durable and solid tacklers.

Harmon is the fastest of the two and has played both free and strong safety for Belichick, proving to be an excellent centerfielder as well as capable of bringing the wood both in coverage over the top of the corner and in run support, displaying toughness and versatility, maybe not the fearsome hitter that Rodney Harrison was, but with an all-around skill set similar to a Lawyer Milloy...

...while Ryan may be the Patriots most instinctive cover corner since Ty Law patrolled the secondary in the title years.
Ryan has five interceptions and ten passes defended

In fact, Belichick talked about Ryan's game some during his weekly conference call on Monday, calling his awareness of where he's at on the field and his natural instinctiveness - the intangibles that make him a special player.

"'s not only ball skills but I'd say an awareness or an instinctiveness, if you will, in terms of when to look for the ball, having an awareness of the ball being thrown and near his location and anticipating routes and being able to react to those routes sometimes a little bit before the ball is thrown" Belichick said of Ryan, soothing the savage breast of the detractors of some pass defenders that don't turn to locate the ball.

"...maybe if he's reading the quarterback a little bit before the receiver can get into his breaks." Belichick continued, "He's had a number of plays like that, both in games and throughout the year in practices where you see his awareness and his instinctiveness, his understanding of the passing game and kind of getting that little one half step, split-second jump on the play."

Belichick acknowledged that Ryan has good hands and a ball hawk's mentality, but that those things are just part of the equation when defining the rookie with six starts under his belt.

"I think it's that awareness and instinctiveness that's obviously so hard to teach but it's something that he just naturally does. I'm sure he was trained well at Rutgers, as was Duron, as was Devin, but he has that instinctiveness and awareness."

How important are those things to the oftentimes enigmatic coach?  To answer that question one only has to ask themselves an even better question:  When is the last time Belichick launched into such a soliloquy over a rookie?


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