Sunday, June 21, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 7: Patriots' Starting From Square One With Corners, But Potential Is Evident

Butler's game-clinching interception in Super Bowl 49 was only the most visible piece of good work for the rookie
Anyone looking for justification for the New England Patriots stripping their secondary of three starters from last season needs only to look at the numbers.

Sure, Darrelle Revis' presence added a legitimate top corner to the mix.  Brandon Browner was fun to watch hanging all over receivers and Kyle Arrington was solid - if not spectacular - underneath in the slot until he imploded in the Super Bowl.

Still, the Patriots secondary was merely average - actually a tad below average - in passing yards allowed, coming in at number 17 of 32 teams.  Sure, some of that can be attributed to the Patriots gaining big leads and mailing in coverages late in games, but for the most part, those opponents were no more successful in those situations as they would have been otherwise...
Butler's range and high-point ability on display

...with only Andy Dalton (186 yards, 2 tds) and Jay Cutler (183, 2tds) posting decent numbers in the second half of blowout losses to New England.

It was week 9 against Denver when the Patriots faced anything close to an elite passing game, and then surrendering 429 yards to Peyton Manning, 303 to Andrew Luck the following contest and then 348 to Aaron Rodgers two weeks after that. In fact, those three games were supposed to be the toughest games the Patriots would face all season, all in a four week span, sandwiched between groups of also-rans.

But despite the talent in the secondary - and perhaps because of it - it was the teams that concentrated on their running games and who ran the ball well against the Patriots that gave them the most trouble, as Miami, Kansas City and Green Bay all handed New England losses by averaging 205 yards per game on the ground - and the New York Jets played them close until the final minutes of both division meetings with their traditional ground-and-pound style.

Most of those games were played before the Patriots signed defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas, and before nose tackle Sealver Siliga was activated from the IR, after which New England's run defense shut down the rest of their opponents running games to the tune of 76 yards per game, allowing just one team to rush for over 100 yards before clinching the division in week 15.

The point being, the Patriots have won big with mediocre to bad secondaries as long as their front seven has been up to the task - but once the playoffs start and the competitors are more balanced, that's when the Patriots have their toughest tasks of all - and none of their playoff runs have been cakewalks.

In 2011, the Patriots' squeezed by the Baltimore Ravens thanks to a shanked field goal attempt in the waning seconds before losing a heartbreaker to the Giants in the Super Bowl.  In 2012, the Ravens avenged themselves by eliminating the Patriots in the AFC title game, then Denver followed suit in the 2013 contest.  Last season, it took epic comebacks in both the divisional game against Baltimore and in the Super Bowl against Seattle to claim the World Championship.

What all of these opponents had in common is that they all had well-balanced offenses.  The games were all close and the Patriots' offenses under-performed in many of them, but the fact remains that the New England defense struggles against teams that run and throw the ball equally well - and last season was hardly an exception.

It has been six seasons since the Patriots' pass defense finished the season ranked in the top half of the league - that's 2009 with names like Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite holding down the fort.  Since then the Patriots ranked 21st in 2010 before making it to the AFC Championship game and two Super Bowls with passing defenses ranked 31st in 2011, 21st in 2012, 18th in 2013 and 17th last year.
McClain could find himself a home in Foxborough

As you can see, there is no magic formula to winning, it's all just a matter of putting the people that you have in the position to make them successful, and Bill Belichick does that better than anyone has in decades, perhaps ever - it doesn't matter whether he has Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib or Leigh Bodden...

...or even Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler or Robert McClain, who along with a myriad of players that no one else wanted comprise the cornerback corps of the New England Patriots.

Indeed, third-year man Ryan is the only corner on the depth chart that was actually drafted by the Patriots - save this year's seventh rounder Darryl Roberts.  Everyone knows Malcolm Butler's journey from undrafted free agent signee to Super Bowl hero, but while the rest of the squad don't have stories quite as dramatic as Butlers, they still have taken the long road to Foxborough.

Roberts is a lighting quick press corner from Marshall that fell almost to the point of being Mr. Irrelevant in the most recent draft, being selected 30th overall in the last round, mostly due to his penchant for mugging receivers and drawing illegal contact and pass interference penalties - but his 4.38 speed is intriguing as it allows him to take some chances with receivers on the deep end.

He needs some time in the weight room to add perhaps 10 pounds to a frame that could use it, as does UAB undrafted free agent Jimmy Jean, who is a very raw hands-fighter that doesn't have the bulk to contribute in run defense, but has good length like Browner brought to the defense last season.  His tackling technique consists of latching onto the ball carrier and trying to drag him down, so he could find himself on the practice squad to add some bulk and get coached up.

The Patriots also added some veteran candidates in McClain, formerly of the Falcons, along with former Ram and Eagle Bradley Fletcher and former Jaguar/Charger/Viking Derek Cox, the latter two arriving with their careers at a crossroads.
Ryan is best working from the slot, using his aggressiveness in space

Fletcher was projected to be a safety coming out of Iowa in 2009, but made the Rams squad and developed into a decent press corner, but after twice tearing his right ACL, once in his rookie season and then again in 2011, the former thrid round pick has recently resorted to more of a grabbing style that does little to slow down outside receivers, and makes him susceptible to getting turned around on slant routes and to biting on double moves, and has earned a reputation with officials that will make him overly scrutinized on close pass interference calls.

Cox is a little tougher to figure out, as he appeared to be developing into one of the better young corners in the league while with Jacksonville, but completely tanked after signing a big free agent contract with San Diego, getting benched in three consecutive weeks after getting burned deep repeatedly - which pretty much constitutes living up to his draft profile which stated that he played best in a zone system because of stiff hips and a short gait.

Both Fletcher and Cox are good in run support, so both may get looks in the box as a nickle corner or as a dime defender against double slots that feature multiple tight ends.

McClain is a much more polished product than either of his fellow free agent pick ups, despite the abysmal scouting reports coming out of his stint with the Falcons. The 5' 9" UConn product played inconsistently in slot duty for both the Jaguars and Falcons before an ineffective pass rush and the off-man scheme employed by Atlanta robbed him of his aggressiveness.

McClain is pure press corner.  Period.  His strength is on the outside where he can mug receivers coming off the line and who can flip his hips and jump in the pocket of just about any receiver - and even being shorter than a prototypical outside corner, he is proficient at high-pointing the ball and gets his hands on a fair share of them...

...and is as strong a corner as there is in the league in run support, perhaps why the Falcons used him in five different positions last season in trying to shore up an atrocious defense.  At the very least, McClain is a nickle corner, but the team should be cautious of playing him anywhere but the outside, which plays to his strength in coverage.

That pretty much describes Butler as well, only the second year phenom is a smidge taller and with similar speed.  Butler is largely still an unknown quantity for the defending Champions, as he played sparingly with the secondary populated with pro bowl quality talent - but when the lights were brightest, Butler arrived on the scene by making one of the most clutch plays in Super Bowl history.

His brilliant second half against the Seahawks in which he broke up two passes, almost a third on the Jermaine Kearse circus catch, and the one epic interception, was just some very rich and tasty icing on his under-the-radar rookie season in which he outperformed and surpassed on the depth chart the likes of Alfonzo Dennard and Arrington, neither or whom are still with the team.

Although Butler's duties in the Super Bowl came from the slot, his best destiny is as an outside coverage guy, where his fluid change-of-direction and high-point skills make him a good matchup on even the tallest of receivers - and having 4.4. speed doesn't hurt either.

While both McClain and Butler do their best work on the outside, Logan Ryan has proven time and again that the slot is where he belongs.

Not blessed with blazing speed, Ryan is a scrapper whose best work has been underneath where he can physically contain receivers in a phone booth.  As everyone saw in the Super Bowl, Ryan will open his hips early in a route, making him susceptible to both giving up automatic short passes and also to double moves, and if a receiver gets behind him, he just doesn't have the closing speed to make up the ground.

A hand fighter, Ryan's best work is in the 5-yard buffer zone where he can mug receivers.  There was even talk last preseason that the Rutgers alum could be tried at safety, given his excellence in run support working from the box, and perhaps he could make an impact there as well, though the Patriots are covered in more ways than one with a deep group of blue liners... of which, Devin McCourty, is the key to the Patriots' secondary, where Belichick finally has the pieces together to run a real big nickle, which will be covered in detail in part eight of this series when we take a look at the safeties.

McCourty is another Rutgers corner who the team transformed into one of the better free safeties in the league, for which he was given a handsome raise this past offseason  With the trend in the NFL going toward stack and bunch formations that make coverages unbalanced, usually with a versatile tight end in the mix, the big nickle is impactful only if the defense has a third quality safety in the place of an average nickle corner.

The third safety joins the box safety and one corner on the strong side of the formation, usually leaving the top corner isolated on a wide out on the opposite side with a single high safety protecting over the top - and the way things are shaping up in the Patriots' secondary, there are far more options of a known quantity at safety as there are at corner...

Cornerbacks on the roster at present (with cliffnotes on each):

Darryl Roberts 6' 0", 185 - 4.38 speed, Handsy press corner with quick twitch recovery speed
Logan Ryan 5' 11", 195 - Aggressive hand fighter, best play is from the slot
Malcolm Butler 5' 11", 190 - superb technical corner, has makings of a number one
Robert McClain 5' 9", 195 - Pure press corner, good speed and excellent hips
Bradley Fletcher 6' 0" 200 - Grabby zone corner who plays with fear, torn right acl twice
Justin Green 5' 11", 195 - Well travelled with average skill, good speed
Derek Cox 6' 1", 195 - zone corner with questionable hips, very stiff, no recovery speed
Jimmy Jean 6' 3", 180 - very raw, hands fighter, drag down tackler

This is the seventh installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part eight will focus on the safeties, and how the Patriots have plenty of talent to make up for big personnel losses on the back end...

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