Friday, December 18, 2015

McCourty Injury Puts Spotlight on Ryan, Butler

The Patriots are the only team in the National Football League capable of running the hybrid Big Nickle defense as a base alignment.

Rather, let's make it that, they were.

The high ankle sprain suffered by New England free safety Devin McCourty is a huge blow to a secondary that is just starting to come into its own - not to mention a terrible loss for a defense that is starting to look like world beaters.

The Patriots are working on their back up facilities at several positions currently, including wide receiver, running back, offensive tackle, defensive tackle and middle linebacker - but none of the injuries at those positions are as hard-hitting and potentially devastating as losing the lynch pin of the entire secondary.

New England head ball coach Bill Belichick has been collecting safeties for the past four seasons, "reaching" with high draft picks for some of them in the eyes of many media members and fans - but there was a reason why he wanted those players and why he valued them much higher than the experts did...

...because he was creating a talent pool in which he could rotate his safeties in and out as desired, setting up his opponent with a defensive alignment that could keep the team in the nickle as a base defense while still being able to keep the running lanes accounted for.

Like the standard nickle alignment, the Big Nickle is a formation that utilizes five defensive backs to prevent the opponent from flooding the field with receivers - but unlike the standard nickle that sees a third cornerback in place of an early-down, run-plugging linebacker, the Big Nickle utilizes three safeties: a single high "centerfielder" and two hybrid safeties who help out in coverage in passing situations and who are rugged enough to reduce down into the box in run support.

So when the Patriots are in full roll in this alignment, McCourty aligns close to the line of scrimmage and either helps out in coverage or takes a receiver from the slot, Pat Chung also aligning close to the line to help out with tight ends and to plug running lanes, while speedy Duron Harmon covers sideline-to-sideline on the back end.

You wonder how the Patriots keep getting away with carrying just three healthy corners? That is how. But now with McCourty going down and questionable to play this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, corner depth will become an issue because McCourty is the key to the entire secondary.

Projected as a late second round selection out of Rutgers, McCourty became the first "reach" selection in Belichick's secondary at 27th overall in the first round as a cornerback, where he gained Pro Bowl and second-team All Pro honors in his first season at corner, after which Belichick started toying with him at free safety toward the end of the 2012 season, then moved him there permanently next to Chung midway through the 2013 season...

...his elite 4.34 speed and excellence in zone coverages precipitating the move. By that time, the team had already selected Illinois corner Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft and Harmon in the third round of the 2013 process, completing the Big Nickle look by "reaching" for Stanford safety Jordan Richards last May.

Belichick groomed Harmon for the centerfielder job just as he did McCourty in the 2012 season as he contemplated the switch in positions, Harmon's coming out party a month-long affair last January when he transformed into a scavenger of the highest order in securing New England's comeback from two fourteen point deficits by picking off Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the divisional round in the playoffs.

The rest of the post-season was just a coronation of sorts, as Harmon and rookie corner Malcolm Butler penciled their names in the lineup with their tough, clutch play.

But there is a reason why the Patriots broke out the company card and made McCourty a multi-millionaire with the second-richest current contract for a safety in the NFL. Out of he, Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis, Belichick knew that the one that could least afford to lose was McCourty, given his experience as a true hybrid.

This is not to say that the safety play is masking the cornerback play as much as it is turbo boosting it,but the proof in that pudding will come on Sunday if McCourty is forced to miss the game against the Titans.

Well, maybe not against the Titans, as their receiving corps is lead by 31-year old tight end Delanie Walker with running back Dexter McCluster a distant second in catches on the season. In fact, the most receptions by a wide receiver on that team is 33 by Kendall Wright, who will be inactive for the game while nursing some cracked ribs.

So, right. Maybe not this Sunday. But most definitely the following Sunday against the New York Jets, who sport some big receivers and a modern day Steve DeBerg at quarterback, who is so hot and cold that he could look like Dan Fouts one game and JaMarcus Russell the next.

But that's getting ahead of the situation. McCourty returned to practice on Friday and is officially listed as questionable for the game against Tennessee, but circumstances are not nearly as dire enough to risk putting McCourty into harm's way at less than 100%, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

With Tennessee's game being the short passing game to backs and tight ends, this is more of a linebacker / safety coverage game, which means that Harmon could still patrol the back end, with Chung and maybe Richards gaining leverage on the second level. Butler and fellow impressive corner Logan Ryan should have things well in hand with the likes of 31-year old Harry Douglass and rookie Dorial Green-Beckham being the top two outside threats.

So, it's probably a good game for McCourty to miss. He can hang with his brother, Titans' cornerback Jason, who is also on the shelf and actually on the team's injured reserved list. They can kick back in a booth, put their feet up and catch up with each other - but if he remains out for more than just this week, we will get to see if the cornerbacks really are playing as well as they seem to be, or if the safety play has been masking deficiencies.

Every Patriots' fan alive wants the corners to be legit, and they certainly appear to be, with Butler seemingly in a good rut where he gives up one big play per game, then shuts his man down and Ryan making his second-year jump in his third season, after spending most of his sophomore campaign behind the aforementioned Browner and Revis.

In fact, at this point in their development, it would be natural for Ryan to be ahead of Butler in technique, but how much of that success can be attributed to having that safety over the top?

If McCourty misses more than just this Sunday, we're going to find out.

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