Time was, a safety was a guy that could run really fast and whose entire purpose in life was to not let anyone get behind him.
Though those remain solid virtues, both free and strong safety positions have evolved over the years to include the dynamics involved with stopping the run and covering receivers. Instead of being the guy that was too small to play anywhere else, a safety now needs to have tremendous feet and athleticism and to be built like a roman god…
…instead of being a scrapyard for college quarterbacks and washed up corners, the positions have become so defined and specialized that safeties may be some of the most athletic and versatile athletes on the football field – and borne within the framework of a modern NFL defense, the strong safety skill set has become the most sought after in the league.
Why? Well, blame Bill Belichick and his hyper-tense contemporaries for advancing offensive ingenuity to a new level.
Yes, blame Belichick for unleashing the hybrid “12 Personnel” two tight end, two wide receiver, one running back up-tempo offense that, with the proper quarterback running the show, can make a defense feel as if they are in the wrong package, even if they are in the right one.
It’s befuddling to be sure, but not a new concept – and many teams have some sort of variation, but it’s just that quarterback Tom Brady makes it work better than anyone else can – or ever has - his mastery of the offense, 13 years under center and precision internal clock make him the greatest offensive weapon the NFL has ever seen.
To stop Brady means getting in his face and disrupting his rhythm, and that rings true for many drop back pocket passers, and while Brady adds about two dozen different degrees of difficulty with the up-tempo, no huddle angle, the Patriots defense only has to defend against him practice, not when the snaps count for real.
Not every team has a Tom Brady. Some have a Drew Brees or a Peyton Manning or a Matty Ice or a Joe Flacco – pocket passers all - while others have a Ben Roethlisberger or a Cam Newton or even a Geno Smith, signal callers that are most dangerous on the move or as part of some sort of read option package…
…the emphasis on certain skill sets are as individual as the different teams employing them – which explains a lot in relation to Belichick’s offseason moves both in the draft and free agency - both this year and last – and also why safeties have become such lusted after entities in the world of professional football.
To stop the newest trends in the world of offensive innovation, it often takes the trendsetter himself to diffuse the symmetry – and that’s exactly what the Hoodie, great and powerful, has been up to.
2012 second round draft pick Tavon Wilson was a shocker to most experts, but he has the background and skill set parallel to a position on the field known as the Big Nickle safety. Same with 2013 draft shocker Duron Harmon, who also has the athletic ability to play center field if the need arises.
Many questioned these picks, but a quick glance at the big picture and how the 2013 draft essentially completes the defensive puzzle tells one that the forward thinking Belichick was right all along – and Mel Kiper be damned…
…because now it appears that with the addition of safeties Adrian Wilson and rookie Duron Harmon, cornerback Logan Ryan, linebackers Jamie Collins and Steve Beauharnais and free agent linemen Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead to team with names such as Mayo, Talib, Spikes, Jones, Wilfork and Hightower, the Patriots’ potential is unlimited - as are the ways that the defense can now attack the offense.
What it all comes down to is that the Patriots defense now has the capability to morph into whatever they need to be, even to the extent of being able to dictate to the offense - a far cry from the past decade, when the secondary was held together with duct tape and a prayer and the pass rush predicated on smoke and mirrors.
Last year with drafting Tavon Wilson, the Patriots had a potential Big Nickle 3-3-5 defense if they so desired. Injuries and complexity forced Belichick to scrap the plan but, in contrast, with the depth added this offseason, the Patriots have such incredible athleticism and versatility that they can run anything from a standard 4-3 to a Big Nickle to a classic Psycho defense – which if implemented and used correctly, counters any matchup advantage the offense can muster.
For the uninitiated, the Psycho defense can only be described as orchestrated bedlam, a maximum of two down linemen and four defensive backs to go along with a minimum of five linebackers, the idea being to take advantage of several hybrid nickel safety-type backs and linebackers spread thoughout the second level…
…the hybrids jumping and moving all along the line of scrimmage before the snap, and becomes a zone blitz at the snap, any of them able to rush or rotate back into coverage effectively – but the confusion that can be caused by the sub package hides the intention of each player, so the quarterback never really knows where the pressure will be coming from…and neither will his protection.
The point is that only the best and most athletic defenses in the league are capable of pulling off that look, and every one of the Patriots four losses last season came at the hands of these units…but not by much, as the Patriots lost to the Cardinals by two points, Seattle by one, Baltimore by one and to San Francisco by a touchdown in what is being remembered as the game of the year.
The psycho is an extreme example and only for use a handful of plays per game, but it stands to showcase the level of athleticism that the Patriots defense has acquired this offseason – on paper edifying Belichick’s defense to the status of those elite units.
That being said, the New England Patriots have the best defense they’ve ever put together on a field.
But never before has the franchise had as much talent at every single position. Oh sure, they’ve had some great defenses, and there have probably been better athletes at just about every position at one point or another, but collectively, this may be the best.
The line is anchored by the proverbial immovable object in Vince Wilfork, as disruptive a force against the run as there is in the game. Though he can reestablish the line of scrimmage three yards deep in the opponent’s backfield virtually by himself, he is not a penetrating tackle. His game is taking on double teams so that his teammates can penetrate and get to the quarterback.
Problem was, last season there was no one to take advantage of the lanes that Wilfork created, Belichick even employing the services of the likes of defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis as undersized rush tackles, with predictable results. So Belichick pulled a coup with his first move of the offseason, signing CFL defensive tackle Armond Armstead then adding massive ex-Oakland Raiders‘ tackle Tommy Kelly shortly after.
At 6′ 5″ and 300 pounds, Armstead was easily the most athletic and versatile tackle in Canada last season, earning a rare invite to the CFL All Star game as a rookie and he is now surrounded by talent such as Wilfork and defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to form a quick and aggressive penetrating line that should be able to overwhelm just about any opposing pass protection…
…that is if Armstead can beat out the 6′ 6″, 325 pound Kelly in camp. Kelly was a pass rushing force when teamed with Richard Seymour in Oakland, and the team hopes that he can be even better teamed with a true stop gap in Wilfork. Camp battles abound along the line, particularly at end, where Cunningham will face serious challenges from Jake Bequette, Justin Francis and rookie Michael Buchanan for his backup roster spot.
Ninkovich could also end up being a rush linebacker depending on how the team decides to use 2013 top draft pick Jamie Collins, the 6′ 3″ 250 pound physical freak Collins having experience at defensive end in college, plus stints at strong safety and at linebacker – also making him perfect as the cover linebacker that the team so desperately needed last year.
Collins and fellow rookie Steve Beauharnais, he also a cover backer with strong safety experience, join tackling machines Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes and versatile strong-sider Dont’a Hightower as incredibly athletic depth, and putting pressure on a trio of try-hard, blue-collar backups that have a struggle ahead of them to preserve their roster spots.
Strong Safeties Adrian and Tavon Wilson will join the fold in the more exotic coverage packages requiring a big nickel, but both are also capable in backend coverage, though that would be better left to free safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory. Gregory filled in as a strong safety beside McCourty last season, but he is a natural free. Surprise draft choice Harmon is capable of backing up both safety spots as well and could also figure into the hybrid coverages.
Harmon, along with McCourty, Francis, and Beauharnais should make 3rd round pick Logan Ryan feel right at home, as all played with him at Rutgers – and all figure to make the 53 man roster
Ryan joins a corps at cornerback that is as strong as any seen in New England since the championship seasons. Aqib Talib came to Foxboro in a trade deadline deal last season with Tampa Bay and instantly became the best man corner on the roster, and his play enabled the Patriots defense in more ways than one.
For instance, his presence allowed McCourty – a corner his first few years with the Patriots – to stay at free safety where he has flourished into a potential pro bowl quality last line of defense, and also inspired 2012 7th rounder Alfonzo Dennard to ascend the depth chart to take over opposite Talib, knocking the overwhelmed Kyle Arrington to the slot, where he shows excellent short-range coverage skill and is a force against the run…
…Ras-I Dowling coming in as an afterthought, the oft-injured but big and talented corner that will press Dennard for his starting spot – and no matter who comes away with the label, the depth will be impressive…and when is the last time anyone could say that about the Patriots’ secondary?
When is the last time that anyone could call a Patriots’ defense elite, even dynastic? Well, it’s been a decade or so, and even then the defenses relied on a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy that caused anxiety at times along the faithful, and that principle has carried through the Belichick era, much to the chagrin of title hungry fans…
…fans that have witnessed fundamental breakdowns on both sides of the ball at the most inopportune of times – many Patriots’ teams coming within a dropped pass or two, coming within an incredible and perfect Eli Manning pass or two of having at least one more Lombardi Trophy to be displayed in the Hall at Patriot Place.
The defense put together by Bill Belichick won’t need to resort to the antiquated and wrong flexible defensive ideologies of the past. The only things they’ll have to do is come off the field after many, many third down stops, and to come up with a scary sounding nickname for the force that it has become…
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