It’s no secret the Patriots defense was due for some regression following a historic 2019 season. No team can lose as many players as the Patriots defense did and continue at the same elite level. That said, it’s not been all a step backward for the Patriots defense. Through three games the Patriots have taken a big step forward in one key department: tight end coverage.
Eight catches for seventy-three yards and a touchdown would be a strong one-game performance for an NFL tight end but through three games, that is the total production the Patriots have allowed to opposing tight ends. In particular, the Patriots held Las Vegas’ Darren Waller to nine yards on two catches while Miami’s Mike Gesicki chipped in three catches for 30 yards. The Patriots game remains an anomaly for both Waller and Gesicki, who tend to be productive tight ends. For the Patriots secondary it was no anomaly.
Diving into the film shows us that this may be the new normal for tight ends on the Patriots schedule, particularly next matchup, Travis Kelce. Here’s why.
New Tight End Erasers?
First things first, the Patriots appear to have found a matchup weapon in 2019 second-rounder, Joejuan Williams. Williams (6’4″, 208 lbs.), originally a cornerback, appears to be playing more of a hybrid safety role covering tight end’s this season. His size and length make him a natural matchup option for covering bigger receivers.
Against Gesicki, Williams showed that he possesses the ball skills necessary to break up contested catches. Initially, his strength allows him to press Gesicki and disrupt his route. Because of Williams’ size, Gesicki can’t sky over him to pluck the ball from the air.
Williams doesn’t have the speed to cover NFL receivers consistently but he has more than enough to run with tight ends. Here he is covering Waller, one of the fastest tight ends in the NFL, vertically. His ability to stay with more athletic tight ends, while also having the size profile to match with more physical guys should prove useful going forward.
Williams isn’t the only surprise performer in the secondary though. The Patriots 2020 second-round pick Kyle Dugger is chipping in. Here he is with the coverage on Greg Olsen. Dugger is still growing but he’s shown a little bit in terms of coverage. Note Dugger’s patience. He lets Olsen work up to him. Dugger doesn’t commit one way or the other until Olsen declares his route, at which point Dugger blankets him.
Complementary Coverage on Tight Ends
For New England, it’s not just individual defenders covering well, it’s the whole group as a unit. The Patriots defense works schematically to help cover tight ends. The secondary has successfully covered tight ends by using leverage to play to their help.
Here’s a perfect look at the secondary using leverage. Jonathan Jones is playing way off with outside leverage. Jones surrenders the inside knowing that’s where his help is. Derek Carr takes the bait and launches toward Waller who never had a chance. The only negative on this play is the dropped interception by Devin McCourty.
The Patriots also did a good job passing off Waller during his routes. Defensively it appears to be cover 1 with D-McCourty playing robber. Williams gets a good jam and runs across the field with Waller ultimately passing him off to D-McCourty in man coverage. Williams then takes over D-McCourty’s robber zone. This allows Waller to remain covered across the field while also offering an opportunity for some confusion of the quarterback with the defenders switching assignments mid-play.
Another way the Patriots erased Waller from the game was by “chipping” him with an edge defender to disrupt his timing. Here, John Simon is the chipper. He gets enough of Waller to throw off his route timing. Adrian Phillips doesn’t have great coverage but the disruption is enough to force Carr to look for other options.
Lastly, the Patriots have not been afraid to straight up vice a receiver. Here the Patriots have the same chip call with Simon from earlier. The key difference here is that Williams is also at the line of scrimmage over Waller ensuring that there is zero chance of Waller getting a free release.
Matching up with Travis Kelce
Between Williams, Brooks, Phillips, the McCourty’s, Dugger, and maybe even Stephon Gilmore the Patriots have a plethora of guys that can contribute to disrupting the tight end position. But what happens when the Patriots are tasked with corralling arguably the league’s best tight end?
The Patriots get a chance to find out the answer this Sunday when they take on Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs. Covering Kelce will likely primarily fall on Joejuan Williams, but the entire secondary will be tasked with limiting Kelce. If the first few weeks are any indication, the Vanderbilt product, and the Patriots secondary will be alright as long as they play to their strengths. We outlined how the Patriots can slow down Kelce below.
Kelce may be a big tight end but he struggles with physicality. A strong jam is enough to slow him down, while a chip from an edge defender, like shown above, completely throws him out of the play. Williams, in particular, possesses the size and strength to play Kelce physically.
That physicality at the line of scrimmage is especially important when you remember what happens when Kecle gets a free release. As a receiver, Kelce is a threat to make a big play every time he catches the ball. If you give him free releases it could be a long afternoon.
Another key to defending Kelce is to get him on the ground. The Patriots haven’t been a great tacking team thus far in 2020 and Kelce is a load to bring down in the open field. To limit big plays you can’t let Kelce run wild after the catch.
Ultimately, there are two rules to slow down Kelcce: 1.) Jamming and chipping Kelce at the line of scrimmage. 2.) Getting Kelce on the ground quickly if he does catch the ball.
The Patriots have a lot to worry about Sunday going against a stacked Kansas City offense. They boast a strong offensive line, one of the best tight ends in the league, the best deep threat in the NFL in Tyreek Hill, and Mecole Hardman who’s also up there. Plus, the Chiefs have the best quarterback in the game in Patrick Mahomes.
The Patriots have done a good job taking the deep ball away from Mahomes in the past but the game will be won in the intermediate parts of the field, where the likes of Sammy Watkins and Kelce thrive. We’ve seen Gilmore take Watkins away in the past, so the real key to this game may lie in the defense’s ability to take away Mahomes’ outlets in Kelce and rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Patriots absolutely have the personnel and coaching to take out Kelce, it’ll just be about execution. While it’s still early the Patriots have shown the ability to take away tight ends and Sunday will be a test to see if they can replicate that success against the league’s best.