Bill Belichick's defense and the personnel on that side of the ball is always an interesting topic of discussion in New England.
Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and even Belichick himself are the true stars in Foxborough.
The troops on defense often play a secondary, complementary role to their offensive counterparts. And the questions about the unit needing to be better – better pass rush, better coverage, better on third down – are constant.
But there are certainly impressive performances on defense from week to week and year to year.
Media inquiries about Patrick Chung's play this season and his role within a New England defense that leads the NFL in points allowed per game, opened up an interesting line of answers from Belichick in his big Wednesday morning press conference inside the media work room at Gillette Stadium.
Chung's evolving role with the Patriots in his second tour of duty in New England was a top highlight among Belichick's many comments, which also included his thoughts on newly-added linebacker Kyle Van Noy and a preview of Sunday's game in Buffalo against Tyrod Taylor and the upstart Bills.
1. "We've been able to utilize (Chung) better the last three years": Chung first arrived in Foxborough as a second-round pick out of Oregon in 2009. By his second season he was a starter when healthy, though he missed 14 games from 2010-2012 before leaving as a free agent to join the Eagles. After one season as a starter in Philly, he was cut. That left Belichick an opportunity for a second chance with safety.
"After Philadelphia released him I talked with Pat," Belichick recalls of the reunion that's now in its third season. "We had a long talk about what our situation was, how I saw it going forward, how he saw it going forward, how it was different from the other years that he was here and I would say that's the way it has been. Things change."
Belichick said he and the defensive coaches have changed the way they use their veteran safety and it's paid off. First, Chung has been healthy. He's started all seven games this season and is second on the Patriots with 41 tackles. He started 29 of 31 games played the last two seasons as a consistent force in the secondary.
"He's great at that; finding the ball, getting through traffic, fitting in the running game, covering in traffic. He knows all of those kinds of things. He's really good at that," Belichick said of Chung's abilities near the line of scrimmage. "When we had him before he left and then he came back and you know we just weren't able to put him into some of the positions that he should've been put in. We had other things to deal with. We were trying to deal with other things on the defense and we've been able to I would say play him in a much better way in the last three years than we did when he was here the first time. I think our utilization of him has been better. He's been pretty much the same player but I think we've been able to utilize him better the last three years and he's done a great job embracing the different responsibilities that we've given him, which he has a lot of different things to do on the defense within the game or from game to game."
In praising Chung's coverage and versatile abilities, Belichick referenced his battles on the practice field with Pro Bowl slot receiver Wes Welker.
"He's got really good skills, very tough, very good tackler and he matches up against a lot of players," Belichick raved of Chung. "I think I've said before Wes was a hard guy to cover in the slot but – and I'm not saying he shut Wes out – but I mean he covered Wes. Wes had his plays, too. But he covered Wes competitively in the slot in one-on-ones out here many times. That was a good battle. Wes was good, Chung was good, but I'm just saying that's a pretty high level of player to cover. Those were very competitive matchups. Like you said, he's been on receivers, he's been on fast tight ends, he's been on big tight ends, he's been on backs. He's got good quickness, good strength, instinctive, tough, mentally tough, physically tough, very good tackler. Guys can catch passes on him but usually he tackles them so that keeps some of those plays from becoming bigger plays and that's important, too. He can play zone, he can play man. He's a versatile player for us. He helps us in a lot of ways and he plays in the kicking game and you've seen him make plays on special teams as well. He's one of our best conditioned athletes. He's able to play a lot of plays and able to play them at a high level."
2. Taylor "had a huge day against us": Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor is a dangerous weapon as both a passer and a runner. In Buffalo's 16-0 upset in Week 4 in Foxborough Taylor completed 27 of 39 passes for 246 yards with one touchdown for a 94.6 rating. He also ran five times for 28 yards while avoiding key mistakes. With LeSean McCoy dealing with a leg injury, Taylor is the clear focal point of the Buffalo offense and, subsequently, the Patriots defensive game plan.
"He had a huge day against us. That's about as good as it gets right there," Belichick said. "As good of a day as he's had passing was against us. He's good, he's accurate, he's athletic in the pocket, he throws the deep ball well, throws the ball on time. We're going to have to find a way to defend it better than we defended it the first game."
Dealing with Taylor and guys of his mold is often a balance, a combination of controlled pass rush but not allowing the quarterback to be too comfortable, either.
"There's that balance between the aggressive pass rush but also proper leverage and discipline. Any time you face guys like that that's the challenge," Belichick explained. "You can't just stand there and watch them and not let them scramble or he'll throw. You can't rush out of control and give up 20, 30-yard scramble runs that are uncontested. I mean that's not the answer either. So yeah, it's somewhere in between discipline, leverage and doing it consistently. There's no secret to it. It's just a lot of hard work."
3. Bills LB Lorenzo Alexander "one of the best players we've seen all year": There are big names, big contracts and long resumes on Rex Ryan's defense in Buffalo. But according to Belichick the guy who's arguably having the best season doesn't fit those descriptions. Alexander is a 10th year veteran in his first season in Buffalo and is having a breakout campaign. He has 29 tackles, leads the NFL with nine sacks, has notched three forced fumbles and is a force on special teams.
"He's been great. He's had a great year. [He's] been a tremendous run player, pass player, every special team, impact player in the kicking game and impact player on defense, hard to block, rushes inside, rushes outside, good tackler, great motor. He's really good," Belichick said.
Alexander previously played with the Redskins, Cardinals and Raiders but his production never approached his work this season. His previous career high for sacks was 2.5 with the Redskins in 2012, even then as primarily a special teams ace. Belichick acknowledged that such a breakout season is pretty unique a decade into a career.
"It probably is. But he has it every game. I mean he has it every quarter. There are no lulls," Belichick gushed. "He makes plays on the punt team, he makes plays on the kickoff team. I'm talking about impact plays, not just taking up space. He's having a great year. He's one of the best players we've seen all year. I'd put him up against anybody in terms of what he's done this year. His production has been consistent and at a very high level."