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Safeties first: Depth and versatility define heart of Patriots defense

The safety group should be a key component for the Patriots defensive gameplans this season.


There's been no secret about the depth and talent among the Patriots safeties group this summer. With all three main starters returning along with an influx of youth and experience, the safeties have a little of everything, with the only question being how to get them all involved.

"I would say the safety group is a pretty impressive group," said head coach Bill Belichick on Monday after being asked by ESPN's Chris Berman if it was his deepest position. "It's good to see Jabrill [Peppers] out on the field. Devin [McCourty], AP [Adrian Phillips], [Kyle] Dugger, played a lot of football for us last year. You add Jabrill to that mix and Myles [Bryant] has also played safety for us out of the corner group. So between those five guys it's a pretty deep position. But we've shown packages, and used packages last year with all three safeties on the field. Jabrill wasn't here obviously. [Joshuah] Bledsoe has had a good camp as well. So I think that's a pretty competitive position, not just for roster spots, but also for playing time and how that gets distributed."

From McCourty's 12 years of experience, to Phillips' strong play over the last two seasons that earned him a contract extension, to the intriguing possibilities of former first-round pick Peppers and the early special teams prowess of rookie Brendan Schooler and the surprising contributions this summer from Bledsoe, it might not be surprising to still see the room run seven players deep when you add in Cody Davis. Even cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant can play some safety roles, as the team has a lot of options to work with.

On a defense that values versatility and changing its approach weekly, the flexibility to the safety group is where the game plans will likely start their composition.

"We've got a great leader like Dev, you've got me, I've played a lot of ball, you've got Dug with a whole lot of athleticism who really acts a lot older than his age," said Adrian Phillips when asked to assess what makes the group a strength. "I just think, it's supposed to be like that, we're the communicators of the defense, we kind of take charge of that. We're supposed to be the strongest group in our eyes."

Last season, the Patriots played 30 percent of their defensive snaps in a three-safety package. It was surpassed only by a three-cornerback package at 38 percent. But the numbers were impacted by health, as the team was forced to play zero three-safety snaps in games against the Jets, Bills and Dolphins. Even in the second matchup against the Bills, the Patriots bumped to only eight percent of the snaps in three-safety packages, before bumping that up to 45 percent in the playoff loss.

With reinforced depth, this season should offer new opportunities to evolve. Despite the stacked depth chart, Brian Belichick wasn't getting too far ahead of himself as the team prepares to move on to the regular season.

"Its great to have good players, I'm very excited, it's a really good group," said the youngest Belichick. "There's only so many guys who can be on the field at a time. You want everyone to be ready to do whatever's asked of them when they're on the field. At a certain point we could get into packages where there's multiple guys out there and a number of them have a role but really, the idea is to have all these guys learn the concept of what we're doing so you can plug and play as needed, plus you don't know what's going to come up during the season."

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