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Unfiltered Notebook 12/27: Experienced secondary keys Patriots playoff hopes

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The Patriots will close out their regular season on Sunday and the defense has a chance to cement their place in both team and league history. They're currently allowing a league-low 13.2 points-per-game, have 25 interceptions, eight more than any other team, and lead the league allowing third-down conversions just 23 percent of the time. All are bests under Bill Belichick, a remarkable feat considering the defenses that have played in New England over the last 20 years.

The overall balance on defense is striking, with players having outstanding seasons at all three levels. But it's in the secondary where the Patriots have set themselves apart.

Since welcoming back Patrick Chung in 2014 and having him join Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, the Patriots have had the most versatile and experienced safety trio in the league. Now in their sixth season together the coaching staff has given them the ultimate sign of respect, the ability to make calls and adjustments on their own.

"It's really, probably, been one of the best things that we've done in the secondary is let those guys see what the formation looks like, where the threats are lined up and how to deal with them, and they've done an excellent job of putting themselves in good positions to make plays," said Bill Belichick earlier this month.

Safeties coach Steve Belichick arrived in 2012, taking over the safety group in 2016 and has seen them blossom.

"They're a versatile group of players and they understand the system really well," said Belichick. "They're able to make adjustments on the field that we can't make as coaches so they've got a lot of power and freedom to handle situations out on the field. Can't say enough good things about the decisions and the calls they make on the field. We're not second guessing them, they see it a lot better than we see it. Credit to those guys for all the experience and film work that they put in during the week so they can play fast."

Veteran safety Terrence Brooks has also carved out a role playing primarily in the box, playing 29 percent of the snaps. That gives the Patriots four safeties who can do multiple things and plenty to play with.

Meanwhile, the cornerback group has been every bit as versatile and dominant as the safeties, led by Defensive Player of the Year favorite Stephon Gilmore. Jonathan Jones has emerged as one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league, earning himself an extension this season, while also playing a safety role in spots. Jason McCourty has assimilated to the Patriots system and given them a solid veteran presence for matchups, while J.C. Jackson continues to develop into one of the most promising young cornerbacks around.

"[I]t's really a great group to work with and I think they all really push each other," said Bill Belichick. "I don't think it's one guy. They're all really playing well, having a good year, working well together, and that's the group where – sort of like the offensive line – that if there's one mistake in communication or having the call right, then everything looks bad. And so, it's really incumbent on all of them to work well together and work good as a unit, and that's something they've done well all year."

"It's a great advantage to have a lot of guys with versatility, especially the guys we have in the room," said cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino. "Allows you to be more creative and not be restricted by what you want to do. Everyone knows everything, knows every position."

Gilmore's play in 2019 has been superlative. He's tied for the league lead in interceptions with six while facing the opposition's biggest threat every game. He's the kind of corner that lives for the challenge of facing the best and he's met that challenge numerous times this season.

"Steph has done a great job for us," said Belichick during his press conference on Friday. "He works hard, prepares well, he's very professional and he has a very good skill set. He's long, he's fast, he's a good tackler, he's strong, plays the ball well. He does a lot of things well, and he's done well for us all year."

Dolphins head coach Brian Flores saw Gilmore's development firsthand over the last two seasons. Now he has to prepare his team to face Gilmore.

"I think he's really grown over the last few years," said Flores. "This is one of the best corners in the league, one of the best defensive players in the league. I think from a coverage standpoint – big receiver, small receiver, quick receiver – he can really do it all. He can move inside if you need him. He can do a lot of different things. It's going to be definitely a challenge. It's a challenge for every team to get open against him in man coverage, and that's why a lot of teams just stay away from him, to be honest."

With the Dolphins coming off a 400-yard passing performance, the Patriots secondary will be in the line of fire this weekend, but with another strong outing they'll cement their place in (regular season) history. The next and more important question will be if they can help carry the Patriots to their seventh Super Bowl. With the group's experience and level of play, they should be ready to face any challenge.

Practice & Injury Report

The Patriots wrapped up their on-field preparation with a final Friday practice inside Gillette Stadium. Once again Shilique Calhoun (illness) was the only player missing. It looks like key injured players Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Marcus Cannon and Julian Edelman are trending toward being available for Sunday's regular season finale against the Dolphins. The injury report featured eight players who were all questionable, including new addition Terrence Brooks.

QUESTIONABLE
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, Knee (LP)
DB Terrence Brooks, Groin (LP)
LB Shilique Calhoun, Illness (DNP)
OT Marcus Cannon, Ankle (LP)
LB Jamie Collins, Shoulder (LP)
WR Julian Edelman, Knee / Shoulder (LP)
CB Jonathan Jones, Groin (LP)
CB Jason McCourty, Groin (LP)

Locker Room Sound Bites

Julian Edelman on Stephon Gilmore's Defensive Player of the Year candidacy:

"One hundred percent. He's a monster. He works incredibly hard. He's a really great teammate. He doesn't talk very much but when he does talk everyone listens. That's the kind of guy he is. I think he's very deserving of that award. He had an incredible year and [we're] looking forward to keeping it going. I'm sure he doesn't really want to talk abut it because he's not that type of guy, he's a team guy. That's what you love about him the most."

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