When it comes to innovation in football, there are usually two factors that contribute to a new idea. Sometimes, it's strategy. Sometimes, it's necessity.
For the New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick, both strategy and necessity were at play in some interesting decisions in the team's 42-35 win against the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday.
In the case of cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington playing safety, Belichick viewed both men as more of a fourth defensive back than a true safety.
"Well, most of the time when Logan and Kyle were in there at safety — I mean first of all, the Eagles were in multiple receiver sets the majority of the game," he said in a conference call on Saturday. "There were some plays where they were in two tight ends and two wide receivers, but even in those situations a lot of the times the tight end was a very good receiver, more of a pass-receiving tight end. A lot of their two tight end formations really played like three receivers and one tight end. Even their three receiver sets kind of played like four receivers because they still had a good tight end in there. That inside position that Logan and Kyle played, I would say relates more to the nickel position that they play in sub defense than it does to the safety position in a regular defense against a two receiver set.
"I'm not saying that there isn't some application of both but because it's a multiple receiver team that nickel position, the slot guy, could either be on that receiver or he could be playing some type of zone coverage more like a safety. It's against that type of personnel group that we've done it; a lot of other teams in the league do it too. So it's not really nickel but it's not really your regular defense, it's a little bit of a hybrid there to try to match up against the multiple receivers that that offense has on the field. I think they've both done a good job with it. Logan's played some safety for us in the past, so has Kyle. They've both played that position – that fourth defensive back. It's not really anything that's that new to them. It definitely has a lot of carryover for them from when we are in our nickel defense and they play in the slot."
Ryan and Arrington are new additions to a battle at strong safety that already included Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, and Tavon Wilson. Now, with Belichick's new insight, it may be more accurate to say that they will change their safety designation week to week, sometimes even play to play, depending on what the offense is doing.
This, in turn, puts free safety Devin McCourty in the position as the lone deep defender, covering sideline to sideline. He has the range to make it work, which allows Belichick and the Patriots the flexibility to try new things at the other safety spot.
With more teams going to spread sets, and employing athletic pass-catching tight ends, it's becoming more important for a safety to be strong in man coverage than it is for him to be an "enforcer" who can lay big hits on receivers coming over the middle.
Speaking of tight ends, no one would confuse any of the several offensive linemen who lined up at tight end for the Patriots on Friday as an "athletic pass-catcher," but Belichick had those players play out of position out of necessity, with former offensive tackle-turned-tight end Steve Maneri the lone healthy player at the position.
"When we decide to do that, which with last night we only had one tight end really active for the game, so we were on a little bit on thin ice there," Belichick said. "So yeah, it's a good question because none of those players are really here to play tight end. They're here to play center, guard or tackle, whatever the offensive line position or a combination is. So which guy we move to tight end, that's kind of a function of who's available, who would cause the least disruption in the offensive line, combined with which player has the best skills to play on the end of the line. I'd say it comes down to a combination of those two things.
"Ideally your sixth lineman would be not one of your starters who could come in and go out. But if it's not him and it's some kind of juggling where you put one of your starters out there, then you bring somebody in then that causes a little juggling on the line and a player has to go out to come back in at his position for a play and so forth. But we've done it both ways. It's just trying to find the best combination of those."
Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams are both battling back from injuries they have sustained during training camp, and Rob Gronkowski continues his rehab work after tearing the ACL in his right knee last December.
Josh Kline and Nate Solder were the two offensive linemen getting reps at tight end on Friday, and while each had some nice blocks in the running game, neither one was targeted as a receiver.
So, while the Patriots strategy seems to be a secondary that features a host of moving parts, the team is in dire straits at tight end, and can't get healthy soon enough.