Rodney Harrison expects some points to be scored Sunday night. A lot of them.
“I don’t believe in either one of these defenses,” the former Patriots safety said Wednesday ahead of his former team’s prime-time matchup this weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs. “It’s going to be a high-scoring battle.”
Harrison, who now works as an analyst on the NBC studio show Football Night in America, was participating in a conference call with his fellow NBC colleagues, Cris Collinsworth and Tony Dungy. While all three NFL players-turned-commentators predicted an offensive display on their network Sunday night, Harrison had a particularly blunt assessment on his former team’s defense.
“If you look at the Patriots defense, they can’t cover anyone, really,” said the 45-year-old former All-Pro defensive back. “They are grabbing guys.”
Harrison called current Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty “a liability in coverage,” who had struggled to even keep up with tight ends in the past.
“Even last year, looking at that tape, he got beat by one of Kansas City’s tight ends,” Harrison said of McCourty. “He’s not a cover guy. He’s a great leader. He’s a pretty good tackler in the open field, but when you start asking these older safeties that have clearly — they are not the same player that they once were, to try to cover a Travis Kelce in space, I think they are going to struggle.”
Harrison said he thought the Patriots should try to play zone coverage and try to force Patrick Mahomes, the breakout second-year quarterback for the 5-0 Chiefs, to make mistakes. Echoing the observations of other football experts, Harrison went on to note that the Patriots’ defense is, in his estimation, very slow.
“When I look at defenses, I look at their speed and their size and their activity,” he said. “This is a very, very slow defense. So they are going to have to play smart. They are going to have to make sure they are more positioned.”
Harrison again singled out another defensive leader, Dont’a Hightower, the 28-year-old linebacker who has been the subject of some scrutiny this season.
“You look at Hightower; Hightower has lost a lot of explosiveness,” Harrison said. “He’s not running with the same speed. The injuries have taken its toll and you can just look at the Patriots defense and see. So they have to focus on being smart and making sure that they don’t give up the big play.”
Against a team like the Chiefs — which has built their offense around speed with skill players like Mahomes, Kelce, running back Kareem Hunt, and wide receiver Tyreek Hill — a slow defense could be particularly exposed. As The Boston Globe reported this week, the Patriots have been preparing for the Chiefs’ explosive offense by running hills outside their practice facility.
But the issue isn’t especially new. Harrison said the lack of speed and versatility on the Patriots defense had become glaring last season, too, including in the Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I just don’t think they have a lot to work with,” he said. “I mean, look at what they did in the Super Bowl. They don’t have the speed. They don’t have the players — I mean, the players that they have, their best players are starting to slow down. You look at McCourty, [Patrick] Chung, they are still smart players and very savvy players, Hightower, but they don’t have the same speed and same explosion. They can’t get there like they have done in the past.”