What NBC’s ‘Sunday Night Football’ crew is saying ahead of Patriots-Ravens

Rodney Harrison, Cris Collinsworth, and Tony Dungy discussed the Patriots' defense and more.

Former Patriots' defensive back and NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, as well as Cris Collinsworth and Tony Dungey, discussed the Patriots' defense on Wednesday.
Former Patriots defensive back and NBC analyst Rodney Harrison. –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Patriots take on the Ravens Sunday night in a matchup that will put New England’s 8-0 record on the line. In preview of the game, NBC “Sunday Night Football” analysts Tony Dungy, Cris Collinsworth, and Rodney Harrison held a conference call Wednesday to discuss the Patriots’ defense so far this season and how the Ravens should strategize against them.

Thoughts on the Patriots’ defensive performance:

Tony Dungy:  I say we just wait a little bit and slow down and see how they do…Rodney’s kind of mentioned some of the quarterbacks, young quarterbacks they’ve faced, and they’ve certainly just blanketed those guys, but let’s see a little bit. They’re fantastic. Their secondary is great. They have the ability to play different styles. I love a lot of things about them, but I think we need to slow down on the all-time great just to see how this season turns out.

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Rodney Harrison: You look at the level of the competition — and I think that’s what Coach is kind of referring to. The first seven, eight weeks of the season, they really hadn’t played anybody. Now you get into the meat and bones of your schedule, where you have to play Baltimore, Philly, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City with a healthy Patrick Mahomes. That will really tell how great of a defense they truly are. But to put them in an all-time great category after eight weeks, after the garbage schedule they’ve faced, I mean, we could say they’re playing extremely well, but I think the next month of the season will tell what type of defense they truly have.

I can say, since I’ve been around the Patriots, these are the best cornerbacks that they’ve had depth-wise because you look at all their cornerbacks, and they can start anywhere, and it can probably start anywhere in the league. All four of those guys can start.

Cris Collinsworth: The hard thing for me is I don’t know if we’re seeing — I know we’re seeing evolution on offense. I wonder if we’re seeing evolution on defense too and just not realizing it. These two teams are really built around their secondaries. We have seen sort of the pass rushers, the down linemen pass rushers of the Patriots on kind of — they’ll come in and help and then out the door and go play for somebody else when big money calls.

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But pass rushers on this team are really the linebackers, which is unusual. It’s Jamie Collins, Hightower, Kyle Van Noy. Across the back end, they have great players. Gilmore is as good as there is. This Jonathan Jones has been playing his tail off. McCourty can play man coverage. He can play free safety. He can be down in the box. Duron Harmon is more of a back end kind of a guy. J.C. Jackson can play. Jason McCourty can play. So when they want to match up against anybody, they can do that.

How this defense might resemble a “throwback unit” to past Patriots’ defenses:

Harrison: As far as me, as far as probably the resemblance between kind of the present-day Patriots compared to some of the old school guys, I think it’s relatively, you know, basically the same. (Belichick) goes out, and he gets guys that are smart, guys that are unselfish, guys at different points of their career where they can come in and they’re motivated and focused, and he’s not afraid to let guys go. We’ve seen Jamie Collins leave. We’ve seen a ton of other guys leave and want to come back because they want to know football. They want to be part of something special.

It’s the same thing. It’s unselfishness. It’s preparation. It’s working hard. It’s doing your job. It’s the same type of thing. So no matter if it was 2003, when we won, when I won my first Super Bowl, or if it’s 2019 like it is, basically, the principles are the same, the fundamentals are the same. You just have to follow them, and if you don’t follow them, he’ll definitely find somebody that will.

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Harrison’s experience of how players would hold each other “accountable” for penalties:

Patriots defensive back Rodney Harrison celebrates after the defense stopped the Titans on fourth down, their last offensive play of the game. —GLOBE STAFF PHOTO/JIM DAVIS

Harrison: I don’t know how it’s changed, but when I was in the locker room, guys would hold other guys accountable by walking up to them and letting them know, even in film sessions, through the locker room. I would let a guy know, ‘Hey, you’re killing us. We’re third down and ten, and you get a penalty now. All of a sudden, it’s a first down. We have to play smarter.’ It wasn’t just me. It was a ton of guys.

So when you get that type of pressure internally in the locker room – I was looking at Houston today, and Houston had all these false start penalties and Laremy Tunsil, and it just was driving me crazy watching the tape today because it’s like so easy. Just look at the ball, just do the right thing. You don’t have to make mistakes and have penalties, and that’s the one thing that can kill you.

But it was kind of self-patrolled. If you didn’t correct it, then obviously, Coach Belichick would.

Dungy: Rodney, I have to come back to coaching, and I think what we’ve seen is a combination of things. We have owners that are hiring coaches for Xs and Os. I’ve got to put in all these plays. I’ve got to have different schemes. We’ve got to do this. People aren’t coaching fundamentals…If you’re coaching fundamentals, you eliminate a lot of those pre-snap penalties like Rodney talked about, the foolish penalties.

I do not see the New England Patriots making those kinds of mistakes, false start penalties, grabbing jerseys, things like that that you can eliminate. Coach Belichick eliminates those.

Challenges the Patriots’ defense might face this week:

Harrison: The biggest challenge for the Patriots defense is definitely – and Cris, you mentioned it earlier – is dealing with the tight ends. These tight ends are big, they’re athletic, they can block, and they want the football. And he feels very comfortable getting them the football and it doesn’t have to be in a perfect spot.

You get the Patriots linebackers in coverage where they don’t want to be. They want to  move ahead. They want to attack, and I think you can have some success against them.

Collinsworth: Lamar Jackson from the pocket, the one throw that I just love that he makes, he’s really accurate with it, is against the man coverage that Tony was talking about. But those little, I don’t know, I call them lollipop throws. You kind of drop it in over the top against the guy in man coverage, and the guy is running with his back turned or whatever, but he is amazingly accurate with those things and he sees it all the time because of the man coverage we were just talking about.

How the Ravens can power through on Sunday:

Collinsworth: I’ve got to think in coverage they’re going to want to match their tight ends against the linebackers of the Patriots in coverage as much as they can. Now, when those guys are coming forward and coming towards your quarterback, that’s not much fun, but I think that that’s going to be a great matchup if they can get the Patriot linebackers in coverage against those tight ends.

Harrison: To add to that, the one thing I was thinking about [is] how could the Ravens attack the Patriots’ defense? I think the one thing they might want to do is get into a two or three tight end package, which will force the Patriots not to be in their subpackage. When the Patriots are in their subpackage, to me, that’s when they’re at their very best because they’ve got speed, they’ve got all the versatile linebackers. That’s when they create the majority of their turnovers and big plays.

So if I’m the Ravens, I’m taking some of that speed off the field, and I’m coming out in two tight end sets, I-formation, three tight end sets, run the ball, play action pass, and let Lamar Jackson do his thing. But I definitely don’t want to see the Patriots in their subpackage. That’s where they create the most damage.

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