The true value of having a player like Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson lies in how he forces the opposing team to allocate their defensive resources.
He poses an almost impossible challenge for nearly every cornerback in the NFL, with the possible exception of today’s matchup against Darrelle Revis.
Could Revis handle covering Megatron one-on-one for the entire game?
It’s pretty likely. However, is it worth the gamble of potentially relinquishing that one pivotal, game-changing play? Probably not…
This week, when pondering the perennial question of “How do you defend against Megatron?” the answer isn’t far off.
The Patriots are squaring off against the Lions today, just a week after the Lions faced off against the formidable Cardinals defense—a unit that shares a similar structure with New England’s secondary.
The Cardinals boast a supremely talented cover corner in Patrick Peterson (reminiscent of Revis), a more prominent, more physically imposing corner in Antonio Cromartie (akin to Brandon Browner), a complementary group of safeties proficient in covering the ground, and competitive depth corners.
Despite the apparent on-paper threat that Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush, Eric Ebron, and their cohorts might present, this ensemble has been grappling with scoring as of late.
If Ebron’s progress continues and Bush returns to his prime form, the Lions could be a dormant force poised to detonate.
So, how will the Patriots approach this Lions assembly today? I anticipate a multifaceted strategy, as is customary for the Patriots, but one that may draw heavily from the effective defensive tactics displayed by the Cardinals just a week ago.
Here’s a visual overview of the diverse defensive strategies you’re likely to witness from the Patriots, along with an explanation of the pros and cons inherent in each decision:
Two-man coverage resembles traditional Cover 2 with two safeties deep in the field.
However, the players closer to the line of scrimmage don’t adopt zone coverage.
Instead, they tightly mark each eligible receiver. If all eligible receivers go out into the pattern, there’s no additional support for the defenders in close coverage.
As a defensive strategy, you have support in deep areas on both sides of the field, but it means that your underneath coverage players are potentially left to fend for themselves.
This is a calculated gamble, especially if you believe you can effectively cover Tate, Ebron, or Bush in the lower regions.
However, if they consistently exploit you with catch-and-run plays, the advantage of preventing deep and wide throws might not outweigh the other concessions you make.
Employing Cover 3 offers a beneficial variation, as it guarantees coverage over Megatron’s routes while also creating a semblance of a double-team underneath.
This is achieved by sending low defenders underneath Johnson’s pass routes.
Using Cover 3 from the base defense may be less appealing because it strains the seam defenders (the area where Tate often operates), and the coverage players designated for that role might be less agile linebackers.
However, in sub-packages like nickel or dime defense, the defensive backs who step into the game usually take on those seam responsibilities.
This means they should have the speed to cover the underneath regions of Megatron’s wide routes, especially when there’s no immediate run threat.
Below is an excellent illustration of a defensive back effectively covering the flat in a Cover 3 situation underneath a Johnson route, coming very close to making an interception return for a touchdown.
Cover 3 can be a practical choice for handling Johnson, as long as you’re not consistently exploited in the seams (or slot).
DOUBLE MEGATRON; LOW ‘RAT’
Man-to-man defenses, which trade deep-field safety support for a dedicated double coverage on a specific player (often Megatron), still retain the option to employ a lone assisting player.
In the instance described below, this role is taken up by a defender who drops back from the defensive line, often referred to as the low help zone player or ‘Rat.’
In the example provided, you can observe the coordination between the two defensive backs as they work together to double or ‘slice’ all routes in and out of Megatron’s area, effectively removing him as an option for Matthew Stafford.
The challenge then lies in pressuring the quarterback before inside intermediate routes develop to a depth that the Rat cannot realistically reach in time.
Here’s an instance where Johnson is effectively neutralized, but Tate manages to break free later in the play on a deep over route, with Cromartie maintaining outside leverage.
Although this pass ultimately resulted in an incompletion due to pressure from the rush, you can discern the potential vulnerability if the pocket had been extended for another second.
The Patriots will likely incorporate this type of coverage against Detroit, but its frequency will hinge on their ability to generate pressure on Stafford using only four rushers.
Given the challenges faced by the Detroit offensive line this season, this defensive scheme will likely be a significant component of the Patriot strategy.
RED ZONE: DOUBLE 81 & 15
The ultimate and pivotal decisions occur in the red zone.
The Cardinals succeeded by employing double coverage on both Johnson and Tate in this area.
Implementing two doubles indicates a depletion of available help defenders, which implies a level of confidence in the rest of your defense’s ability to prevail in one-on-one matchups consistently, whether it be against the tight ends (Ebron or Fauria) or potentially a rejuvenated and more impactful Reggie Bush.
If Bush can return to his former self, this coverage strategy becomes less favorable.
Additionally, if either of the tight ends emerges victorious in their one-on-one matchups, it provides further justification to avoid over-reliance on this approach.
However, if Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower can secure victories in their coverages, this defensive scheme could pose significant challenges for the Lions in the red zone.
The outcomes of these individual matchups within the scoring area may ultimately determine the fate of the Patriots’ defense today.
While it’s possible to slow down the Lions, the Patriots must acknowledge that Detroit’s offense possesses the potential to explode at any moment due to their deep talent pool.
Anticipate a varied coverage strategy from New England, akin to what was witnessed last week in Arizona, aimed at preventing the Lions from hitting their stride in scoring for at least another week.