Perry's Mailbag: Belichick can't quit his love of man-to-man defense


Remember back when J.C. Jackson felt as though he wasn't wanted in New England, signed with the Chargers and seemed to leave the Patriots without a true No. 1 corner? The thinking at the time, if you'll recall, was that the Patriots would have to change who they are defensively. Drastically.

No Jackson. No Stephon Gilmore. No Darrelle Revis. No Aqib Talib. Nothing on the roster resembling any of those high-level cover men.

There was no way they'd be able to continue to play man-to-man at a clip that ranked them among the most man-to-man heavy teams in football, which they had been since 2018 . . . Right?

Wrong. Bill Belichick just can't quit man-to-man coverage.

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According to Pro Football Focus, among corners with at least 65 snaps in coverage this year, four of the top 10 in man-to-man percentage reside in New England: Myles Bryant (57.6 percent man, No. 1), Jack Jones (46.9 percent, No. 6), Jonathan Jones (46.9 percent, No. 7) and Jalen Mills (44 percent, No. 9).

In some ways, maybe we should've seen this coming. Not only does Belichick have a history of leaning on man-to-man calls ever since Matt Patricia left New England to become head coach of the Lions. But some of what happened in the draft indicated that the Patriots would continue to do what they do defensively.

The Patriots traded out of the No. 21 pick back in the spring, making a deal with the Chiefs who took Washington corner Trent McDuffie with New England's original first-rounder. That was noteworthy because there were people in the building at One Patriot Place who liked McDuffie quite a bit as a smart, versatile defender on the boundary. But he was viewed as a better fit for a zone-heavy scheme. And Belichick had a type at corner. Even after losing Jackson in free agency, the boss in Foxboro wanted a different type of player.

"We like guys who play man," one member of the Patriots told me.

When the middle rounds rolled around, the Patriots finally bought at corner -- a spot many believed would be where they expended one of their two earliest picks -- by taking Marcus Jones in the third round and Jack Jones in the fourth. Though different types of athletes, both were viewed as competitive man corners with great short-area quickness. And after just a brief period of time, both made an impression on their veteran teammates as having the kind of feet that will allow them to shadow receivers at a high level.

"It's God-given," Devin McCourty said.

"I don't know where Bill finds these guys," Jabrill Peppers told me.

Though Marcus Jones hasn't yet made an impact defensively, Jack Jones came up with a pair of turnovers against the Packers last weekend, including a pick-six where his quick transitions were on display for all to see. (Check out the latest Next Pats podcast for more on Jones and his man-to-man mentality.)

While the Patriots defense is far from locking down opponents this year, they still do reside just inside the top half of the league in a few different passing categories. They're 11th in the league in passing yards allowed per game, 11th in dropback EPA allowed, 13th in yards per attempt allowed and 13th in dropback success rate allowed. Jack Jones and Jonathan Jones have been among PFF's highest-graded corners over the course of the season, helping make up for whatever talent deficit the team was perceived to have at the top of its corner depth chart coming into the season.

That may be enough to encourage Belichick to stick with the man-heavy approach he loves -- even without a proven No. 1 guy.

If you asked me back at the draft? I would've been stunned, to be honest. While talented, he didn't seem like a Patriots fit. He didn't test as an elite athlete, which Belichick typically wants. He had myriad off-the-field incidents to consider. He was extremely slight (171 pounds at the combine) and didn't look like a tackler, which Belichick has said in the past really matters for defensive backs.

But it didn't take long to notice how Jones consistently found the ball. It was apparent in OTAs. By the time we made bold predictions for training camp, I had Jack Jones as one of the team's starters on the outside for Week 1. That didn't necessarily come to fruition. But only because Belichick thought it better to play Jonathan Jones on the outside and insert Bryant in the slot. The Jonathan Jones portion of that decision was prescient; he's been excellent. But getting the team's best three corners on the field simultaneously may mean bumping Jonathan Jones back inside and keeping Jack Jones on the outside opposite Mills whenever he's healthy.

It may be expecting a lot to presume that Jones can keep this going. One reason it might? New England's reliance on man coverage. It's where he seems to be most comfortable. And if he's on the field, he's going to figure out a way to get his hands on footballs. One reason it might not? Tackling.

Bit of an issue, Tom. Certainly room for improvement there. The Packers sought him out at times in the running game and had all kinds of success. They attacked his side of the field with edge runs on three consecutive snaps Sunday, finishing off the drive with a Christian Watson end-around run.

His size is going to limit his ability to be physical in the running game, but it's still early in the season, and because the Patriots did very little tackling this summer, I'd expect he improves with more reps. He'll figure out how to be a more effective tackler, even if he's never elite in that regard. If he can't, Belichick may only rely on him in obvious passing situations (third down, two-minute drill, etc.).

These next few weeks could determine how the Patriots approach the deadline, John. If they can rip off wins in winnable games against the Lions, Browns, Bears and Jets, they should buy. If things go sideways on them, then they could sell. But they should be careful -- and I think they will be -- as to which players they deal, if that's the scenario. Trading away a tackle, for instance, might be playing with fire. As disappointing as Isaiah Wynn has been -- he was replaced by Marcus Cannon late in the Packers game -- do the Patriots want to sap what little depth they have at the tackle position, potentially putting Mac Jones at risk later in the season?

Interested to see if the team looks into a receiver trade in the coming weeks. They took calls on veteran wideouts before the start of the season. The Tyquan Thornton injury impacted the calculus at that spot, but Thornton is on his way back. There's no way -- barring another injury -- that the team can find work for all the players deserving of snaps: DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Lil'Jordan Humphrey and Thornton. They're having trouble figuring out how to get Bourne involved as it is. He'd be an attractive trade chip since his contract is so team-friendly. But would the team really be willing to part with one of its most talented pass-catchers? Situation that bears watching.

The Jamie Collins signing, to me, seems to be a pretty strong statement as to where the Patriots feel things have gone at the linebacker position. It ain't the only sign they aren't thrilled with what they have at the second level. Mack Wilson played just 10 snaps against Green Bay. Raekwon McMillan didn't get a single defensive rep despite being active. (He's dealt with a thumb injury, but it wasn't enough to keep him off the field for special teams work.) Cam McGrone remains on the practice squad.

What was supposed to be a more dynamic linebacker group has quickly turned back into The 250-Pounder Club: Ja'Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai and now maybe Collins? They're all massive bodies. Collins was once a next-level athlete, but at this stage of his career he doesn't bring the same type of explosiveness to the position that someone like Wilson would, in all likelihood...

I don't think the Patriots necessarily are dying to get bigger bodies on the field, but let's consider the following:

No. 1, Jerod Mayo used to tell us when he was a colleague that the old adage at the linebacker spot was you'd rather have a 4.8 guy (in terms of his 40 time) who knows where he's going rather than a 4.5 guy who doesn't. There's so much process, that having a higher football IQ was deemed as more valuable than next-level athleticism. Maybe that's the statement being made by Belichick at the moment. Hard to ignore when Mack Wilson -- whose rep leaving Cleveland was that he may freelance a bit but that was the cost of doing business if you wanted the splash plays he could generate -- has been caught out of position on run plays the last few weeks.

No. 2, the run defense has been rough. To get rolled by Lamar Jackson and that unique running game that Baltimore brings to the table? That's one thing. To give up nearly 6.0 yards per carry in Green Bay? That's not something Belichick is going to be able to live with. If he feels as though getting thumpers on the field trumps the speed brought to the table by Wilson or McMillan? Hard to argue with him for wanting to make a change... Though having Bentley and Tavai on the field as much as the Patriots did couldn't stop the Packers.

No. 3, I go back to the draft and wonder if the Patriots didn't miss an opportunity to significantly improve that position. At the time, director of player personnel Matt Groh told us they viewed McGrone as a 2022 draft pick because he spent 2021 working his way back from injury. They were encouraged by the players they already had added at the position, which helped explain why they passed up the opportunity to draft a 'backer with any of their 10 picks.

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But now they're bringing Collins back into the mix and it's unclear where McGrone, Wilson or McMillan stand moving forward. Hard not to look at what happened in the spring and wonder if the Patriots feel any pangs of regret. They passed on an opportunity to draft Devin Lloyd at No. 21 (taken at No. 27 overall), though he was viewed by many as a Patriots fit. He just won Defensive Rookie of the Month for the Jaguars.

The issue many in the league had with the first-round trade down and selection of Cole Strange wasn't that Strange was a bad player. It was the combination of the value of taking a guard there and the consensus on that particular player, who may have been available in the second or third round.

There are a lot of "ifs" in wondering how things might've gone differently had the Patriots taken Lloyd in the first. If not for the trade down to No. 29, they wouldn't have picked up the extra selection that resulted in them getting Jack Jones in the fourth round. But if we really want to play out this alternate-universe scenario, the Patriots could've had Lloyd at No. 21, Tyquan Thornton at No. 50 and still scooped up Jack Jones in the third round at No. 85 if they liked him there.

That might've meant no Strange and no Marcus Jones. And maybe having both of those players in the fold as they do now allows the Patriots to be willing to live with their linebacker problem. But it's an interesting "what if" for those who want to go back in time and assess based on what we now know.

Hightower is spending a lot of time with his family and loving it, is my understanding.

I think Dr. Davis is probably busy fixing up some feet and/or ankles. But he'd be worth a call, in my opinion. Leave no stone unturned. Push Garrett Gilbert. Get another set of eyes on Mac Jones. No-lose situation.

Let's go rapid fire here on these...

Would love to see it. Spoke to his college position coach Doug Belk about his special athletic traits. Houston head coach Dan Holgerson, who coached Danny Amendola and Wes Welker, certainly believed in Jones as an option offensively. 

I'd anticipate more RPO and more play-action the next time we see Mac Jones. No reason not to. The Patriots are behind only the Saints (also dealing with quarterback injury) in terms of their play-action percentage. Not where you want to be. Especially when you have one of the best rushing attacks in football.

I do. Isaiah Wynn -- who has been limited in practice this week with a hip issue -- was outright replaced by Cannon late in the Packers game. The team relied on a lot of jumbo sets with Cannon on the field as an extra tight end, but the Patriots went a drive with Wynn on the bench and Cannon as the top option at right tackle. Then in overtime, the Patriots called timeout before their final third-down play and had the option to play either Wynn or Cannon on the right side. They went with Cannon. He should be the play moving forward, in my opinion, but we'll see how Belichick sees it come Sunday.

He gives the group something they don't really have. Though we've seen Bourne and Agholor win down the field at times this year, the Patriots see Parker as a true boundary threat with the ability to make them a more explosive offense. Hard to argue based on what he did against the Ravens. They're an abysmal defense this year, but not sure there's another receiver on the roster who can go off for 150 yards on deep balls the way he did that week. A performance like that one forces defenses to account for him as an explosive option.

I think you'll see more 11 personnel with three receivers. That has already been their primary grouping. The Patriots really pivoted away from 12 personnel drastically after a rough Week 1 outing. They brought it back with Cannon as a tight end in Green Bay, and perhaps the Patriots will do the same thing against the Lions if Bailey Zappe is playing. But if Jonnu Smith is down whenever Mac Jones comes back, my assumption is this only becomes an even heavier "11" team.

They should consider it. There's a lot of respect for Myles Bryant in the Patriots locker room. But Jack Jones has the kind of game-changing ability that I think he ought to be treated as one of their top-three corners.

Think you'll see more of those this week, Peter. Why? I think they'll try to expand their RPO package, which could mean a couple of seam shots. Right now, they look like a team that leans on bubble screens to the outside when they go with RPOs. At some point, if they want to keep that part of the quick-hitting passing game, they'll have to diversify. And I believe they will.

Really, really ridiculously good. Only thing is the Patriots may need the No. 1 overall pick to make it happen. Don't think that's in the offing.

Dugger is back! He played in Green Bay. Thornton could be back soon. The Patriots have 21 days from Wednesday to activate him off of injured reserve. He returned to practice this week and could be in uniform as soon as Sunday. 

Humphrey may continue to see significant work if Smith is out for any length of time with his ankle injury. Belichick has been very open in calling Humphrey a receiver-tight end hybrid.

I will say this, though. In 11-personnel groupings in Green Bay, it felt as though the Patriots got a little more comfortable running Bourne out there with Agholor and Parker. If they want playmakers in the passing game out there, things will continue to trend in that direction.

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