This week, former Patriots safety and current Football Night in America analyst Rodney Harrison talked with PFW associate editor Kevin Fishbain. Harrison broke down the Patriots' secondary and more.
PFW: Looking back at the Jets game, after the first drive the secondary seemed to clamp down. What were they doing to throw Mark Sanchez off?
Harrison: They weren't playing afraid. Earlier in the year, I felt like the young players back there were playing afraid to make a mistake. (On Sunday night), I saw them competing and taking chances. They had extra players in there that aren't used to playing. Starters and veteran players are so concerned with playing well and being in the right position. Sometimes if you put younger players in there without that experience, they just play loose. They're special-teams players or practice-squad players. They're not afraid to make a mistake. They go out there and compete. They were playing a lot more aggressively, sitting on some routes and the Patriots had a pass rush. That pass rush really helped them out because they were getting some pressure on Sanchez. He came out on the first series and hit some balls at (CB Devin) McCourty and I thought they were attacking McCourty, because he had been struggling this year. After that, they put pressure on him and the secondary did a good job of competing.
PFW: People talk about the difficulty for Bill Belichick to bring in a veteran defensive back at midseason because of the complexity of the system. Is the system that difficult for a veteran to learn?
Harrison: When Bill had veteran players like Ty Law and myself we did a lot of different things, disguising and moving around. If you look at it on tape, (this) defense isn't complex. They play some cover-2, man-to-man, cover-4 zones, quarter zones. It's not a complex defense — that's a bunch of bull. A veteran player can come in here and play. If you're a good veteran player, you're not at home. There's not too many people available. If you don't get those players in free agency or in the draft, you have to play with what you have. You don't have great players sitting at home watching TV on Sunday.
PFW: Why is it so hard for teams to find good safeties?
Harrison: The safety position has been taken for granted for such a long time. If you couldn't run, then you were a big hitter. But then if you were a big hitter, you couldn't run. Nowadays, there are a few guys who can do both. A lot of times, cornerbacks are being molded to the safety position, but they can't hit, they can't tackle. They can cover ground. They come in at an early stage learning angles, route combinations, but it's very difficult from a safety position. The great ones have great anticipation. They can tackle, they can tackle in space and they can cover tight ends. These tight ends, (Aaron) Hernandez, (Rob) Gronkowski, they are glorified wide receivers. They are big and they can run. I think the safety position has evolved but it's still a long way to go because it's such a difficult position to play. You're asked to do so much. If they come out in five-WR sets, you have to go from an eighth man in the box safety position, a big hitter, to now having to cover in space. When I first came into the league, you were either a cover-2 safety or an in-the-box safety, where you're making 130 tackles. Nowadays, you have to go out wide and cover Jermichael Finley, and most safeties aren't built to do that.
PFW: We saw Jets S Eric Smith, like many safeties, struggle to cover Rob Gronkowski. What's the best way to defend this new breed of tight ends?
Harrison: You have to jam them at the line of scrimmage. What we used to do is, if there was a really good tight end, our defensive ends or outside linebackers would jam them before they rushed. They'd jam them at the line of scrimmage then they would go rush the quarterback. To me, it comes down to personnel. You've got to have a safety that can cover a tight end. (Troy) Polamalu, I used to cover tight ends, I used to cover wide receivers in the slot. You've got to have the personnel. That's why teams are starting to draft safeties with corner skills. You have to go out wide and cover. Eric Smith is not a bad safety, but he's toast if he tries to stick Jason Witten in the slot. That's not his forte. His forte is being the eighth man in the box trying to get everyone lined up and playing run defense.
PFW: Switching to offense, what did you see different in Tom Brady's performance in the win over the Jets?
Harrison: Tom was very patient and poised in the pocket. The offensive line did a better job. What it comes down to is beating man-to-man coverage. Teams will play man to man because they feel that's the blueprint to beat the Patriots. If you take Darrelle Revis and put him on (Wes) Welker, who's going to defend Gronkowski? If you double-team him, you still have (Deion) Branch, you still have Hernandez. They were getting open, simple as that. It's not a huge scheme or some type of fancy manipulation of the defense. It's players getting open and beating man-to-man coverage. Bill has preached this the last decade and the players did it. That's why Tom had success. He felt comfortable in the pocket; he didn't stare at his receivers, which was evidenced by that touchdown, even if it was ruled out of bounds to Gronkowski. What a great play. Stepping in, stepping out, buying time and having that confidence in his offensive line. He hadn't had that the last few games. He felt under pressure and under duress, that's why he was staring his down his receivers and hurrying up throwing the ball.