When is a corner who's playing safety not really a safety and still more of a corner? Last night, apparently.
During Friday's preseason game between the Eagles and Patriots, coach Bill Belichick had both Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan -- normally corners -- lined up in the deep part of the field where a safety might normally reside. Arrington started the game next to safety Devin McCourty.
But Belichick explained in a conference call on Saturday that even while Ryan and Arrington may have inhabited the space of a safety when they were one of four defensive backs on the field, they were still really acting as corners asked to defend tight ends in the middle of the field.
"The Eagles were in multiple-receiver sets the majority of the game," Belichick began. "There were some plays where they were in two tight ends and two wide receivers, but even in those situations a lot of the times the tight end was a very good receiver, more of a pass-receiving tight end. A lot of their two-tight-end formations really played like three receivers and one tight end. Even their three-receiver sets kind of played like four receivers because they still had a good tight end in there.
"That inside position that Logan and Kyle played, I would say relates more to the nickel position that they play in sub defense than it does to the safety position in a regular defense against a two-receiver set. I'm not saying that there isn't some application of both, but because it's a multiple-receiver team that nickel position, the slot guy, could either be on that receiver or he could be playing some type of zone coverage more like a safety. It's against that type of personnel group that we've done it; a lot of other teams in the league do it too."
With players like Arrington and Ryan lined up as safeties, it allowed the Patriots to use four defensive backs with three carrying the skill sets of corners.
"It's not really nickel [defense], but it's not really your regular defense, it's a little bit of a hybrid there to try to match up against the multiple receivers that that offense has on the field.
"I think they've both done a good job with it. Logan's played some safety for us in the past, so has Kyle. They’ve both played that position -- that fourth defensive back. It's not really anything that's that new to them. It definitely has a lot of carryover for them from when we are in our nickel defense and they play in the slot."
Against the Eagles it appeared as though both Arrington and Ryan dropped down into more of a traditional nickel (or "slot" or "star") defensive back role in sub defenses with more than four defensive backs. New England's willingness to use both players on different parts of the field and in different ways speaks to their versatility as defenders, but also to variable combinations those skill sets provide Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia when going up against a team with good receiving tight ends.