You don't need to hold any advanced football degree to know that when Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler and Patrick Chung are allowed to play man-to-man coverage, they are at their best.
All three players like to be physical, so that helps. And man coverage also takes some confusion out of the game for the defender. Less confusion means less thinking. Less thinking means the player can play faster. The faster a player can play, the more they can let their rare athletic abilities show.
One of the problems with playing man coverage is that you have to have at least five players that are capable of playing man coverage against targets of varying sizes and speeds, from big receivers to little scat backs. To play man, you need players that are capable of playing man against all possible targets.
"If you don't feel like you have enough matchups in man coverage, then it's hard to call man coverage," Bill Belichick said last month.
One of the big problems for the Patriots entering Thursday night's game against the Bucs was that in the first four games of the season, they felt they couldn't matchup in one crucial coverage area: Patriots linebackers vs. the opponent's running backs.
The Chiefs had speedsters Kareem Hunt and Akeem Hunt. The Saints had impressive rookie Alvin Kamara. Lamar Miller and D'Onta Foreman both ran sub 4.5 seconds in the 40. And the Panthers had the very quick Christian McCaffrey.
In the first four games, the Patriots had Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and David Harris available to matchup with running backs. None of them can provide straight man coverage of any backs, let alone that group. That's why you saw the Patriots attempt to use safety Jordan Richards at linebacker against the Chiefs. Turns out he wasn't much better, and offered zero resistance to the run, so that experiment was quickly abandoned.
As a result, the Patriots tried to play it safe by playing more zone to cover for the linebackers. We all know the result: the worst defense in the league in yards and points allowed.
So in facing the Bucs, on a short week no less, Matt Patricia and Belichick were faced with a major dilemma: How do we let our secondary play at their best while not exposing the linebackers and the integrity of the rest of the offense?
There were a few subtle tweaks, some good advanced scouting and just some good fortune that enabled the defense to get its groove back in Tampa Bay, and lead — yes, lead — the Patriots to a 19-14 win over the Buccaneers.
Here's how it happened.