Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Monday, June 7, 2010
Chung's development a key for Patriots

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Throughout the New England Patriots' organized team activity Monday, safety Patrick Chung stood out from his teammates.

While offensive players wore white jerseys and defensive players donned blue, Chung found himself in a red noncontact jersey given to those recovering from a physical ailment. Preferring to avoid specifics, he joked that he was making a fashion statement.

So it wasn't hard to spot Chung on the field, and watching him brought to the forefront one of the team's more pertinent questions: Who starts alongside Brandon Meriweather?

Chung received the bulk of the work Monday, and he was darting all across the field as the defense focused on sub packages (five and six defensive backs). His expanded work might have been tied to veteran Brandon McGowan not being present.

On one play during 11-on-11 work, Chung lined up about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. As quarterback Tom Brady barked the snap count, Chung charged forward to put himself in position to blitz off the left side. But at the last moment, he peeled back and covered veteran receiver Torry Holt in the slot, with the ball going elsewhere.

On another play, Chung lined up in the slot across from receiver Matthew Slater, following him in motion across the formation. Then Slater ran a crossing route, and Chung had solid coverage, forcing the throw to another area of the field.

Later in the drill, Chung was in the deep third of the field next to Meriweather, reacting to the pass routes unfolding in front of him. He broke on a pass in his area to receiver Brandon Tate but was a bit late, clapping his hands together in frustration as Tate made the catch.

That sequence of plays seemed to be a snapshot of the type of versatility Chung -- the team's top draft choice from 2009 -- could bring to the defense.

Blitzer. Slot corner. Deep safety.

At Oregon, Chung was known for his ability to play a variety of roles. Now in his second year with the Patriots, he looks more confident in the team's system and ready to build on a rookie season in which he played approximately 20 percent of the team's defensive snaps (mostly in sub packages).

"Versatility keeps you in this [league] for a long time," said Chung, who was selected with the 34th overall pick that the Patriots acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs in a trade for quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel. "Whatever Coach needs to me to do, whether it's cover, blitz, tackle, be in the box. Whatever he needs me to do, I'll do it."

As the Patriots' safety competition unfolds in training camp, one important aspect is which player best complements Meriweather, who is best in a center-field type of role where his instincts and ball skills can produce big results (he tied for the team high with five interceptions last season).

Chung's ability to play a myriad of roles would seem to benefit him. At 5-foot-11, 212 pounds, he brings solid size to the position along with corner-like quickness.

Six-year veteran James Sanders (5-10, 210) seems best suited as more of a traditional free safety, which might not make him the best pairing with Meriweather.

Meanwhile, McGowan (5-11, 210) is sturdy and has proved to be a nice matchup against productive tight ends, but it's hard to imagine him covering receivers such as Holt and Slater, like Chung did Monday.

That's why the progress of Chung, who turns 23 in August, will be important to a Patriots defense that is seeking an injection of playmaking.

"You get a lot more experience over one year," he said. "I'm working harder, I'm in the playbook, and I know the terminology and things that are going on, so now I just have to apply it on the field. If you know what you're doing, you can play fast. If you're not decisive, then you're going to be out there fidgety."

That's one of the biggest lessons Chung is taking from a rookie season in which he played all 16 games, had one start (versus the Colts) and was fourth on the team with 13 special teams tackles. Chung said it's important to avoid being tense on the field, and he believes the best way to do that is by knowing the playbook cold.

Reflecting on the knowledge he's gained over the past year, Chung laughed.

"I didn't know anything last year. It's a big, big jump," he said. "Coach [Bill] Belichick has been meeting with me, getting a lot of filmwork in."

Whether it results in an increased role on defense will be an important storyline to follow.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.