The New England Patriots have faced a number of the NFL’s top receivers this year, such as A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, and Calvin Johnson. Using offseason signees Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the defense has employed different tactics and combinations to slow down these pass-catching weapons.
There are number one receivers, and then there are Number One Receivers. Every team has a player that leads their team in receiving yards, but not every team has a dynamic talent that makes defensive coordinators wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. The platonic ideal of a No. 1 receiver stands 6’3” or taller, is powerful enough to break through press coverage, has the speed to outrun defensive backs, and pairs his physical gifts with enough skill and nuance to juke experienced corners out of their socks.
The Patriots have faced plenty of terrific talents this year, but three opposing wideouts best typify the No. 1 receiver designation: A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals, Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos, and Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions. While the Patriots won the contests against each of these teams handily, the game-within-the-game of defending these elite threats bears closer examination.
Week 5 – A.J. Green
Green topped 1,000 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in each of his first three seasons, including 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. He’s a bit off that pace in 2014, having missed four games with injuries, but is still a force to be reckoned with. The Patriots had a simple plan for dealing with the talented 26-year-old: put him on Revis Island. On seven of the nine plays where the ball went Green’s way (two wiped out by penalty), #24 was in coverage. The two exceptions were a zero-yard completion against zone coverage, and a 17-yard touchdown over Logan Ryan when Revis left the game briefly because of a minor injury.
|Revis||5||3||64||Drew one holding penalty, one fumble|
The play that best showed Revis’ coverage skills was this first-quarter incompletion:
Green runs a double-move, faking like he’s running a short hitch before bursting deep. But Revis isn’t fooled, mirroring Green’s motions and staying ahead of the receiver. Quarterback Andy Dalton sails a throw far over Revis and Green, and a good thing for Cincinnati – a throw to Green in stride is likely intercepted.
Green’s biggest gain was a 35-yarder in the third quarter:
The Bengals align in a somewhat bunched formation, and Revis plays off to avoid getting rubbed off by combination routes. He picks Green up in space, without the opportunity to re-route him toward the sideline where he can limit the receiver’s options. Green gets a step on Revis and Dalton does a great job “throwing the receiver open,” putting the ball to the outside where only Green can catch it.
Green’s overall line – five catches on eight targets for 81 yards and a touchdown – looks solid, but Revis also forced him to fumble, and 62 of his yards and the touchdown came in the second half when Cincinnati was trailing big. It wasn’t perfect, but Revis showed he could still lock down a “true No. 1” receiver like Green.
Week 9 – Demaryius Thomas
Through 11 weeks, the 6’3”, 229-pound Thomas leads the NFL with 1,192 receiving yards. The former first-rounder had at least 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012 and 2013, establishing himself as a No. 1 receiver and Peyton Manning’s favorite target. While the Patriots left Revis alone on Green, they mixed coverages against Thomas. Of Thomas’ 12 targets (11 official), he lined up against Revis four times, Brandon Browner seven times, and Patrick Chung once. The Patriots played twice as much man (eight of Thomas’ targets) as zone (the other four). Early in the game, Browner was on Thomas a lot, but after the Broncos switched to a two-tight-end set late in the game, Browner mostly saw tight end Julius Thomas, with Revis seeing a lot of Demaryius.
|Browner||4||2||29||Drew one pass interference penalty|
The Advantages of Wingspan
Browner made his mark early, breaking up this first-quarter pass:
The back-shoulder throw is almost impossible to defend, but most cornerbacks aren’t 6’4” with a 6’8” wingspan. Thomas gets an outside release on Browner, and the corner can’t look back for the ball without losing sight of the receiver. Browner plays Thomas’ hands and swats the ball away anyway, forcing a punt.
The Help Came Too Late
Browner doesn’t have great foot speed, so the Patriots often shade free safety Devin McCourty to his side, providing help deep against speedy receivers like Thomas. On this play, Manning draws the safety help away from Browner, opening things up for a big gain:
McCourty is in deep centerfield, 14 yards deep and between the hash marks, but when Manning fakes to the offensive right, McCourty moves in that direction, away from Browner’s side. Thomas and the inside receiver cross paths, creating a “rub” action where Browner has to flow around the crossing receiver and loses tight coverage. The throw is perfectly timed to hit the seam route before McCourty can close on it. Later Manning hits Thomas for 41 yards on a similar play against zone coverage. When Browner matches up against star receivers, McCourty needs to stay disciplined, or big plays can result.
Thomas’ statistical line of seven catches for 127 yards shows that he had some big plays, but like Green, much of the production was late – Thomas caught his last four targets for 83 yards after Denver trailed by 20. Browner, Revis, and company kept him out of the end zone and Rob Ninkovich picked off a pass headed his way. The pass defense could not stop Thomas entirely but they limited him enough to make things difficult.
Week 12 – Calvin Johnson
“Megatron” needs little introduction; the former second-overall draft pick set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards in 2012. The three-time Associated Press First-Team All-Pro is one of the game’s most recognizable stars. The Patriots had a relatively simple plan against the 6’5” Johnson: put Browner on him and give safety help where possible. The 29-year-old was targeted 11 times, and on 10 of those plays Browner lined up across from him.
|Browner||7||3||46||Drew one pass interference penalty|
From the Stack to the Corner
Johnson’s most successful play was a 22-yard-corner route against Browner:
The Lions deploy Johnson in a stack, creating traffic in front of Browner that prevents him from getting a solid jam at the line of scrimmage. Johnson gets some vertical separation from the slower Browner. There is safety help to the middle but Johnson’s corner route angles away, to the sideline. Quarterback Matthew Stafford makes a great throw and Megatron hauls in a terrific diving catch. Despite the stack, Johnson winning on the route, and a throw that is away from safety help, it still takes a perfect throw and catch to beat Browner.
Long Arms Are Strong Arms
The play below shows what happens when the offense’s execution is less than perfect:
Johnson splits out close to the formation right (off-screen from where the clip starts) and runs a shallow cross. Browner has to navigate traffic in the middle of the field and Johnson gets a step on him. But Stafford’s throw is a little behind, not so much that Megatron can’t corral it, but just enough to let Browner close the distance. He reaches out with his long arms and punches the ball out before Johnson can secure the reception. It’s not textbook blanket coverage but the play shows how Browner’s length gives him much more margin for error than a typical corner.
The Patriots flummoxed the Detroit pass attack all day, with Stafford completing less than 40% of his passes, and the work Browner and company did on Megatron was a big piece of the puzzle.
Aqib Talib, the Patriots’ top corner in 2012 and 2013, suffered injuries in New England’s playoff losses both seasons, and his absence exposed a Patriots weakness: they didn’t have another option who could physically match up to the top receivers. The contests with Green, Thomas, and Johnson in 2014 show the Patriots now have two players who can stand toe-to-toe with elite pass-catchers. The Patriots overhauled the defensive secondary in the offseason, and with the additions of Revis and Browner they now boast one of the top units in the league.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.