Bradley Fletcher, the newest member of the New England Patriots, arrives after a rough 2014 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. However, after losing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner the Patriots saw enough to offer Fletcher a one-year contract with a maximum value of $2.5M.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), no cornerback surrendered more yards in coverage* than Bradley Fletcher’s 1,072, and his nine touchdowns allowed were second most in the league. His struggles played a major part in the Eagles yielding the second-most passing yards and fourth-most passing touchdowns in the NFL.
Big plays proved problematic for the Eagles all season, as their defense allowed an NFL-most 40 pass plays of at least 25 yards. PFF attributed 13 of those plays to Fletcher’s coverage, and they account for more than half of the touchdowns (five) and yards (549) he allowed in 2014. A look at the film shows what went wrong on these plays, and whether the Patriots should expect similar problems with Fletcher in 2015.
An Unlucky Thirteen
First, let’s look at the receivers who beat Fletcher on the 13 big plays:
This is a quality group: Jackson, Nelson, Bryant, and Hopkins ranked in the NFL’s top 13 in receiving yards, and Fitzgerald is an eight-time Pro Bowler.
An Unfortunate Streak
Eight of the 13 big plays Fletcher allowed came on streak routes up the sideline, six of which featured the 28-year-old corner in press man coverage, where he has the option to jam the wideout at the line before turning and running. All three of Bryant’s long catches involved this look, as Fletcher just doesn’t have the strength to jam the 6’2”, 220-pound receiver, nor the deep speed to recover once beaten downfield. It was a similar story on both of Nelson’s receptions.
Fletcher (#24) doesn’t get a jam on Nelson (#87) at the line but stays with him stride-for-stride downfield. A perfectly timed push-off and a beautiful throw away from the defender combine to spring Nelson for the touchdown. Fletcher could have further disrupted the route at the line, and perhaps he looked back a bit too soon and lost the receiver. But it’s tough to fault him too much as Nelson is a difficult assignment. The Eagles were playing one high safety, as they did on all the streaks that beat Fletcher, so no help came on this route: the cornerback was effectively on an island.
The breakdown above was in press man coverage, but it didn’t always help Fletcher to give more cushion. Jackson managed to blow past Fletcher on a streak route even with the cornerback playing off-man coverage.
Jackson (#11) just runs straight downfield, while Fletcher backpedals, bails, and tries to run with his former Eagles teammate. However the wideout is just too fast, easily creating separation, and the throw drops in for a 55-yard gain.
Slanted and Enchanted
On 3rd and 10 on their own 20-yard line, Arizona’s Fitzgerald (#11) lines up in a stack on the offensive right with Ted Ginn Jr. (#19) just inside him. Ginn fires out while Fitzgerald runs a slant behind. This play should be familiar to Patriots fans, as it’s the route concept Seattle ran on the Malcolm Butler interception that decided the Super Bowl. Fletcher doesn’t drive on the slant as aggressively as Butler did, and Fitzgerald catches the pass easily. Ginn walls off safety Malcolm Jenkins (#27) and Fletcher takes a poor angle, springing Fitzgerald open to the end zone. Fletcher deserves plenty of blame for the poor tackling attempt, but a defensive scheme that had no one deep is the reason that missed tackle went for an 80-yard touchdown rather than a more modest catch-and-run.
The long pass plays to Hopkins and Wright listed in the above table used concepts similar to the one shown above, though on those plays Philadelphia had a deep safety ‒ resulting in big gains, but not long touchdowns. Fletcher needs to do a better job recognizing this route combination and closing on it to limit the large gains.
Scheme or Talent?
Philadelphia ran a lot of single-high safety and Cover 0 while blitzing in 2014, which left their cornerbacks vulnerable to streak routes, especially against top receivers like Nelson, Jackson, and Bryant. New Patriots CB Bradley Fletcher wasn’t up to the task of covering those players one-on-one. It’s not hard to imagine that, with better matchups and more safety help, he could bounce back and contribute.
Devin McCourty is a free safety of a higher caliber than any Fletcher has played with so far in his career. That still leaves two issues with the fit in New England: First, the Patriots ran a ton of one-high safety last year with their cornerbacks pressing on the outside, and second, with the departures of CBs Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the Patriots don’t have an obvious candidate to match up on opposing top receivers. Fletcher might be a useful piece, but when it comes to their 2015 secondary, the Patriots are far from completing the puzzle.
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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.
Where noted, premium content courtesy Pro Football Focus (*). All video and images courtesy NFL Game Rewind.