New England Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner didn’t show up in the box score for his 2014 debut Thursday night against the New York Jets, nor was he officially targeted in coverage. Indeed, his two holding penalties were the only evidence of his participation. The 30-year-old played just 41 of the team’s 87 defensive snaps – 20 in coverage – as he got his feet wet in game action with his new team.
Browner figures to play a much bigger role on Sunday against the Chicago Bears. Their tall receivers Brandon Marshall (6’4”) and Alshon Jeffery (6’3”) present a matchup problem for shorter corners, but Browner can match their size and length. One imagines this is exactly the sort of contest New England had in mind when they signed Browner away from the Seahawks. Thursday’s game doesn’t offer a huge sample of plays to look at, but it can help us project Browner’s usage and performance for the rest of the season.
Patriots fans have debated how Browner would fit into the New England secondary since his acquisition. While the Patriots like to switch things up in coverage based on opponent scouting, the Seahawks famously like to run Cover 3 with their corners in press coverage and then dare offenses to beat it. Browner’s height and mass (220 pounds) but limited straight-line speed (4.63-second 40 at the NFL Combine) worked in Seattle’s system, but might not in defenses that ask Browner to play off coverage, in zone, or in the slot. Between Browner’s attributes and the Patriots’ depth at corner, some speculated that the Patriots might use Browner at strong safety or to cover tight ends.
On Thursday, the Patriots used Browner pretty much the same way the Seahawks did. He lined up outside on all 20 of his coverage snaps, and on 16 of the 20 he lined up in a press look, within a yard of the line of scrimmage. He was in zone coverage on just three snaps. At times the Patriots deployed Browner against the tight end, lining him up against rookie Jace Amaro on five snaps. However, that doesn’t appear to have been a conscious decision considering fellow cornerback Darrelle Revis followed New York’s best receiver, Eric Decker, all around the field, leaving Browner to pick up whoever was on the opposite side. The chart below shows whom Browner matched up against:
|No one (zone)||1|
Nelson and Amaro are bigger (6’5”), slower receivers, and one might assume Browner would have success against them. Yet Graham and Hakim are shorter (both 5’11”) speedsters (4.40-second 40 or quicker) who presumably would be more challenging for Browner to cover. The fact that the Patriots used him against different types of receivers shows that he’s not just a matchup play against taller wideouts.
Browner generally did a good job staying with his assignments Thursday. Browner often uses his size and strength to jam the opposing receiver at the line, disrupting the play’s timing and preventing his man from getting into a route cleanly. Browner has other other skills, however, as seen on this play early in the game in coverage on Graham.
Browner opens his hips up quickly, allowing him to match the speedy Graham stride-for-stride. He anticipates the initial move and maintains position to steer the wideout towards the sideline with a minimum of contact. Between the limited real estate along the sideline and Browner’s five-inch height advantage, there’s no window for quarterback Geno Smith to even attempt a throw.
A play late in the game – again working against Graham – shows Browner in a worse light:
Graham gives a hesitation move partway through his route, and Browner grabs the young receiver’s jersey in an attempt to slow him. Graham’s stumble makes the contact look more severe than it is, but the broadcast closeup shows the kind of hold that’s become a point of emphasis for 2014 officiating:
After the contact, Browner continued running deep, even as Graham turned back towards the line of scrimmage. It looked like the cornerback thought he was in Cover 3 and would have help on the curl route, but the Patriots sent a six-man rush and no underneath defenders were in zone coverage. That disconnect suggests Browner may still be learning some of the defensive calls, or perhaps that there was a communications breakdown with defensive signal-caller Jerod Mayo out.
Browner’s debut was quiet, but Patriots fans can be encouraged by the technique he showed much of Thursday night, as well as the veteran’s length and physicality. They may also be concerned that he will struggle at times with the more stringent penalization of contact in the secondary, and in reacting to changes of direction from quicker players. There’s little doubt that facing Marshall and Jeffery on Sunday will be a worthy test of Browner’s abilities and limitations alike.
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