Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

Cover-2: View From the Press Box

Cover-2: View From the Press Box
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

(Note: While the usual idea of Cover-2 is to ... well, cover two different subjects, I wanted to go a bit more in-depth with one this week -– the way a former NFL-to-CFL castoff covered a rookie receiver like glue, and how stats don’t always tell the story.)

Who says you never get a second chance to make a first impression? Not Seattle Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who is trying to make a place for himself in the NFL after five seasons in the Canadian Football League. Browner was a Defensive Freshman of the Year at Oregon State in 2003, he came out for the draft as a redshirt sophomore in 2005, but didn’t get picked –- despite his productive play and 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, teams were hesitant to buy in.

Rob Rang of, who wrote Browner up back when he was a draft prospect, remembered that he was a good example of wrong place, wrong time. "In the NFL, there were so many teams at that time going off of zone coverage schemes and things like that, and the only way Brandon Browner was going to be successful against the NFL’s quickest speed receivers is if he was able to get his hands on them," Rang said. "There weren’t many teams running that kind of coverage back then."

Picked up as an undrafted free agent by the Broncos, Browner impressed until he suffered a broken forearm in the preseason. He missed the entire 2005 campaign, and was waived the next year. He spent the next five seasons with the Calgary Stampeders until Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who developed an appreciation for bigger cornerbacks during his nearly two decades in the Packers organization, came calling. Originally a roster churn guy while the Seahawks figured out their cornerback situation, Browner was finally able to stick to the roster, though things were difficult at the beginning.

Abused by Pittsburgh Steelers speedster Mike Wallace in Seattle’s Week 2 blowout loss, Browner recovered to play decently against Larry Fitzgerald in the Seahawks’ first win of the season a week later. However, Browner’s inability to cover Fitzgerald downfield on a deeper sideline route after Fitzgerald had established outside position and turned on the jets was a point of concern –- and something the Falcons would try to exploit. Browner looked positively rickety on the first deep sideline pass to Fitzgerald, a 28-yard play with 8:40 left in the first quarter -– he hesitated to adjust to the route about halfway through, and that was all it took for Fitzgerald to get open. Browner was physical at the snap and adjusted well to Fitzgerald’s first step inside, but he seemed to be expecting Fitzgerald to turn back to the hashmarks, which didn’t happen.

The second quarter touchdown in which Fitzgerald somehow jumped over Browner and Earl Thomas ... well, that was just Larry being Larry, and a similar play to Megatron’s touchdown over three Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. Some guys are simply and obviously uncoverable at times.

I saw an interesting Twitter missive from Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus on Tuesday in which he claimed that Browner was allowing a perfect 158.3 standard quarterback rating (not Total QBR or any other derivative, which gave me pause) on passes thrown to him this season. This obviously countered my own impression, which told me that after the debacles against Wallace and Fitzgerald, Browner actually showed a lot of development when covering Jones. I was more encouraged when I read our own Vince Verhei’s comments about the DYAR of 4 that Jones put up despite his 11 catches for 127 yards in the Seahawks game.

Take it away, Vince:

There's not much to say about [Matt] Ryan, who ranks this high primarily because he had no sacks or interceptions. So let's talk about Julio Jones and how a wide receiver can catch 11 balls for 127 yards and still wind up with just 4 DYAR. First of all, there's the matter of the 17 balls Ryan threw in Jones' direction. That's six incompletions, a hefty sum. Further, four of Jones' receptions were failed plays, including a 3-yard loss on second-and-10 and a 2-yard gain on second-and-20. Jones finished with 10 failed targets, which tied Santonio Holmes of the Jets this week for the most in a game this season. We'll get to Holmes shortly, but for now we'll add that unlike Holmes, Jones had enough big plays (29- and 45-yarders, plus a couple of third-down conversions on other catches) that his day wasn't below replacement level, just below average.

I was able to ask Pete Carroll about it on Monday afternoon, after he’d watched the game tape and reviewed everything. Specifically, I wanted to know if this was any kind of breakout game for Browner, because it sure felt like that up in the press box. "Julio’s really good," Carroll said. "I think I may have mentioned last night that the greatest catch he had was the one that was out of bounds. But he had a terrific game in making himself some space and getting open. Brandon played him very well, was all over him. He played a great game in all of the short stuff and challenged him underneath.

"The one fade route got away from him but other than that, it was a really good matchup. This is the kind of player -– a six-three or six-four player –- that Brandon does match up well with and as his confidence grows and his sense for the game here in the league grows, he’s going to be a big factor I think. I really like what he did. I liked to see the hard, dirty work that he had to do in making those tough tackles and stuff. It wasn’t just one or two; he had a bunch of plays in the game. He’s ready to go nose-to-nose with everybody and he’s going to get better. He’s going to keep improving."

Which was basically what I saw. Going back and reviewing the plays in which Browner was covering Jones, I counted nine receptions for 79 yards and five missed targets. Those 79 yards included the 45-yard sideline route which may have been his best coverage of the day (you can watch the highlight here). Jones’ first two catches of the day included two in which Marcus Trufant was covering him, and there was another later on in which Browner dropped into deep zone, and safety Earl Thomas fell down after coming up to defend a drag route.

The first time Browner was on Jones directly was the first play of the second quarter, when Matt Ryan threw one of several quick passes to his rookie receiver. This was an inside stick route that Jones caught and was tackled immediately on. The Falcons took some heat for those quick passes, but they had to adjust after giving up 13 sacks in the first three games. With some no-huddle sets and more three-step progressions from Ryan, they were able to keep Ryan from being sacked at all. However, they also played into Browner’s primary attribute, which is the ability to close in and make quick tackles on short and intermediate plays.

The catch for a loss of three that Vince discussed came with 7:32 left in the first half. Off the line on the left side, Jones looked as if he was running to outside position, but came back after a few steps. Browner followed him step for step in tight coverage (which he basically played on Jones all day) and made the stop. The play from scrimmage was the one in which Jones got a 28-yard gain on the drag route with Browner playing about 10 yards off, and Thomas coming up to try and make the play. I’m curious if that was a busted assignment, because it certainly looked weird out of the box –- a four-deep when the Falcons are running quick timing?

The two-yard gain on first-and-20 came with 8:50 left in the third quarter. This time, the Falcons tried a little route combo to keep Browner out of the play -– while Jones tried another of his little up-and-back routes, Harry Douglas ran to the sideline from the slot and blocked Browner out of the play (screenshot here). Browner managed to elude Douglas and make the tackle.

On the next play, the Falcons had second-and-18, and Browner flared out into a short zone at the snap instead of hanging with Jones every step. That gave Jones the cushion he needed to bag a nine-yard catch, and played into the "keep it in front of you" concepts both defenses seemed to be playing most of the game. Then, with 7:18 left in the third quarter, the fade route Carroll talked about happened. It seemed clear to me that the Falcons watched Browner’s vulnerability on that deep sideline route to Fitzgerald, and this was the test. On the play, Jones got past Browner and appeared to be in position to make the catch, but Ryan threw the ball in a way that pulled Jones out of bounds. Jones did a great job of getting up on Browner and using a subtle push-off to gain separation at top speed. Browner helped his case as much as he could by maintaining outside position, leaving Ryan with the options of overthrowing or underthrowing his target if he wanted a catch in bounds.

"That was one of his strengths in college," Rang said of Browner’s ability to trail receivers downfield. "Because of his great height and arm length, he understands that the sideline is his friend, and he’s a physical player. So, generally speaking, he was able to use his height and strength to steer receivers to the sideline –- to get them out of bounds or at least significantly decrease the space with which quarterbacks could operate."

And there you have a much better description of what Browner did to Jones on the out of bounds throw.

While Jones’ best catch was the play that went out of bounds, I would argue that Browner’s best coverage of the day came on the first play of the third quarter. The All-22 was added to the NFL Game Rewind version of the game just in time for the end of this article, so ... Yay! I was able to see how the route progressed. This was another example of Jones getting sideline position off the snap, and Browner trailing him all the way downfield. This time, Jones didn’t get a push, and Browner didn’t miscalculate the route speed or direction as he had against Fitzgerald -– he was with Jones all the way. Browner’s misfortune was that Ryan threw an absolutely perfect ball (if you want to see how close the coverage was half a football field away, here it is) right into Jones’ hands, and Browner missed it by that much.

After reviewing the game, I’m glad to see that the view from the press box wasn’t distorted or inaccurate -– and it’s always interesting to see a player the NFL seemed to have cast aside get another shot and make the most of it. Nobody’s going to mistake Brandon Browner for Darrelle Revis anytime soon, but for some players, the little victories become much more over time.


15 comments, Last at 07 Oct 2011, 11:06am

1 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

Any thoughts on the fact that Julio is punished for a 3-yard loss (likely a screen that the defense sniffed out, although I haven't seen the play) that he likely couldn't have done much with? Understand it's probably tough to evaluate WR's because a lot is dependent on where and when the QB delivers them the ball, but seems tough to say Julio had a below average day based partly on play selection and potentially bad passes from QB's on the missed targets.

2 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

I've always wondered if the stats here punish WR's for targets that weren't caught, even if the throw was not really close. If it's a bad throw, then it shouldn't count towards the WR, right? Or are the bad throws taken out, and only catchable balls labeled as targets?

5 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

How can you tell the difference between a bad throw that wasn't close to being catchable because the QB sucks, and a throw that that looks bad because the WR couldn't break away from the DB and get to where he was supposed to?

14 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

I never said it was in the play-by-play. I said you could tell the difference.

Although you could probably partion it out as the QB is responsible for the remainder of (Targets-completions-drops-breakups), the receiver is responsible for drops, and we can argue about who gets faulted for breakups.

3 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

Browner killed it on the screens. Not only did he sniff them out, but he blew around the blocker to get to the WR. The pass was good, but Jones had no chance. This was a great example of where Browners instincts and strength combined for the perfect result. A small corner might have sniffed it out, but might not be able to power through for the tackle.

4 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

Doug, what did you think of Julio Jones?

Some Falcon fans mumble about the price paid to move up to pick him, but he's already assuaged any concerns that he'll be a bust. He's got two 100-yard performances in four games, while Michael Jenkins never had a 100-yard game in seven (yes, seven) seasons. If we can keep Ryan upright and run the ball more effectively, the offense can do some good things. As you might suspect, the main problem on offense is with the line.

Now, about that pass defense...

7 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

I like him a lot. Copied over the Yahoo scouting report I did on him pre-draft. In addition to the Bowe comp, there's a little bit of Greg Jennings there. Maybe Koren Robinson if Koren Robinson hadn't had a crouton for a brain. Not as dynamic as A.J. Green downfield, but tougher in space.

Pros: Has the size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and toughness to be a nightmare after the catch and a dynamic blocker. Thick and muscular player who uses a lethal combination of jukes and stiff-arms to get upfield after catching short passes. Will not go down upon first contact, especially on deep passes where his adversaries are defensive backs – it will take at least one form tackle to take him down when he's going full-speed, and probably more. Will accelerate in intermediate areas and just bowl people over. Surprising second-level burst for such a physical player. Has no fear when it comes to crossing routes in heavy traffic; he'll instigate contact in those situations more often than not. Will make the tough catch with defensive backs draped on him, especially in the end zone. Good downfield blocker. Tough player who has proven an ability to not only play through injury, but play well.

Cons: Jones has always been an inconsistent hands catcher, leading to more drops than his talent should allow. It's an odd trait considering how his hands seem to get better the more he's under threat to take a hit. And though he can impress with his short-area speed, he's not a true downfield burner – he'll have to take a little off and set himself on jump balls – though he could excel in the right kind of vertical offense. Doesn't yet run tight cuts in short areas, but he's improved greatly as a route-runner through his Alabama career. Physical style and injury history would seem to be a worrisome combination against better and stronger defenders at the next level.

Conclusion: Jones would have put up much more prolific numbers in an offense that was more pass-friendly, but he didn't help himself with an inconsistent ability to catch the ball. At the same time, his toughness, determination to make more out of plays after the catch, and willingness to do the little things, added value beyond the numbers. Jones has the pure athleticism to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, and after working out a few technical kinks and adjusting to more complex coverages, his future should be very bright.

NFL Comparison: Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs

10 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

With the current trend, lead by the Pats, of spreading receivers from your base formation and using tall tight ends out on the sidelines, is there going to be more room for a player like Bowner than before?

Take Jermichael Finley as another example, most teams simply don't have a linebacker who can run with him or a defensive back who can deal with his size. Is a guy like Bowner who can play with big receivers or fast tight ends going to be more common, assuming that there are more players like him coming out of the college game?

13 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

It sounds like Browner would make a great Tampa 2 corner. Let him use his size and physicality to press receivers without having to worry about being beat deep.

15 Re: Cover-2: View From the Press Box

Except that he's still struggling with zone coverage as a concept; they really like to use him as a physical underneath guy who can roll up on tight man and redirect the receiver. I do like and agree with the comment that players with physical characteristics like Browner's could see more interest from teams trying to cover uncoverable tight ends. I remember Jimmy Graham making Glover Quin look like a five-year-old a couple weeks ago on a deep touchdown, and thinking that Browner has the height and straight-line speed to handle that very differently.

Teams have been grabbing basketball players to be tight ends for decades; maybe the next out-of-the box thought is to find a hoopster who can play center field 15 yards off the line?