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 NFLDraftScout.com, 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.
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.