Why Patrick Surtain is the NFL's Best Corner

Denver Broncos CB Patrick Surtain
Denver Broncos CB Patrick Surtain
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 5 - Patrick Surtain II is the best cornerback in the NFL right now. No caveats, no qualifiers, no additional clauses: nobody is playing the position better than Surtain.

Sunday's game against the Raiders was the perfect stage for Surtain to prove that. Davante Adams is still the best receiver in the league and the ultimate test for any cornerback. Moreover, Adams has played outside a lot this season because many of the Raiders' other skill players work best from the inside. The Broncos trusted Surtain to handle Adams one-on-one on the outside and he paid them back with a tremendous showing.

Adams only "got" Surtain twice throughout the game, both times on back-shoulder balls. Adams was the best back-shoulder receiver in the NFL with Aaron Rodgers and has already rekindled his connection with Derek Carr in order to maintain that title. There's no shame in giving up a couple of passes, neither of them explosive, to the best receiver in the NFL on his favorite route. That was all Surtain allowed Adams to have all day. Any other time the two were matched up—which was often considering Surtain followed him everywhere but in the slot—Surtain slammed the window shut.

Coming out of Alabama two years ago, Surtain's calling card was press coverage. His long arms, light feet, and aggressive mindset made him a bully at the line of scrimmage. Surtain got to test those skills out a bit versus Adams.

Surtain (top) opens the rep with good hand placement. A lot of cornerbacks, especially younger ones, can be prone to lunging or leaving their feet, thinking that hitting the receiver is more important than simply staying in front of him. Surtain is better than that. He two-hand strikes without leaving his feet or leaning over his toes to let Adams knock him off balance. Adams never gets the chance to create space off the line of scrimmage, making it easy for Surtain and his Go-Go Gadget arms to break up the pass over Adams' back.

Surtain got the best of Adams in press on this late-game rep as well. On third-and-4, the Raiders iso'd Adams to the left side against Surtain. Rather than using a two-hand strike like in the last clip, Surtain keeps his arms free, not wanting to force anything too hastily with only a few yards to work with. After letting Adams release outside, Surtain is quick to hop on his high horse when Adams puts his head down to get vertical. That would be a death sentence for most cornerbacks against Adams considering how instantly he can snap his routes back to the quarterback. Surtain, however, comes to a halt right away and explodes back to the catch point. Adams hauls it in, but Surtain is right there to make the tackle short of the sticks, forcing the Raiders to kick a field goal to go up 25-16 rather than giving them another chance at the end zone.

While press coverage is Surtain's speciality, it's far from his only strength. Surtain excels in off coverage, man or zone. Surtain's instincts, patience, and light feet are second to none at the position, so much so that it feels like he is somehow a half-step ahead of the receiver on most plays. Showing that kind of coverage stickiness versus anyone is impressive, but doing it against a future Hall of Famer as a second-year player is rare.

Adams (bottom) is trying to threaten Surtain with a corner route before snapping back inside for the curl, but Surtain never bites. Surtain stays on his toes and plays with light, measured steps. He never concedes more ground than is necessary with any one step, a common theme throughout his film dating back to his days at Alabama. Since Surtain does not give up any unnecessary space and is light on his toes, driving back down to knock the ball away is a piece of cake.

Surtain's patience and feathery footwork paid off against a pair of double moves Adams tried to catch him with. Adams ran two separate double moves—one out-and-up, one hitch-and-go—but Surtain never let him get over the top.

Adams is in a reduced split to the top of the screen with Surtain lined up across from him. It's common for the receiver in a reduced split to run a 12-yard out because of the space the split opens up near the sideline. The Raiders run that route, but they know the Broncos know they run that route, so they call this double move off of that route to try and get Surtain driving downhill. As usual, Surtain doesn't bite. Surtain can feel Adams throttle himself down and stay high out of the break rather than take off to the sideline. Most corners would still want to drive on the out route, but Surtain doesn't commit, giving him a much easier time reacting to Adams' second move to get vertical.

Adams (bottom) tried to get Surtain later with a hitch-and-go, but again, no dice. As Adams stutters to sell the hitch route, Surtain's feet remain calm. Surtain stops and prepares to drive on the hitch, but he never actually gives any ground. He knows it's better to keep a roof over Adams, and he knows he has the athleticism to close the short distance if Adams is actually running the hitch route. The moment Adams gets vertical again, Surtain latches right into Adams' hip and squeezes him into the sideline while getting his head around for the ball.

Every clip in here is a testament not only to Surtain's film study and instincts, but what his athleticism allows him to get away with. Many cornerbacks are more impatient than Surtain, not because they're all stupid or antsy, but because they cannot move and recover the way he does. Few cornerbacks are nearly as light on their feet or explosive out of breaks as Surtain, and Surtain does it as a 6-foot-2, 208-pounder with a 90th-percentile wingspan. Surtain's build and athleticism affords him a margin of error that other cornerbacks do not have, and he already has all the savvy and consistency to push that advantage to the maximum every snap.

If Surtain can put all of that on display versus Adams, he can do it against anyone. There is not a receiver in the NFL who can get the best of Surtain for four quarters the way he is playing right now.


14 comments, Last at 10 Oct 2022, 7:27pm

#1 by Theo // Oct 05, 2022 - 1:15pm

You know you are getting old when you know his father was one of the best players in NFL Street. 

Points: 0

#3 by BroncFan07 // Oct 05, 2022 - 1:32pm

You know you're getting old when, the moment he was drafted, you said "Hey, I saw his dad play against Denver at Mile High."

Also, it's interesting that right now we're getting a column saying Surtain is the best CB in the league while Justin Fields is not allowed to throw the ball unless all other options have been exhausted.

Points: 0

#7 by Drunken5yearold // Oct 05, 2022 - 7:38pm

I must admit, I thought the Broncos were crazy for passing on Fields for a CB. Of course, that assumed that Fields was a top-tier QB prospect. Taking Surtain and trading for a veteran QA might have worked - if they had gotten Rodgers. I don't think Wilson is going to work out in Denver and I think they're really going to regret trading for and signing him to a monster deal.

Points: 0

#11 by Chuckc // Oct 06, 2022 - 9:51am

You know you're getting old when you see Assante Samuel make a play and think "I can't believe he's still in the league."

Points: 0

#2 by Theo // Oct 05, 2022 - 1:29pm

He has flawless footwork and perfect technique. This means he doesnt rely solely on his speed and agility. 

This breakdown was excellent.

All these routes were covered by Surtain like an instruction video. 

Points: 0

#4 by Pen // Oct 05, 2022 - 2:47pm

And you know you're getting old when the moment DK was drafted you said, "That pass to Terry vs the Redskins shoulda been called incomplete!"

Points: 0

#5 by Bill96744 // Oct 05, 2022 - 4:15pm

I wonder if we are so impressed by athealets, as we should be, that we ascribe some of their performance to "instinct" as short hand for "how did they ever do that?"

. I think not. No football moves are instintive. Practice, effort, dedication to the task, intelligence in diagnosing the play, perseverence, etc. Yesl atheletes, like ballet dancers and muscians have some standout physical attributes.

But, practice, practice, practice.

Points: 0

#6 by DisplacedPackerFan // Oct 05, 2022 - 6:02pm

Yep, even the "lazy" pros practice, or at the very least practiced at some point in the past, way more than most people think. Likely way more than most people have worked at anything in their lives. Pro sports now are too competitive and difficult for anyone to be there on pure talent alone.

So I agree with what you said. This being Football Outsiders though, I will nitpick and say a few football moves are instinctive. Reaching for or trying to block a flying object might be instinctive and that can be good enough for defense. Catching is learned though. Running, like walking, while technically a learned behavior in the clinical sense is still a pretty instinctive thing for humans too (and human efficiency at running is one of our animal super powers when compared to most other animals, if dwarfed by the relative strength of our intellect compared to other animals).

Of course I also feel instinct is mostly just subconscious pattern matching based on learned experiences. Some people who are better at cross disciplinary thinking may have an advantage in the instincts "intangible" because they can use a wider range of things from their learned experience to pattern match against to come to a rapid decision. "Trusting your instincts" is also something you have to learn to do in a football sense. You have to learn to react to that instinct without questioning it. You also have to learn to just do what you are trained to do without questioning it. That is all part of knowing the extreme limits of your physical abilities too so that you can move or contort in ways you never have before when reacting to novel stimulus.

Yes some people absolutely have more natural skill at all of that than others do too. Same with other physical athletic traits. As you say we don't get to marvel at the physical (and mental) abilities of humans if that human doesn't practice, practice, practice.

Points: 0

#8 by DocPossum // Oct 05, 2022 - 8:22pm

I agree though I think there are pros who are able to retrain their instincts more effectively and faster. That in itself is a skill.

An example from another position. Lots of toolsy QBs with strong arms fail. Sure, some might not practice enough, but I think a lot of them do practice a lot. They just cannot quickly adjust to changing circumstances. If they need to change their mechanics for better accuracy, they have problems because they can’t train their body to do it a different way. If they have to master a more complex offense, they can’t develop the instincts within that offense fast enough. 

Points: 0

#10 by Raiderjoe // Oct 06, 2022 - 6:51am

Yes. P. Surtain good. Raiders still overcame him to win hame. Willl do so again later in yera.  Surtain willl help win Raiders win division by doing goood vs Cgargers and cheigs.

Points: 0

#12 by alex.michel // Oct 06, 2022 - 10:33am

I just looked up Adams's stats for this game, and was surprised to see that Adams had 9 catches on 13 targets for 101 yards in this game.  He performed better against Denver than against Tennessee (5 catches on 10 targets for 36 yards and a TD) or Arizona (2 catches on 7 targets for 12 yards and a TD).  

What am I missing?  Were some of Adam's catches in the Denver game when someone other than Surtain was covering him?  

I love this article and agree with all the excellent analysis.  And I'm excited about it because I have the Denver defense!  I'm just interested in hearing how this analysis reconciles with Adams's good overall stats in this game.   

You say that Adams only "got" Surtain twice.  Does that mean Adams was 2 for 6 against Surtain and 7 for 7 against other defenders?  Or what?  

Thank you for anything you can clarify here!

Points: 0

#13 by Derrik Klassen // Oct 07, 2022 - 1:08pm

Yes, most of Adams' production was away from Surtain. Adams had a couple catches from the slot in empty (DEN didn't ask Surtain to follow him to the slot very much). They also regularly ran Adams on immediate underneath routes so Surtain ended up passing him off to the next defender. Surtain only really gave up the two backshoulders and the third down hitch route in the red zone, but since he made that tackle before the sticks, I wouldn't classify that as Surtain being beat. 

Points: 0

#14 by ImNewAroundThe… // Oct 10, 2022 - 7:27pm

Good athlete, technically sound, had good matchups, no suprises. 

Points: 0

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