Why Patrick Surtain is the NFL's Best Corner
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.