Sunday, December 28, 2014

Covering Tight Ends, Pressuring the Passer Areas of Focus for Patriots' Defense

Browner was not fined for this hit on Green, perhaps lending credence to his physical and proper play

Getting flagged for a personal foul against San Diego may have been the best thing that's happen to Brandon Browner this season - and what's good for Browner is certainly good for the New England Patriots.

Called for helmet-to-helmet contact with Chargers' tight end Ladarius Green, Browner was incensed and animated in his protest that his devastating hit that left Green prone on the turf with a concussion was a clean hit.  The penalty negated a Devin McCourty interception return for a touchdown and initially brought heavy rain down on the physical corner for the vicious hit in the flat...

...but replays clearly demonstrated that Browner tackled Green with perfect form, never employing his helmet as a weapon and not driving Green to the ground.  The league, which normally looks at all personal fouls during their review of the week that was, refused to levy a fine against Browner, which is customary for helmet-to-helmet contact.

Why is this such a big deal?  Well, because of the league's emphasis on player safety and physical contact beyond the five yard buffer from the line of scrimmage, Browner has been the subject of the officiating crew's angst and New England's Bad Boy poster child.

It goes to figure that with Browner's physical style that he would be flagged more than usual - and, in fact, he leads the team in penalties by a substantial margin - but that one hit that the league refused to fine him for and the replays that show textbook form on the hit may just force the officials to think twice about automatically reaching into their back pocket for their flags.
Ayers is key to covering backs and rushing the quarterback

That should give Browner some level of autonomy and little more leniency from the officials in that they know that he wasn't purposely targeting Green's head and, indeed, provided the aforementioned textbook example of how to absolutely annihilate an opponent legally.

The benefit to the Patriots' defense is obvious, but it's not as if Browner was ever going to change his playing style - and he shouldn't, because despite the high number of penalties incurred by the 6' 4", 220 pound behemoth of a cornerback, his physical presence causes fear and loathing amongst the opposing pass catchers, and that is a wonderful advantage to have.

Browner has been an integral part of an influx of players that have elevated the New England defense to that of an imposing and physical top ten unit statistically, but still with the evil and wrong bend-but-don't-break philosophy that takes years off of Patriots' fans lives - the only socially redeeming factor being that it works.

Browner and company have not allowed a touchdown in the second half of a game since the Indianapolis Colts accomplished the feat seven weeks ago, and have allowed just 12 second half points in the five games played since - surrendering only 78 points total in that span, an average of 15 points per game..

...which is fortunate, since the Patriots' offense has been struggling out of the gate, leaving the defense in some tough spots in the process and facing halftime deficits in three of their last four games.

But while the offense does find it's stride in the second half with balanced play calling, the Patriots' defense has been carrying the team nevertheless - but that doesn't bring much comfort to the feel of the game, as the bend-but-don't-break deal causes much anxiety among the fan base.

There is hope for the future, however, and it starts with covering the opposition's tight end.

While shutdown corner Darrelle Revis practically eliminates one side of the field and Browner brings his physical presence with a safety over the top on the other, opposing teams are using this unit's aggressiveness against them by sending their wide receivers either deep or to the intermediate zone, clearing out traffic to target their tight ends and running backs...

...and while a combination of linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas have neutralized the running backs for the most part, the opposing tight ends have been running wild and, in most cases, are extending drives.

Since the Indianapolis game, opposing tight ends have caught 38 balls from their respective quarterbacks for 467 yards and two touchdowns, as linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower have been unable to keep up with the athletic hybrids, and the safeties are having similar issues.

This is where Browner could chime in.

Last season in Seattle, Browner was benched late in the season after being burned repeatedly on the outside, but coach Pete Carroll still managed to find a niche for the Oregon State product as a double nickle, meaning that Browner would line up as a nickle slot corner and take the tight ends coming off the line, and the results amounted to a complete shutdown of the underneath passing game.

This season, the Patriots are having success with Browner on the outside, his length making up for lack of foot speed, but with a safety over the top, the feeling is that to stop the opposing safety-valve tight end play, New England could take the approach that Carroll took last season.

But Patriots' fans will have to wait to see if that materializes or not, as Browner has been deactivated for Sunday's "controlled scrimmage" with the Bills.

The game means nothing to either team, as Bufrfalo has been eliminated from playoff contention and the Patriots have wrapped up everything but a Super Bowl berth, which means that the teams will probably treat this game like a third preseason game - which in New England's case means working on a few areas of focus and then pulling starters.

But it goes without saying that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head ball coach Bill Belichick will be looking to solve the tight end dilemma, which in turn may help give the other area of concern - the team's inability to get enough pressure on the opposing quarterback - a shot in the arm.

Overall, the Patriots have plenty of talent on defense to carry the team to the Super Bowl, but solving the areas of need in an already stout defense may just ensure it.

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