RICHMOND, Va. -- The NFL made aggressive play in the secondary a point of emphasis this offseason, and perhaps coincidentally, the New England Patriots did, too. Now the question is: How much might those two efforts come into direct conflict this season?
The league is asking its referees to strictly enforce illegal contact and defensive holding rules this year in an effort to cut down on what it perceives as defenders getting too touchy-feely with receivers in recent years. It’s the so-called "Legion of Boom" rule, named in honor of the Seattle secondary that helped lead the Seahawks to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title last season thanks in part to a hands-on style of pass coverage that openly mocked the notion that receivers can’t be legally touched once they’re five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Where the Patriots come into the story is at cornerback, where they made two headline moves this year in free agency, signing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, two Pro Bowl-level talents who use their size and physicality to great effect in pass coverage. Oh, and did we mention that Browner played his first three NFL seasons in Seattle and was a card-carrying member of the LOB that seemingly inspired the league’s new crackdown on contact downfield?
You can see where this might be headed: a significantly improved pass defense in New England, but at the expense of a flurry of penalty flags, especially early in the season as the officials attempt to establish the new normal in terms of allowable contact.
"We want to be physical in the secondary and we want to play physical out there, there’s no doubt about it," said Revis, the former Jets and Bucs cornerback who joined New England in March, shortly after the Patriots lost their No. 1 corner, Aqib Talib, to Denver in free agency. "And that’s what our coaches want us to do. Browner brings that mindset to be physical in the secondary. We feed off of it, and it’s great for us."
Revis’ style of coverage is highlighted by his superior technique, instincts and ability to turn and run with receivers while gliding to the best possible position to play the ball, but he’s not afraid to body an opponent when necessary. But in Browner’s case, his body is his game, and the 6-foot-4, 221-pound former CFL star has turned pass coverage into a form of hand-to-hand combat, slowing a receiver down by clutching, grabbing and bumping him until he’s no longer a factor in his route. If the referees are looking for a poster child to use as an example of the new enforcement of illegal contact, it’s hard to imagine a better candidate than Browner, the NFL’s biggest cornerback.
"I just try to play my game and be physical out there, because that’s the big asset I have," said Browner, who turned 30 this month. "I’m a big, 6-4, 200-pound-plus guy, so I’m not as quick as some of the other guys. I’ve got to use my abilities and my assets. I’ve got long arms. In order to compete, I’ve got to do all the little things, because these guys get better and these guys get younger all the time. I’ve got to use what I’ve got, and that’s my length to shut down some of that quickness."
In the Patriots’ joint workouts this week with Washington leading up to Thursday night’s preseason opener between the clubs, the Browner treatment was on full display against the Redskins receivers. Washington rookie head coach Jay Gruden lauded how effectively the Patriots cornerbacks jammed his receiving corps of DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts, but he also noted how many of his guys came back to the huddle with their jerseys pulled off their shoulder pads, or when quarterback Robert Griffin III couldn’t find his primary target because that receiver "was on the ground."
"Now I know why they like practicing with other teams," Gruden said jokingly of the Patriots’ intimate style of pass defense. "But it probably helped them that there were no referees out there throwing flags."
Patriots receivers saw their own dose of Browner’s in-your-grill press coverage early in training camp, when Browner threw receiver Kenbrell Thompkins to the ground at least one too many times, drawing the ire of New England receivers coach Chad O’Shea. Browner and O’Shea went nose-to-nose in the aftermath of that practice-field confrontation. Over the course of his 36-game career, Browner has been flagged 34 times, including nine for pass interference, nine for defensive holding and six for illegal contact. But 19 of those 34 penalties came in his rookie season of 2011, when he led the NFL in flagged infractions.
"We’re a man-to-man (coverage) team here, and man to man is mano-a-mano, and that’s my style," Browner said. "I might frustrate a receiver in practice, but it’s going to make him better, and it’s going to make me better. It brings out the best of me, going against these guys [the Patriots receivers]. Because on our team these receivers are a lot quicker and agile than some of the receivers across the league."
Browner said he can’t afford to worry about the league’s new point of emphasis in regards to illegal contact, but he will have the benefit of watching how much the standards applied to pass coverage have changed during the season’s first month. That’s due to the four-game suspension he’ll serve under the terms of his reinstatement from a 2013 suspension for violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Perhaps by the time he returns in Week 5, things will have worked themselves out to some degree on an acceptable level of downfield contact, and Browner will boost a Patriots secondary that looks as talented as any fielded in New England in roughly a decade.
"The thing with Browner, he doesn’t play a Seattle way, he plays the only way he knows how to play football," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "That hasn’t stopped [because he left the Seahawks]. He’s a physical guy, and that’s why he’s here. We love how he plays. I definitely think the way Browner plays gets everyone excited. He’s physical out there, and he’s going to continue to do that. You’re not going to change much about his game."
Even if the NFL changes the definition of what passes for legal pass coverage?
"I feel like every year there’s a point of emphasis to stay off the receivers and let touchdowns happen," McCourty said. "We’ll see how it works. The goal [of the NFL] is to make sure those guys score. But defensively we’re going to keep working at stopping them."
Washington’s Griffin didn’t have much success throwing in the direction of Revis or Browner this week in practice, but he said he still relished the challenge. That’s easier to swallow, of course, when there’s no wins or losses assigned in training camp.
"With a guy like Revis, there’s the whole Revis Island thing and quarterbacks don’t throw at him," Griffin said on Monday. "But there [were] a couple times I threw at him today and he knocked them down, and there [were] a couple times I threw at him and we got completions. I respect Revis. I respect Browner on the other side. He’s a man out there. But it’s all competition."
The Patriots’ preseason opener at Washington will also begin to answer the question of how New England will use Revis, who is still considered the game’s preeminent shutdown corner (sorry, Richard Sherman). The Revis Island concept the Jets featured meant Revis shadowed the opponent’s best receiver, no matter what side he lined up on, theoretically taking away half of the field. But thus far in camp, as the Boston Globe pointed out last week, New England has used Revis at left cornerback and Browner at right cornerback. That could be just window dressing that won’t stick once the regular season arrives, but Browner almost always played on the right side the past three seasons in Seattle, with Sherman manning the left side.
"I don’t know yet how that’s going to go," Browner said. "I can play right or left, but predominantly I’ve been on the right side for the past three years. But if you need me to go to the left because that’s the game plan, I’d be able to play left. There isn’t much that I haven’t seen on the field at this point, because I’m an older guy."
With Revis and Browner upping the talent level considerably on the corners, New England’s secondary should be transformed into one of the team’s strengths this season. Besides their skill level, the veteran cornerbacks have added cohesion and a noticeable edge to the Patriots’ last line of defense.
"Those two are really good individual players and the cool thing about these first couple weeks of training camp, we’re starting to bond and build as a unit," McCourty said. "We’re one right now. You really see it. We know where each other’s at, we’re communicating better than we were in the past, and guys are defending each other. It feels like we’re going to battle with our brothers out there. Revis and Browner have been tremendous just coming in and catching on to everything and then just bringing what they know, with their attitude and how they play each day."
In New England this season, as it is in the NFL, the point of emphasis is in the secondary.