Break It Down: Explaining Stevie Brown's surprising success
Brown was the fifth-to-last pick of the 2010 draft and bounced around with three other teams (Oakland, Carolina, Indianapolis) before landing in New York. With Kenny Phillips out of the lineup because of a knee injury, Brown has thrived -- his eight takeaways lead the NFL thus far in 2012.
He had three more of those on Sunday in a win at Dallas, picking off Tony Romo twice and recovering a fumble. How is he doing it?
Some of it starts with the Giants' defensive formations -- in particular, their use of a Cover-1 look with Brown as the deep safety and Antrel Rolle creeping up to give the Giants almost a 4-4 set.
You'll see this approach employed frequently in the NFL, especially with teams that have playmaking safeties. It was a staple of the Saints' defense under Gregg Williams, and teams like the Steelers (with Troy Polamalu crashing) turn to it rather often.
Oh yeah, and the Giants use it all the time, too. Here's a shot from the Cowboys-Giants Week 17 game in 2011, and you'll see the same look with Kenny Phillips by himself deep and Antrel Rolle crashing.
In addition to giving a team an extra defender in the box -- either for the purpose of blitzing or covering a running back/tight end -- the Cover-1 approach also lets that deep safety take a very broad view of the field.
Part of why Brown has been an intriguing prospect for so many teams, and why he's been able to stick with the Giants, is that he has a high level of athleticism. Brown played some linebacker while at Michigan, a shift that helped emphasize his ability to find the football and get to it.
In essence, it's like having a linebacker at the safety spot -- Brown can close and tackle, while also providing coverage help.
Which brings us back to that Cover-1 formation and that first Dallas possession Sunday. The first time the Giants showed that Cover-1 with Rolle charging, he dropped back into zone coverage. A few plays later, Rolle showed blitz again, hesitated when the Cowboys ran a play-fake to Jason Witten, then held a couple of yards from the line to cover any releasing offensive players.
That left Brown alone deep.
The Cowboys left eight players in to block on the play, sending just Dez Bryant and Miles Austin out on routes. Brown's job was to keep any from getting behind him -- and the two-man pattern left him with a pretty easy job in picking his spot.
As Romo tried to hit Bryant deep down the middle, Brown jumped the route for the pick.
There was some talk after the game from the Cowboys that Bryant was at fault here -- instead of running a sharp post route and slicing in front of Brown, he drifted, allowing Brown to undercut him.
Still, Brown was in the right place at the right time, which is becoming a theme.
But the Cowboys ran a similar play against the same Giants coverage later, with a much better result. On the one pictured below, it's Miles Austin firing off up the seam with two other receivers running routes. Brown, again, dropped deep in Cover-1.
This time, Austin slipped behind Jayron Hosley. Austin ran a crisper route than Bryant and Romo fired the pass shallower -- perhaps learning from his mistake that resulted in Brown's INT.
The result: a 25-yard gain with Brown getting to the ball just a second late.
Brown also is not going to fool anyone as an elite one-on-one pass defender at the moment. He was adequate in that role Sunday, but the Cowboys completed a couple of passes to Witten while Brown was responsible for him.
One example here, with Brown dropping down and Rolle sliding deep. Witten simply shot out about eight yards and made a catch in front of Brown. He did the same thing later in the game as well.
Witten caught 16 passes Sunday, so Brown allowing him two for a grand total of 18 yards hardly serves as reason for heavy criticism. The point being that Brown did his best work while in a deeper spot, either in Cover-1 or Cover-2.
His fumble recovery was the best example of Brown's linebacker-like mentality from Sunday. Brown backed off just before the snap to about 15 yards off the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys ran a draw to Felix Jones and, as soon as Romo handed off, Brown crashed to the line -- allowing him to be in position to scoop the ball up when Jones fumbled.
He was very effective, too, creeping down to help in coverage -- as opposed to taking guys on by himself. Here, he charged quickly to help take down Kevin Ogletree after a short catch.
Later, he forced Witten out of bounds after Witten slipped behind the Giants' linebackers for a 9-yard catch.
His late interception of Romo, on a 4th-and-1 play, came under similar circumstances. With the Cowboys in the red zone, Brown's coverage area shortened dramatically, and the Giants asked him to provide support on Witten, who was in the midst of a monster day.
With help underneath, Brown was able to stay in Witten's hip pocket, eliminating him as a quick option for Romo. By the time Romo did get around to throwing in Witten's direction, the Cowboys' QB had scrambled back some 20 yards deep and Brown easily stepped in front of the pass for a pick.
There is no magic formula to why Brown is succeeding right now (though there is usually a little luck involved when a player is producing turnovers at his current rate) -- the Giants are taking advantage of his skill set and putting him in position to succeed.
Brown is never going to fool anyone as a great cover guy, and he may not have the sideline-to-sideline speed to pick up running backs out of the backfield or play a linebacker spot.
What he can do is read a play and beat people to spots. One last example: Dallas' last gasp shot at winning Sunday's game late. New York dropped into a deep Cover-3 with Brown (circled) quarterbacking things from the middle. The Cowboys ran two receivers deep into Brown's space, which required him to determine where the ball was headed.
The Giants broke up that pass before it got to Austin (the top receiver in that shot above, but Brown was right where he needed to be. Even if Austin had made the catch, Brown was waiting to drill him shy of the goal line.
Sliding into these coverages, especially the Cover-1, puts a lot of pressure on the Giants' deep safety to determine where he's most needed and to get there before the opposition hits a big play. But New York's game plan also allows Brown to take his well-rounded game and use it to his advantage.
The Giants are not asking Brown to cover many underneath routes nor are they sending him on blitzes. For the most part, they're dropping Brown well off the line and giving him a clean look at the field. So far, at least, he is doing the rest.