FOXBOROUGH — The NFL has an exciting trio of young superstar cornerbacks in Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, and Joe Haden, but former Patriots great Rodney Harrison is still a Darrelle Revis guy, through and through.
Revis doesn’t have to rely on zone coverages or sticking to one side of the field like many of the young guys do. Just stick him on Revis Island and he can neutralize the opposition’s top receiver, no matter where he lines up.
“Everyone wants to play cover-2, wants to do all these zone pressures and blitzes and stuff,” Harrison said Friday at Patriots practice. “What about the man-on-man matchup? Guys getting in somebody’s face and following him all across the field? I think Darrelle Revis does that. He can play slot, he can play right, he can play left. I think that gives the Patriots a lot of flexibility.”
That’s been the popular groupthink about Revis’s role with the Patriots this year — stick him on an island, let him match up against all of the great receivers the Patriots will face this year (Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall, Mike Wallace, Sammy Watkins etc.) and let the rest of the secondary cover the other guys.
Except through the first 10 days of training camp, that’s not how the Patriots have used him. Revis Island has become Revis Hemisphere, with Revis lining up strictly on the left side of the field and fellow newcomer Brandon Browner playing only on the right side. No matter how the offense lines up or which receivers are on the field, Revis is on the left, Browner on the right.
Now, it’s still early in camp, and it’s certainly possible that coach Bill Belichick is being as vanilla as possible with his defensive alignments. But then again . . .
“I’m predominantly a right corner. That’s all I played in Seattle, the right side,” Browner said last week. “The system here is pretty much the same thing I was doing in Seattle. It’s just the terminology [that’s different].”
Maybe it’s not so crazy to keep Revis at LCB and Browner at RCB, and for the Patriots to play a lot of zone coverage. Certainly, that system worked well for the Seahawks, who just won a Super Bowl with Sherman playing strictly on the left side and Browner on the right before he got suspended (his suspension will continue for the first four games of the 2014 season). Browner never has played left cornerback at the NFL level, and the Patriots surely took that into consideration when they signed him in the offseason.
So how does the Seahawks’ system work? For starters, it’s not overly complicated.
“We play man-to-man or cover-3, not much more than that. It’s not a secret,” safety Kam Chancellor said in 2013.
The Seahawks’ defense is mostly about minimizing big plays and forcing teams to dink and dunk down the field. They rely on tough, physical cornerbacks to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, and then the corners either fall into man-to-man coverage, or bail out and play a three-deep zone, with safety Earl Thomas patrolling center field.
The defense also has little nuances — sometimes one cornerback will play man and the other will bail. Sometimes one will jam at the line of scrimmage and the other will play off.
But the Seahawks don’t try to confuse you. They line up and dare you to beat them.
“The Seahawks aren’t tricking anybody,” former Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said before last year’s Super Bowl. “You know the two coverages they’re going to play the whole day. They want to bail, they want to give you flat routes all day, and just say, ‘Hey, we dare you to have the patience to just dink and dunk it down the field.’ ”
It certainly has worked well for Seattle. In addition to winning the championship, the Seahawks also led the NFL in fewest passing plays of 40-plus yards allowed all last season (three) and passes of 20-plus yards (30).
Former Seahawks and Colts quarterback Brock Huard, now a radio host in Seattle, thinks Revis could be successful in the “Sherman role” at left cornerback. And he doesn’t think that lining up on one side of the field and playing a heavy mix of zone coverage, as opposed to simply matching up with a receiver, would diminish Revis’s elite reputation.
“It’s been pretty good for Richard. You’re still taking away half of the field, and making the righthanded quarterback throw to his backside,” Huard said. “We’ve all seen it be very, very dominant, especially if you’ve got a good supporting cast. And a lot of time, cover-3 ends up — once that receiver runs anything intermediate or deep, it turns into man coverage, anyway, and you’ve still got to have tremendous ball skills.”
No matter where Revis lines up, the Patriots won’t have much to worry about. Their main concern should be whether Browner can adjust to the NFL calling defensive holding and illegal contact more tightly this season. Browner, the NFL’s biggest cornerback at 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, has been a penalty magnet in his first three seasons.
In 2011 he led the NFL with 19 penalties, including six for pass interference, four for defensive holding, and three for illegal contact. He cleaned up his act the last two seasons, but he still gets flagged frequently — 10 penalties in 2012 and five penalties in eight games last year, including three pass interference calls.
“All this talk about illegal contact and rule changes, he’d be the guy we’re talking about. That’s a big, big part of what he does,” Huard said. “Browner does not have the quick elite feet that other guys have. He’s got to just maul you at the line, and maul you at certain points coming out of your breaks.”
We’ll have a better idea of how the Patriots plan to use Revis and Browner once we see them in preseason games. But given that Browner has only played on the right side in his three NFL seasons, it certainly makes sense for the Patriots to keep him in the same role.
Revis said he’s willing to do whatever Belichick asks of him.
“Whatever role coach wants me to play, I’m ready to play,” Revis said. “It’s still early, it’s camp, you never know. But as of right now we’ve got to do our jobs, whether it’s left or right, special teams, I don’t know. But right now we’re just trying to get reps.”
He wasn’t too thrilled about changing his nickname from Revis Island to Revis Hemisphere, though.
“Nah, the name sticks,” he said with a smile. “I’ve built it, the name sticks.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.