Ty Law is circling back through the last decade of Patriots football in his head, trying to think of all the cornerbacks who have come through Foxborough. The question posed to him is simple, but the answer is not: When was the last time the Patriots had two physical, punishing cornerbacks?
“I guess,” he answers slowly, “it was probably myself and Otis Smith, when we liked to get up on people’s faces and play bump-and-run. And we got a championship out of the deal.”
Law and Smith were instrumental in the Patriots’ first world championship, harassing Rams receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt the entire game to throw “the Greatest Show on Turf” out of its rhythm. Law also helped the Patriots win another title in 2003, and Rodney Harrison, another intimidator in the back end, was the backbone of a championship defense in 2003 and 2004.
The Patriots’ secondary, though, has lacked that menacing presence for the last nine seasons. The cornerbacks have been smaller and more athletic, but haven’t scared anybody, either. And when the Patriots needed to stop the Giants twice in the final minutes of their last two Super Bowl matchups, or needed to slow down Peyton Manning when he was with the Colts and Broncos, they were pretty helpless.
Until this year, that is.
The Patriots figure to be nasty and physical on pass defense after adding superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis and the monstrous Brandon Browner, the NFL’s biggest cornerback at 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds. No longer will they have Ellis Hobbs (5-9, 188 pounds), Jonathan Wilhite (5-9, 183), Darius Butler (5-10, 180 pounds), or Devin McCourty (5-10, 186 pounds) trying to slow down Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, or A.J. Green, three big receivers on their schedule this year.
Now the Patriots have the cornerbacks to match up one-on-one, get in receivers’ faces and make them pay for trying to get off the line of scrimmage. Revis has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL since entering the league in 2007, and Browner was a key member of Seattle’s famed “Legion of Boom” defense, which just thumped its way to a Super Bowl title.
“If you think about Bill and the success he’s had as a head coach, it’s with big corners, and he got away from that a little bit,” Law said. “He went back to that philosophy, and that’s good. He’s a smart head coach. We all have to critique ourselves at some point — hey, what am I missing here? Cornerbacks that can make big plays in the big moments.”
Belichick and the Patriots have used several high draft picks on the secondary over the last decade, but without much success. McCourty (1st round) has turned into an excellent safety, Hobbs (3d round) had his moments, and Logan Ryan (3d) looks promising, but the Patriots whiffed on Brandon Meriweather (1st round), Terrence Wheatley (2d round), Patrick Chung (2d round), Darius Butler (2d round), and Ras-I Dowling (2d round).
Belichick started going back to his bigger-is-better roots when he traded for Aqib Talib (6-2, 210) two seasons ago. Although Talib had tremendous length and could match up with even the tallest receivers like Jimmy Graham, he wasn’t the most physical cornerback, and had a hard time staying healthy.
This offseason, Belichick didn’t mess around. In an attempt to get more physical in the secondary and match up better with Denver, he went after finished products in Revis and Browner, who have track records of success.
“About time. About time,” said Harrison, now an analyst on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” “For the last six years, I’ve been very disappointed, quite frankly. I take pride in this Patriot team and what Bill Belichick believes in. To see the type of guys that were on that stage and to not have the same type of production, it hurt my heart to have to criticize that secondary on Sunday nights.”
Harrison believes defense, particularly the secondary, is what has prevented the Patriots from winning another Super Bowl over the last nine seasons, even though the Patriots allowed only 17 and 21 points in their two Super Bowl losses to the Giants.
In last year’s AFC Championship game, the Patriots’ smallish cornerbacks couldn’t even pretend to slow down Manning’s receivers, as Manning completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns in victory.
With Revis and Browner and also linebacker Jamie Collins, the Patriots should be able to go toe-to-toe with Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Emmanuel Sanders.
“Yes, it’s nice to score points on offense,” Harrison said. “But you need a defense, and you need guys that aren’t afraid to get up there and jam guys and play man-to-man coverage and hit you in the mouth. And I think that’s what Browner and Revis gives you.”
The addition of Revis, especially, could be a game-changer for the Patriots. Revis is the complete package — one of the best man-to-man cover guys in the NFL, but also a great blitzer from the edge and sure tackler in the run game. One member of the Buccaneers front office, who had Revis in Tampa Bay last year, said Revis was rusty as he returned from a 2012 ACL injury. But he expects Revis to excel under Belichick.
“I do think there was an element of rust to him last year, to being a year off and then just jumping out there, being the lockdown guy with all the pressure on you, really not to what he had been in his career,” the executive said. “But I think he was still coming back from that injury. I’m sure he’ll have a great year this year.”
The executive isn’t quite as sure about Browner, though. Browner has never had good foot speed, and with Seattle he depended on his size and physicality to shut down receivers. The NFL’s new rules emphasis on defensive contact, though, could minimize the impact Browner has on the Patriots’ defense. Browner will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season for violating the league’s drug policy, and will be in the mix with Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and Ryan for playing time.
“It depends if they keep calling these penalties for holding,” the executive said. “They’re definitely a quality team, but those press corners will be on watch.”
Harrison is confident Revis and Browner will curtail their games to fit within the rules.
“They’ll play smarter, and they’ll play within 5 yards,” Harrison said. “After that 5 yards, you have to man up, and these two guys have that ability.”
Tom Brady, for one, has appreciated the opportunity to go against Revis and Browner for five weeks in training camp. Revis hit Brady for three interceptions in the first week-plus of practice.
“They’re both great players, so when you make a mistake, they make you pay, and I think that’s the mark of a really good corner,” Brady said. “As a quarterback, you’re always trying to find the weak link in the defense, and neither of those guys are weak links.”
The Broncos didn’t stand pat this offseason, either, adding Talib, DeMarcus Ware, and T.J. Ward to the defense. And the NFC is loaded with championship contenders, from Seattle to New Orleans to San Francisco to Green Bay to Philadelphia.
But the addition of two big, physical corners means the Patriots might have to clear a little space on the mantel for another Super Bowl trophy.
“I think if they would’ve had better secondary play, we would’ve had a championship last year,” Law said. “Now you strengthen that five times with Revis and Browner there. It’s going to be incredible, and it’s something the Patriots haven’t seen in a long time.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin