FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense took a ton of heat from fans and media last week following the team’s dreadful start to the season. But the analysts at NBC were also critical of how Bill Belichick has used Darrelle Revis to start the season.
During the pregame show Sunday night, Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy both criticized the Patriots for not using Revis exclusively in man-to-man coverage in the first four games.
“He’s the best, but you have to play him a certain way,” said Harrison, the former Patriots safety. “I asked him, ‘What was the biggest difference between Rex Ryan’s defense and Bill Belichick’s defense?’ He said, ‘We play a lot more zone in New England.’ But you negate everything that he does and what makes him special if you play zone coverage.”
“Lovie Smith inherited Revis in Tampa and he told me, ‘I traded him because I’d be wasting him. With our system, we play zone coverage so much,’ ” Dungy chimed in. “You’re not using his skills.”
Either Belichick watched the NBC pregame show like the rest of us, or, more likely, he realized that he’s got a special asset in Revis, one of the few true No. 1 cornerbacks in the NFL. Because Revis Island was definitely in full effect for the first time this season in Sunday night’s 43-17 win over the Bengals.
Revis didn’t play strictly on the left side, like he has done for much of the season. He didn’t cover Mohamed Sanu or Dane Sanzenbacher or whoever lined up across from him in the formation.
Revis had one mission on Sunday night — lock down A.J. Green. Just as we all expected when the Patriots signed Revis as a free agent in March.
“It was great, man. We did a lot of things game plan-wise where I can be matched up against A.J.,” Revis said after the game. “My thing was just try to get up there and get physical with him and be a fly to him, just try to disrupt him as much as I could.”
Green had four catches for 64 yards against Revis, and drew one illegal contact penalty.
But it was a quiet night for Green, who has made the Pro Bowl in all three of his NFL seasons. Revis definitely won this battle, though Green claimed that Revis didn’t do it all on his own. Revis finished with five tackles and a forced fumble on Green, which the Patriots recovered.
And Revis proved his worth late in the third quarter when he briefly left the game with what was called a hamstring injury. On the very first play following Revis’s injury, Andy Dalton went right after his replacement, Logan Ryan, and found Green for a 17-yard touchdown.
The Bengals didn’t score again after Revis returned.
“He played a hell of a game,” Green said of Revis. “He was just trying to funnel me into the safety like every other team does. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. We just didn’t play well.”
The Patriots theoretically signed Revis for nights just like Sunday. They can defend an all-star receiver with just one defender, leaving 10 other guys to handle the rest of the offense.
“It frees up other guys,” fellow cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “Can’t say enough great things about him, and he deserves it. He did a great job of coming out here and setting the tone for us.”
Revis set the tone Sunday by being physical with Green.
Revis played a lot of zone and bail-out technique in the first four games, leaving some of us scratching our heads about how the Patriots intend to use him. Weren’t Revis and Brandon Browner brought here this summer to be physical and get in receivers’ faces?
But Revis played almost strictly press-man coverage Sunday night. He jammed Green at the line of scrimmage, and knocked him off his route and off his timing on more than one occasion.
“Our thing was just be aggressive with him as much as we can the whole game, and try to frustrate him as much as we could,” Revis said. “We’re going to play aggressive, man. That’s going to be our style.”
Dalton wasn’t afraid of throwing at Revis, targeting him seven times. Teams still don’t fear him like they did when he played for the Jets from 2007-12.
“Just because he was on A.J. doesn’t mean we weren’t going to try to throw to A.J.,” Dalton said. “We got a lot of looks we thought we were going to get. We just didn’t make plays.”
And don’t necessarily expect the Patriots to utilize Revis this way in every game. Revis said he didn’t lobby Belichick to play him in more man-to-man coverage this week, and that he wasn’t overly excited when the coaches did tell him of their intentions with him against the Bengals. There might be games when the Patriots still use him in zone coverage, or on one side of the field instead of against a specific player.
“I’m used to it, to compete and take out the No. 1 guy,” Revis said. “But whatever the game plan is, it is, there’s different game plans week by week. You got to play what the coaches call.”
But Sunday night, we saw the potential of what the defense can do when Revis Island is doing his thing.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin