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Week 1 Shows How Important Cornerback Play Continues To Be

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Over the last several years, more that at any time in league history, the NFL has transformed into a passer-driven league. This has created extreme value in not only quarterbacks, but also wide receivers, and we’re currently seeing what is likely the Golden Age at the wideout position.

But the increase in passing productivity also creates high value at one other position across the field: cornerback. And as Week 1 of the 2016 showed us, stout cornerback play, and how teams elect to deploy their top corners, is now a vital component to success in the league.

NORMAN NEEDS TO SHADOW NO. 1’s

There was no more clear example of this than in Washington on Monday night. This offseason, the Redskins made one of the biggest free agent splashes of the year when they handed cornerback Josh Norman a five-year, $75 million contract. But in Week 1, instead of using Norman as the lock down corner they’re paying him to be, they chose to deploy him like a specialist, isolating him on one side of the field rather than using him to shadow arguably the best receiver in the league, Antonio Brown.

The result: Brown burnt Washington’s No. 2 cornerback Bashaud Breeland, a good but not great corner in how own right, on two separate occasions for long touchdowns that swung the momentum in what ended up being a blowout victory for the Steelers.

“He’s a good corner and he got beat by a great player today,” head coach Jay Gruden said of Breeland.  “And some great passes that I don’t know what corner could defend.”

It’s true, the passes by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger were great, Brown ran some great routes and made some great catches, and Roethlisberger has said often that there isn’t a matchup in the league where he won’t take Brown over the corner covering him. But if you’re the Redskins, you have to give yourself a chance, and the best way to do that is to put your best guy on their best guy up and down the field all night. Let Breeland cover Markus Wheaton or Eli Rogers, players more suited to his skillset in coverage anyhow and win or lose with the matchup of Norman vs. Brown.

Norman said all the right things after the game, about faith in the scheme and the gameplan of the Redskins coaching staff, but he may have had some different things to say on the field, as Brown disclosed in an interview on the Monday Night Football set after the game.

“I’m sure he wanted to play me, but I don’t know if it was his coach’s scheme or what they thought,” Brown said. “I know he wanted to play against me one-on-one the whole game if it was up to him.”

Norman has never been one to back away from a challenge. He notably went mano-a-mano with Odell Beckham Jr. all game when the Panthers played the Giants last season and the Redskins brought him in to defend dynamic wide receivers like Beckham and Dez Bryant within their division. Now it’s time to pickup a valuable lesson from their Week 1 loss and let him do just that the rest of the year.

Coach Jay Gruden wouldn’t openly admit to flubbing the gameplan on Monday, but he left the door open for Norman’s role to change in the weeks ahead.

“I’m not going to lose faith in Breeland, but there could be merit to that down the road,” Gruden said. “I love our two corners. They just made some great throws and great catches.”

Washington’s first chance to let Norman shadow a star wideout comes right away as the Redskins host Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. Last season, Norman held Bryant, who was perhaps hobbled by injury at the time, to just two catches on eight targets for 26 yards in a Panthers win in Dallas on Thanksgiving.

Bryant enters Sunday’s game coming off one of the least productive games of his career. Last Sunday against the Giants, he was targeted just five times and had just one catch for eight yards in rookie quarterback Dak Prescott’s NFL debut. The lack of use of Bryant, one of the top wide receivers in the game, in the gameplan was troubling and it’s likely they’ll focus in on getting him more involved this week, which will make it that much more important for the Redskins to make sure Norman is glued to his hip. With both teams standing at 0-1, it’s a huge early season matchup worth watching.

REVIS ISLAND OPEN FOR BUSINESS?

While the Redskins were much to blame for the lack of production of their star corner in Week 1 because of their gameplan, the same cannot be said of the New York Jets, who watched Darrelle Revis get absolutely roasted by another of the league’s best receivers, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, time and time again.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton showed no fear of Revis, the man who was not too long ago thought to be the league’s best cornerback, and went to Green repeatedly all day with big results on Sunday. Green hauled in a whopping 12 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati’s victory over the Jets and Revis trailed him on almost every play, most notably on a 54-yard touchdown pass that saw Revis burnt in a way we’re not used to. Revis deflected after the game, though he was clearly agitated by the results.

“Passes get caught, and they’ve gotten caught on me before and touchdowns have been scored on me. It’s just getting back to the X’s and O’s of things and just correcting certain things, and that’s just about it,” Revis said. “Most of those plays, I was right there. The busted coverage [on the long touchdown], I’m supposed to get help, but at the same time, it is what it is. Like I’ve said, I can take a punch.”

But Revis has rarely, if ever, taken this many punches in a single game in his career. For it to also happen in the first week of the season raises serious questions about whether the player, who began the 10th season of his career on Sunday at age 31, could be entering the decline phase of his career.

Sure, we’re only a week into the 2016 season, and to base anything on that alone would be absurd, but the writing has been on the wall with Revis for longer than that. He had a great season with New England in 2014, but was often deployed on the opponent’s No. 2 wideout while the Patriots sent help the way of the No. 1 guy. Then after that one season, the Super Bowl Champion Patriots let Revis walk. He returned to New York, where the Jets again chose to utilize him as a lockdown No. 1 guy, to mixed results.

Revis had some good games in his first year back with New York, but also showed some flashes of decline. He gave up a big game to Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins in November and was abused by this Thursday’s opponent, Sammy Watkins of the Buffalo Bills, for 11 catches and 136 yards in the season finale. That means over his last two regular season contests, the receivers Revis has been charged with defending have totaled 23 catches for 316 yards.

Add in the fact that there have been whispers about the Jets possibly moving the All-Pro cornerback to safety in the near future and you have a situation where there may be some fire behind all the smoke. Revis will likely get the benefit of the doubt from the Jets in the short-term, with coach Todd Bowles giving him the opportunity to prove he can hang with an opponent’s top receiver one-on-one. But if the results continue to show up like they did in Week 17 last year and Week 1 this year, New York will be forced to make an adjustment in how they deploy Revis and the rest of their secondary.

“We’ve done it before and we’ve looked at it. We’ve talked about it. Certain games will require that,” Bowles admitted. “[But] he’s pretty sharp mentally and understands how people are trying to come at him.”

Thursday’s rematch with Watkins will be a good test. The third-year wideout got the best of Revis in the final game of the season last year, but Revis held him to just three catches for 14 yards earlier that same season. Additionally, Watkins is dealing with a lingering foot injury that could slow him enough to give Revis an advantage. As an added bonus, the cornerback’s longtime coach Rex Ryan will be on the opposite sideline, helping to develop a gameplan that could focus on Revis Island.

The Bills coach praised Revis earlier this week, but Rex is known to play mindgames and this could be another instance of that.

“Everybody’s going to be down on Revis because he has a poor game or whatever. The thing about Revis is, if he’s slipped at all as a player, he’s coming down from the very tip of Everest. That’s where he’d be coming down from,” Ryan said. “How far down, I’m not sure. But I know one thing: I know the kind of player he is.”

With that in mind, if Watkins puts on a show again Thursday as he did in their last meeting, even with his injury, it could be a clear sign that Revis Island is indeed open for business.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys