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Brandon Browner Brings Attitude to New Orleans' Defense

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Upon acquiring Brandon Browner during free agency, the Saints picked up more than a solid No. 2 cornerback. They picked up a guy that finally brings their defense attitude, something that it sorely lacked in 2014. Browner is a big, physical corner that should open up DC Rob Ryan's defensive playbook a little bit more in 2015.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Competing with C.J. Spiller for the Saints' biggest free agency signing is cornerback Brandon Browner.  Browner is a big, physical cornerback, capable of jamming receivers at the line and laying down the big hit if need be.  With his 6'4", 220 lb. frame, Browner is an intimidating presence.  His speed isn't mind-bending (4.63 at the time of the combine), but what he lacks in speed he makes up for with a punishing mentality.

One of the biggest question marks surrounding Browner is also marked as one of his biggest strengths: His physical style of play.  In 2014, Browner led all defenders in the NFL with 15 penalties, and he was third in the league with 128 yards given up on those penalties.  6 of the penalties were defensive holdings and another 6 were pass interference calls, which is troubling, as obviously both of these penalties result in automatic first downs; something that the Saints' defense cannot afford.  Also keeping in mind that Browner managed to lead all defenders in penalties last season while being suspended for four games to start the season.  It may be a necessary evil for the Saints, however, whose defense had next to no identity in the 2014 season.

Browner is, by his nature, fairly incomparable to anyone that the Saints put at the number two corner slot in 2014.  Patrick Robinson, Corey White and Brian Dixon all employ a style that relies on speed and athleticism, rather than bodying up receivers (which, incidentally, is very likely why the former two were more effective in the slot taking on the "possession" receivers).

There is perhaps no better receiver to use to show off Browner's physicality than Calvin Johnson, one of the strongest and best receivers in the NFL.  Johnson runs a 10 yard curl route, in which Browner doesn't have help on the sidelines.  The Patriots run the base Cover 3 defense with Devin McCourty high that they loved to use in 2014.  This pits Browner up against Johnson one on one on the bottom side of the formation.  Note that Browner gives little to no cushion at the line of scrimmage; this is his standard positioning, one or two yards off the line, so that he can use his physical frame to disrupt receivers' routes.

What immediately stands out about Browner is his extension of the arms and the fact that he initiates contact with the receiver, rather than vice versa.  Johnson's route is already thrown off as he tries to fight off Browner, who is in a position to backpedal along with Johnson's route for as long as he has to.  Browner's physical nature is designed to disrupt timing routes, which is exactly what the curl route is.

When a corner has a single high safety, they have two approaches that they can use.  Either force the receiver deep towards the middle of the field or use the sideline as an extra defender.  Browner elects the latter, sealing off the middle of the field.  The blue line is the route that the play was supposed to take, whereas the red was the route that was actually taken on the play.  While they end up in the same place, the red line breaks a standard rule of physics: The fastest way between two places is a straight line.  The curl is an inherently quick hitting play, it's completely reliant on the receiver stopping on a dime and keeping the corner going in the wrong direction.  Browner forces Johnson to stay with him stride for stride, so his breakdown is significantly less effective than it would be if he were free running, particularly with a cushion.

The adjustment from trying to essentially inside out a catch is too much even for the freakishly talented Johnson.  The play was clearly meant to be thrown to his outside shoulder, but Browner forced him outside so that he had to make his curl in just to make a play on the ball from Stafford.  By creating such a minute window, Browner seizes control of the play.  If a corner can dictate the route that a receiver takes, he then takes away the biggest advantage that a receiver has: The knowledge of the route that he's running.

Looking at the play in its entirety, the disruption of Browner is a lot more clear.  He engages Johnson, and by the time he releases him, Johnson's route has been irreparably altered.  Stafford actually makes a good throw, all things considered, Johnson just isn't quite able to get back to the ball in time to make the catch.

One thing to note is that Browner found himself matched up 1v1 with opposing teams' number one receivers quite often.  Belichick preferred to put Darrelle Revis on a team's number two in order to complete mitigate the threat, and would shade the rangy McCourty over towards Browner's side of the field.  As long as Browner could body up the number one receiver long enough for McCourty to get over to help, he was very effective in limiting opposing receivers.  How this fits into the Saints' scheme should be obvious.  The Saints have a player that is in the conversation for best free safety in the NFL when he's healthy in Jairus Byrd.  While Keenan Lewis is clearly not on the level that Revis is, he's still an above average cornerback.  The Saints may not elect to match Browner up on opposing number ones the way that the Patriots did, but they very likely will at least entertain the idea after seeing how well it worked for New England last season.  It will ultimately depend on how well Lewis can play with limited help over the top.

Where Browner could sometimes get into trouble was when he was dealing with smaller, flightier receivers, particularly if they were able to shed him at the line quickly.  Browner knows his game, and he knows it very well; he isn't a speedster.  He's a big guy and a bruiser, which is great to have.  However, when Browner went up against guys like Demaryius Thomas who have ridiculous speed AND are reasonably strong, he could sometimes have a few problems.

Obviously I'm entering the realm of speculation on this route, since there's no way to know for sure, but this route appears to be one of the option routes that Peyton Manning offenses are so fond of.  The Patriots stack eight in the box with a nickel corner over Wes Welker in the slot, isolating their corners on the receivers outside.  The idea is very likely to limit Denver from using the middle of the field for pick and rub plays, as they so infamously do, by coagulating everyone in the middle and creating traffic.  This shows a great deal of trust from Belichick in his corners.

A myriad of things goes wrong for New England on this play.  Browner is forced to give away his "tell" too early.  He turns opens his hips towards the middle of the formation as soon as Thomas hits him, indicating that he's trying to take away the sideline.  The slot corner (Kyle Arrington) loses Welker, so the safety is forced to cheat down in order to help.  Manning and Thomas both (seemingly) recognize as much, and so Browner is forced to relinquish the middle of the field, as he has no positioning to prevent Thomas from going inside.  The Patriots don't have pressure.   McCourtey seems to recognize that he's between a rock and a hard place, stagnating in the middle of the field trying to decide between Welker and Thomas.

There's actually a chance Browner could have avoided the flag on this play if he'd just kept his arm from hooking around Thomas's back.  Once Arrington recognized that McCourty had picked up Welker he finds himself just a bit too low to make a play on the ball, isolating Thomas on Browner.  Browner's physicality works best when there's help over the top, since on a receiver like Thomas there's always a chance of getting burned.  Browner seems to get into his own head and rests his arm a little bit too long, since he's out of his comfort zone isolated on a speedy receiver.

Another knock on Browner can come in the short game when he's isolated on receivers without creating physical contact.  This is a well designed play by the Chargers in which Malcolm Floyd runs a curl off the sideline, rather than trying to break up field.  The immediate angle off the ball limits Browner's physical style, and lets the Chargers run their route unabated by attacking the defense quickly.

Note the immediate reaction of Browner when he sees Floyd's angle.  He opens his hips towards the sideline instantly, which allows Floyd to run his route unimpaired.  Whenever a receiver can do this, they've taken away Browner's biggest advantage: his strength.  Browner is a tremendous athlete, but he isn't the type of corner that likes to rely on his athleticism to make plays, he prefers to wear receivers throughout a game through their upper body, not by making it a track meet.

This is the least effective positioning that I saw Browner have.  With his hips literally perpendicular to the sidelines and the ball already released when Floyd makes his unabated break, Browner is significantly out of his element.  He ends up completely turned around on the play, and the quick hitter allows Floyd to turn the ball upfield.  The Patriots don't have help in the intermediate middle either, which hardly helps their cause, but Browner ultimately redeems himself; at least a little.

There was one really, really good thing that came out of this play: A very impressive ankle tackle from Browner.  Despite being caught out of position and very nearly overcorrecting himself after the catch, Browner is able to recover and make a solid tackle on Floyd.  It's still an 11 yard gain, but the fact that Browner can catch his momentum after the catch is a big improvement for the Saints and puts less pressure on their other, younger defenders.  A lot of times, big runs after catches come because a corner was one on one and a safety was caught out of position, creating an open field scenario.  A corner that can make difficult tackles in those open field situations is definitely a welcome addition.

In this same vein, the last thing that I looked at concerning Browner was his run stopping, which this play perfectly demonstrated.  As you can see, the Lions are running the ball off tackle with three tight ends.  The Browner is isolated against those tight ends, as the lone receiver is nearside.  The Patriots have 7 in the box against the Big formation of Detroit, which Browner naturally cheating in towards the center of the formation.

One of two things could have happened on this play, each one equally likely.  The Lions either wanted to completely eliminate the box defenders and give Joique Bell a situation in which he was one on one with Browner to make a move, or the Lions completely missed a pull or some other blocking assignment.  Whatever the case, Browner suddenly finds himself isolated against Bell, with an entire side of the field wide open behind him.  The last line of defense is McCourty, who likely wouldn't reach Bell until 10-15 yards downfield, and that's assuming that he can make the tackle.

Browner strafes and initiates contact with Bell about a yard behind the line of scrimmage before being victimized by a Bell stiff arm.  At the very least, Browner is able to slow Bell down, with Bell determined to get outside of the formation and make his break downfield.

This is the defining moment of the play, as Bell creates separation but Browner immediately readjusts his angle so that their paths cross again quickly.  Pursuit is the hardest part for a defender, especially a defender that just got knocked off of the player that he's pursuing, but Browner is able to reset himself and make a beeline for Bell immediately.  The coverage for the Lions on the line has already broken down as well, so at the very least Browner has turned a potential touchdown into a first down and change.

Finally, Browner chases Bell down until he runs out of real estate, limiting what could have been a disaster for the Patriots into a three yard run for the Lions.  Relentless pursuit was a hallmark of the New England defense last year, and a motor such as Browner's is a fantastic addition to a defense.  The Saints really needed a guy physical enough to stop running backs trying to get outside, and Browner fits that bill to a T out of sheer will to get to the ball carrier.

Brandon Browner has the potential to be a huge addition for the Saints.  Sure, he didn't exactly come cheap, but that's the market for corners these days.  His last two seasons he's played across from Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis, and now he'll be playing across from Keenan Lewis.  For these reasons, he'll never be cited as the primary reason that he plays on a solid defense, and he shouldn't be.  However, he's a strong enforcer that has a will to win.  That isn't to say that the 2014 Saints didn't want to win, but they certainly didn't have a guy that would step up and say it.  Browner is worth the penalties that he brings with him if he can perform up to the level that he has the last few years, and he addressed a huge position of need for the Saints as well.