NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Brandon Browner’s brand of football may be going extinct. But despite the NFL’s points of emphasis on illegal contact, holding and pass interference, and despite the seven flags he has drawn through three games this season, his brand has remained the same.
The 30-year-old cornerback is not letting it go without a fight, a tug, or at least a shove.
“I’m not going to change my game. I’m not going to let it bother me,” Browner said as training camp opened in July. “I’m going to force them to make the call. I’m going to try to stay aggressive. That’s what got me here.”
Those words have rung true. The brand that got the 6’4”, 221-pound journeyman to the New England Patriots is not unlike what got him to Oregon State, the Denver Broncos, the Calgary Stampeders and the Seattle Seahawks. It’s physical, glaring, and in a sense, ugly.
It’s supposed to be. And the reason why was explained against the Broncos in Week 9.
Browner was tasked with taking on 6’3”, 229-pound wideout Demaryius Thomas and 6’5”, 250-pound tight end Julius Thomas, who headed into Gillette Stadium last Sunday with 77 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns between them.
The corner went on to face them in man-to-man on 33 pass plays. In addition, he went on to log one snap opposite wideout Andre Caldwell and 29 more snaps off in zone, where he conceded two receptions to Denver’s running backs and a loud 3rd-and-goal target to speedster Emmanuel Sanders.
He may have knocked them down, but Browner did not shut his assignments down on Nov. 2. He did not keep No. 88 from crossing 100 yards in his fifth consecutive game, nor did he keep No. 80 from ultimately hitting 10 touchdowns on the season. Yet he did slow them down on his own watch, in his own way.
Even so, Denver’s attempts started early.
The first time quarterback Peyton Manning tested Browner was on 3rd-and-11 at the 9:12 mark of the first quarter. The corner stepped in as Julius Thomas motioned in, and that left Demaryius Thomas with an open runway fading to the sticks.
Perhaps it came as a surprise to the “X” receiver that Browner did not jam him at the line. Instead, he only made contact at the catch point, which sent the ball out and the punt team in.
It was more technical finesse than it was physical duress for Browner on that occasion. The latter arrived eight pass plays later, when Manning looked the deep threat’s way again on a 3rd-and-10 down in the red zone. And this time, the Georgia Tech product went inside, outside, then back in on his way across the goal line.
Browner stayed in his hip pocket through the sudden lateral movement – oftentimes a vulnerability of his. Yet as he undercut the route and broke on the ball, the brush up proved costly as pass interference was called.
The Broncos stretched for a goal-line rushing touchdown one snap later.
Thenceforth, the rare quickness seen in a receiver of Demaryius Thomas’ size continued to pose a challenge. He helped Denver pick up two on an inside drag route, then 24 on a dig route through zone coverage early on in the second quarter.
The sequence illustrated Browner’s weaknesses versus inside receivers who work east and west, as well as his weaknesses versus outside receivers who separate via change of direction rather than boxing out. It remains a double-edged sword for him.
Browner’s strengths were illustrated vertically, on the other hand, even when his eyes neglected to turn back to the ball on a 2nd-and-20 sideline pattern with 8:42 to go in the first half.
Manning threw in the direction of Browner and Demaryius Thomas twice more during their meeting in Foxborough. One of which fell incomplete as Browner closed on a dig route much like the one he let up before, while the other resulted in a 27-yard gain up the numbers as a rub route from Wes Welker freed him.
But, in the midst of the second half, most of Browner’s attention redirected to the other Thomas.
Along with that shift, Browner swung down into the box when his counterpart crouched at the end of the line. From there, he was left to delegate between zone drops and the flats, as much hinged on whether or not the tight end stayed in to block.
When Julius Thomas did stay in to block on a play-action pass to Welker with 7:46 remaining in the third, Browner backpedaled and was in the right place at the right time. A deflected interception and a 30-yard return were the byproduct.
Browner was in the right place at the wrong time shortly thereafter he recorded his first pick in a Patriots uniform, as Julius Thomas merged out wide and the coverage switched to press-man.
His self-described aggressiveness reared its head.
Browner’s encroachment call gave way to a holding call only seconds later. But the fine line Browner walked versus Denver is not unfamiliar territory for the 2011 Pro Bowler. It’s been with him since his own team was Denver.
To this point in his journey, it’s been a balance. And the mistakes he’s made have been minimized by the plays he hasn’t allowed his opponents to make.
The only play Browner allowed Julius Thomas to make transpired on 3rd-and-10 with 4:44 to play in a 22-point game. It was a comeback route down the right sideline; one where Browner appeared to lose sight of his opponent through the turn.
Only the game was over long before Manning’s 53rd pass of the evening.
By then, Demaryius Thomas had been targeted six times over 16 passing snaps versus Browner, catching three passes for 53 yards. Julius Thomas, meanwhile, had been targeted one time over 17 passing snaps against the 2005 undrafted free agent, catching it for 15 yards.
Neither was taken out of the game. But neither was able to change the game enough to change the final 43-21 score.
And the brand of football Browner played, however close to the fringe it may have been, was an integral part of the reason why.