The word elite gets thrown around a lot in the NFL. It’s questionable what the benchmark for it is nowadays, as it seems to change every year as more players are added. But if there is one, Darrelle Revis has set it.
He’s been the best player at his position and one of the best overall defensive players for a few years now. During his time with the New York Jets, he was a receiver’s worst nightmare, shutting each one down on a weekly basis with physicality and cat-like quickness. Now he’ll be taking the route most New Yorkers take — to Florida, after being traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a pair of draft picks in stunning fashion.
Why is this stunning? Because players like Revis typically don’t get traded. They don’t ever hit the market, actually. It’s one of those things that GM’s don’t let happen because they know how much he means to their franchise, from ticket sales to schemes. Rex Ryan, the Jets head coach, once said that when Revis gets on the field, he “tilts” it because “when he’s on the field, he’s the best player on the field.”
What the Jets were able to do when he was playing was indeed tilted the field. Because of Revis’ outstanding coverage skills, Ryan and his staff left him isolated in man coverage against the opposition’s top receiver at times and shifted their other defenders to the opposite side of the field to help the other defenders. Whether it was Calvin Johnson, Chad Johnson, Dez Bryant or Vincent Jackson, Revis was glued to them every play.
Revis is able to cover receivers at a high level on a weekly basis because of four reasons: he has excellent quickness, technique, physicality, and patience.
In football, a player is built from the ground up because footwork is the most important aspect of any position. If a player has poor footwork, then he tends to struggle regardless of how big or fast he is. This is where Revis excels because he has extraordinary foot quickness, showing the ability to match every step of a receiver’s route with ease and do it with clean footwork. He rarely takes false steps and he’s clean throughout his technique, whether it’s a backpedal or a shuffle.
Then there’s his physicality. It’s one aspect of his game that’s not frequently mentioned, but it’s very impressive. Unlike others, he knows how to walk the fine line of illegal and legal physicality. He tugs on jerseys to stay at the hip of receivers downfield and does an excellent job of hand-fighting receivers without getting flagged for it. He also does a very good job of jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, forcefully knocking them off their route and disrupting the rhythm of it.
In addition to the above, patience is a must at the cornerback position. In general, cornerbacks are not patient because they want to make a big play. They jump routes that are yet to develop and consequently are beaten. Revis doesn’t have that issue, however, as he’s patient throughout a route, as seen in Week 1 this past season against the Buffalo Bills.
It’s the 10-minute mark in the first quarter and the Bills are driving. They’re in Jets territory at the 47-yard line, and two receivers in a “stack” alignment are on the left side of the field. It’s the same side where Revis is located.
Because of the stack, the Jets are forced to play the two cornerbacks on that side of the field at different depths. This is done to avoid running into “rubs” by the offense, which are the NFL’s version of a pick-and-roll. Of the two cornerbacks lined up across the receivers, Revis is the deepest one, roughly 10 yards back and soon to be playing off coverage.
When the play begins, he takes a few steps back and watches the play unfold in front of him. The first receiver, Stevie Johnson, releases from the line of scrimmage and runs outside the numbers. Johnson is running a deep out route in front of Revis, who takes short steps to the outside as he continues to watch Johnson and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick has shifted his eyes from the middle of the field to Revis’ side and now looks like he’s going to throw it in his direction. He’s initially hesitant to do so, bobbing the football up and down in a “should I really throw this” kind of way, and then he raises his shoulder and releases the ball. Simultaneously, Revis puts his right foot in the ground and starts to run in Johnson’s direction.
As Revis runs, one can’t help but notice how quickly he covers ground. He erases the green with every step. He’s closing in on Johnson, who is moving further away from the ball. The throw finally arrives and it’s caught — by Revis. He leaped in front of Johnson and intercepted the pass, ending the Bills’ quest for a touchdown.
Revis’ patience and talent decided the fate of the throw and the same outcome is expected when he suits up in a Buccaneers jersey. He’s going to change the way the Bucs, who gave up the second worst yards per pass attempt (7.3) and the third most passing first downs (226) last season, play defense. He’ll not only make them better, but also more flexible.
Last season, Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan blitzed and played a plethora of variations of coverages, ranging from the Cover 1 Robber to Cover 2 Buc (Tampa 2), but they weren’t very effective because his defensive backs lacked discipline and technique. Now he can help them out by putting a safety over the top and simultaneously send more blitzes per game while Revis handles his business in man coverage. It’s uncommon to have that kind of schematic flexibility, but like Ryan once said, “because we have Darrelle Revis on the field, it allows us to get away with way more stuff than any other team can get away with.”
Now that’s an elite talent.