At this time last year, fans were calling for Josh Boyer’s head. The Patriots’ cornerbacks were playing poorly, struggling with technique and positioning. They were playing with too much panic and too little patience, he said when asked about it. He assured fans things would improve as they got more experience.
“Again, being younger, a lot of the experience those guys get, it helps them,” the cornerbacks coach said. “They understand things a little bit better, they see the game a little bit better, they understand the film study a little bit better. Those things will help them improve as we move forward.”
A year later, they’ve gained more experience and more patience, enough to stop the once unstoppable Jimmy Graham.
In Week 6, they held the league’s best tight end to zero catches on six targets by slapping him around at the line of scrimmage, staying in his hip pocket, and playing through the ball like Boyer has taught them to do.
Whether he was lined up inline or in the slot, on the line or off it, Graham was hit. A short route or a deep route, he was hit. Boyer and his cornerbacks made it a point to disrupt the rhythm of the Saints’ offense and not let Graham get full-speed into his route. It was their only chance to defend him because as previous victims of his talent have found out, it’s pointless to double cover Graham — he’s still open two feet above his head and theirs.
But not if he can’t get off the line of scrimmage.
The first of three plays that stood out came when Graham nearly avoided the press-man coverage of Aqib Talib and to catch a pass over the middle. He was lined up in the left slot as part of the Saints’ empty formation and was set to run a shallow crossing route on a crucial 3rd-and-10. Directly across from him was Talib staring him down, ready to maul him at the line.
Talib struck first. He knocked into Graham’s lanky frame with both arms, riding the inside release until Graham broke to the middle. Talib fell off trail but not for long, recovering as Brees’ throw landed into the tight end’s hands. The pass was nearly caught, but Talib stuck his left hand in at the last second and knocked it away. He played through the catch and the ball, like cornerbacks are taught to do when they’re beaten.
Later, in the second quarter, a second big defensive play came on a predictable slant throw on 2nd-and-7. The Saints were at their own 23-yard line in split-backs formation. Graham was isolated on the left to the weak-side where Talib was also aligned. The offense has always called this play in these kind of situations, as it’s a staple of theirs, and the Patriots expected it.
When Graham came off the line, Talib was patient. He stayed square and waited for the tight end to come forward, then bent his knees, slightly leaned forward and dug both hands into Graham. He knocked the tight end back and then matched each step of the slant route by staying at his hip. The result? An incompletion.
As the game waned, the Saints tried to get Graham involved. He wasn’t a factor being knocked around by the Patriots, so they motioned him around to create free releases. When a player can’t get off the line of scrimmage, this is the last hope for coaches.
He was once again to the formation’s left, this time outside the numbers on first down. It was only temporary, as he would motion inside and behind the No. 2 receiver to form a stacked Twin set. Aside from getting Graham a free release, it also set up what appeared to be a modified Switch concept, a two-man route combination that featured Graham running outside, then up.
A couple of yards off the line of scrimmage was Kyle Arrington. He was charged with covering Graham, usually a tough task when one can’t get their hands immediately on him. Two weeks earlier, the Dolphins found that out when he plucked the ball over their defenders’ heads for a 27-yard touchdown catch on the same concept.
But not this time. Arrington managed to put his hands on Graham just before the first break of the route, and then again on the second break. He was patient and stayed at Graham’s inside hip, running with him downfield before the jarring the ball out at the pylon ar the last second to prevent a go ahead touchdown. Like Talib earlier, and like Boyer taught him, he played through the throw and the ball.
The Patriots’ cornerbacks have been a pleasant surprise this season thanks to Boyer’s coaching. The second-year coach has them playing at a high level, shutting down poor offenses and slowing down potent offenses. He won’t get any credit — that’ll go to his head coach Bill Belichick — but that’s expected. His name only gets called when his cornerbacks, and Patriots fans, are panicking.