Fans and media members alike know about defensive end Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. Those four aforementioned players are the heart and soul of the San Francisco 49ers defense.
However, it takes more than four high-profile names to build a championship defense. It takes an experienced coaching staff and a core group of complementary players. When it comes to the Niners, there’s no better complement to the big four than seven-year veteran cornerback Tarell Brown.
Brown has never been an All-Pro selection nor has he ever been invited to Hawaii. Yet, All-Pro selections and Pro Bowl appearances are hardly the be-all and end-all. Anyone who has watched or has extensive knowledge of the game knows the fifth-round pick out of Texas is one of the best corners no one talks about.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brown was the fourth-best cover corner in the NFL last year. Richard Sherman, Casey Hayward and Charles Tillman were the three who received better coverage grades.
Despite being targeted 90 times by opposing quarterbacks, Brown only allowed 53 receptions for 719 yards. In addition, he didn’t surrender a touchdown pass during the regular season, and he led the 49ers with 14 passes defended.
Here’s how defensive coordinator Vic Fangio feels about Brown, and his overall play, according to Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “He’s done a very nice job for us. He learns from his mistakes. He’s very professional in his approach.”
Fangio is right. Brown has approached the game the right way, and it shows. Let’s go to the tape and analyze what makes the 28-year-old, top-notch corner an underappreciated technician.
No matter which game of Brown’s you watch, it’s easy to see he has a high football IQ and notable instincts. On this play against the Chicago Bears this past season, his know-how to anticipate and jump a route was on full display.
Chicago’s offense was in “11” personnel. Brown was lined up over the flanker in off-man coverage. Based on the fact the Bears need more than 10 yards for a first down, Brown knows Devin Hester is going to break off his route between 13 and 15 yards downfield.
Throughout the entirety of Hester’s comeback route, Brown did a great job pacing his back-pedal and staying on top of the route with the proper spacing. This, in turn, allowed him to freely move downhill on the comeback.
As Hester came out of his break, Brown was so well-positioned, he knew he had a clear path to the football. Once he was along the sideline on Hester’s outside shoulder, it proved to be all over for quarterback Jason Campbell.
Campbell’s ball placement was good. Brown just made a heads up play; it’s that simple. He gambled by jumping the route, and the gamble paid off. Kudos to Brown, he was technically sound from the beginning of the play until the end.
Even though Brown is short at 5’10”, this second play highlights his physicality. At times it’s clear, he plays with an assertive edge. The assertive edge grants him the toughness he needs to take on the stiffest competition.
As you can see in the screenshot above, Brown was matched up against four-time All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Instead of playing off-man coverage like last time, he came up to the line of scrimmage and played press-man coverage.
Fitzgerald’s stature didn’t stop Brown from winning the back-and-forth battle after the ball was snapped. Brown was textbook in his execution of proper press-man coverage. He disrupted Fitz’s release off the line by striking him in the chest and not opening his hips.
If Brown had opened his hips, Fitzgerald would have run right through his punch.
As the play developed, Brown maintained his superb coverage and almost took Fitzgerald out of the play completely. Quarterback Brian Hoyer had two receiving options, yet it was obvious whom he was keying in on.
Rather than dumping the ball off in the flat to running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, Hoyer forced the ball into tight coverage to Fitzgerald, and Brown knocked the ball away. Despite the fact all Brown received for his effort was a pass defended, he did so much more than any box score could ever measure.
The last break down will focus on Brown’s fantastic ball skills. When a defensive player tallies 14 passes defended, it’s not a fluke. It takes impeccable timing and flawless execution. Here’s one of the 14.
Brown was shadowing flanker wide receiver Andre Roberts on the right side of the defensive formation. Additionally, this snap called for off-man coverage with safety help from Donte Whitner on the back-end.
Roberts tried to catch Brown off-guard and turn him around with a “7” route. Fortunately for the 49ers defense, Brown’s approach to the “7” route was spot on. When Roberts started to break off his route at the 8-yard mark, Brown knew he was in store for a double move.
As soon as quarterback John Skelton let go of the rock, Brown was in perfect position to stop the play dead in its tracks. He had his hips open, and he had correctly identified his help by staying outside of Roberts’ shoulder.
The end result was a beautiful pass breakup. Brown’s positioning and 35.5-inch vertical jump helped him complete the task at hand. Magnificent coverage from start to finish, you couldn’t have drawn it up any better than that.
Even if that was a small sample size, it’s pretty apparent by the numbers and the film that Brown is a top talent in the NFL. His career was remade when head coach Jim Harbaugh and his position coaches took over prior to the 2011 season.
Before they took over, one could have described his journey through the NFL as average at best.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether or not San Francisco’s front office rewards his high level of play with a contract extension at the end of the season. He carries a cap number of $1,907,312 this year. To put that into perspective, kicker Phil Dawson and defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey will both make more than him in 2013.
To reap the benefits of a lucrative deal and shed the label as the NFL’s best cornerback you don’t know about, Brown’s play has to continually grade out positively on a weekly basis. For some, it takes longer than others, but eventually, his hard work and exceptional play will help him garner the praise he deserves.
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