When Brandon Browner was hit with a groin injury and a year-long suspension from the NFL for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, fans and media members alike wondered if third-year defensive back Byron Maxwell could fill the Pro Bowl cornerback’s shoes.
Seattle Seahawks fans knew what they had in Maxwell, but the rest of the nation wasn’t as sold on the sixth-round pick out of Clemson. Some felt he hadn’t logged enough regular-season snaps to rival Browner’s play, while others believed he would never be anything more than a situational role player.
Maxwell knows he has to turn the nonbelievers into believers, and that’s ok by him.
Head coach Pete Carroll is confident Maxwell's play will enlighten those who doubted him. Here’s what Carroll told Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com prior to Seattle’s Monday Night Football contest against the New Orleans Saints:
Byron has been a fantastic player for us whenever we’ve given him his opportunities.
When he’s played for us in all situations, coming off the bench and on special teams, he’s a fantastic player. He’s well-schooled. He’s totally versed in our style of play. And he’s had a great season working here for us, we have nothing but confidence in him.
So he’ll jump right in and I don’t hesitate saying he’ll play really well this game.
Carroll was right: Maxwell did play really well in his first career start, just as he had foreshadowed. Despite having little to go off of in terms of in-game experience, the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) concluded it was by far the best outing of his young career.
He performed well versus the run, he didn’t garner a single penalty and was top-notch in coverage.
Even though quarterback Drew Brees targeted him twice through the air, Maxwell didn’t flinch. He amassed two passes defended and held Brees to a quarterback rating of 39.6 when the All-Pro signal-caller threw into his coverage area.
Not bad for a player who was once perceived as someone who would never be able to stick in man coverage.
Yet, Maxwell didn’t stop there. He was only getting started. After his eye-opening performance in front of the 12th man, he secured the first interception of his career, while defending two more passes against quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers.
Sure, he struggled in coverage at particular points throughout the game, but that’s to be expected. Growing pains are common nature in the NFL, especially for young players who are still getting acclimated to the speed of live action.
Furthermore, we all know by now that statistics never tell you the whole story. To fully understand the type of impact Maxwell has had over the course of the past two weeks, you have to break down the game tape.
On this first play, we will examine Maxwell’s technique in coverage.
Prior to the snap, Maxwell was lined up at the right cornerback position. He was squaring off against left wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The Seahawks defense deployed a 4-3 over look. The 4-3 over was used to counter the 49ers’ “11 personnel” grouping.
As soon as the ball was snapped, Maxwell quickly read Crabtree and his release. Once Crabtree released toward the sideline, Maxwell immediately knew the route was either going to be a comeback route or a fade route.
By correctly identifying the route, Maxwell now had the upper hand. From that point on, all he had to do was keep his pad level low and eye Crabtree’s hips. If he did those two things accurately, he could then keep the receiver in his hip pocket and precisely play the ball.
Lo and behold, Maxwell did do those two things accurately, and the end result was a drive-killing interception.
Kudos to Maxwell; all throughout the play his technique and fundamentals were sound.
This second play didn’t result in an interception, but Maxwell shut the play down because of his disciplined technique.
The Saints offense came out in “12 personnel” set. Brees and Co. used this personnel grouping to spread the field and test the boundaries deep down the sideline. To counter Sean Payton’s unique look, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn ran a Cover 4 out of the Seahawks’ base defense.
Maxwell was playing the right cornerback position and squared off against left wide receiver Robert Meachem.
The moment Meachem released off the line of scrimmage, Maxwell did an impeccable job of reading his route, just like on the first play. He correctly played the outside route down the left sideline.
Moreover, Maxwell knew he could get away with playing in the trail position. Why? Because strong safety Kam Chancellor was assigned to provide help over the top.
Throughout the entirety of the play, Maxwell read Brees’ eyes and positioning in the pocket. This, in turn, proved to be quite impressive considering he never lost track of Meachem in the process.
Maxwell may have only registered a pass defended in the box score, but so much more went into the play. He opened his hips, changed direction, paced his backpedal and prevented a touchdown.
The traits Maxwell displays in both plays are good indicators as to why he is truly a star in the making.
Not to take anything away from Browner, but his off-the-field issues coupled with Maxwell’s emergence have all but sealed his fate. There’s no way the Seahawks re-sign a 29-year-old corner when they can plug a younger, more talented player into the starting lineup.
Yes, Maxwell has only made two starts opposite Richard Sherman, but the game tape doesn’t lie.
He has all the physical tools to develop into one of the most talented cornerbacks in the league. He just needs to find consistency on a per snap basis. As soon as that happens, watch out. The Seahawks' secondary will become a more dominant force than they already are.
Until then, let’s just sit back and enjoy Maxwell’s progression. Odds are he won’t receive the recognition he deserves until 2014, but that’s acceptable. Plenty of players in the NFL have all the talent in the world, yet few have the desire and drive to live up to expectations.
The good news is it’s easy to see Maxwell does have the desire and drive to not only live up to expectations but to exceed them. Even when he wasn’t a starter, he prepared like he was. Additionally, he never forgets where he was drafted and always plays with a chip on his shoulder.
Surely it’s hard to believe, but Browner’s suspension has been a blessing in disguise. Somehow, the NFL’s most vaunted secondary just got that much better. Without a doubt, for this group, the best is yet to come.