Malcolm Butler got all the glory.
He took a trip to Disney, was gifted a new pickup truck by Tom Brady, and became a household name after intercepting a pass to seal the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
He deserved the spotlight. He made a great read on Russell Wilson’s pass, brought back a ring and saved New England from another Super Bowl heartbreak. But if you watch the play again, perhaps someone else should have been sharing at least a flicker of the spotlight.
Because without this unheralded hero, perhaps there is no debate about what play the Seahawks called from the 1-yard line and maybe we’re still seeing highlights of one of the craziest catches in Super Bowl history.
Take a look at the play again. Lined up across from Jermaine Kearse on the offensive right side of the formation is cornerback Brandon Browner. The Seahawks are hoping to run a pick play or have Browner backpedal just enough to either bump into or create an obstacle for Butler, allowing receiver Ricardo Lockett to get open underneath for a slant.
But Browner has other plans. He uses his 6-foot-4 frame to jam Kearse at the line, which allows Butler to break for the ball. Interception. Undrafted rookie leaves town in a new pickup truck big enough to carry the weight of all of his newfound adulation.
This play exemplifies why the Saints recently signed Browner to a three-year, $15 million deal. They want to play a more physical brand of football. They want a cornerback who can press and blow guys up at the line of scrimmage, creating havoc in the passing game and more time for the pass rushers to get after the quarterback.
And that’s exactly how New Orleans plans to use its cornerbacks this season — at least when Browner is on the field.
“I think No. 1, I see him as our right corner, I see him as a bump-and-run player,” coach Sean Payton said. “So the closer he can be to a receiver, the better. And Keenan (Lewis), to some degree, I think is a press player as well.”
This will be a bit of a change in philosophy for the Saints from last season. Press coverage was part of New Orleans’ program, but it also used a lot of zone coverages to varying degrees of success.
Against the San Francisco 49ers last season, a game many felt the Saints could have and should have won, quarterback Colin Kaepernick was able to put together two of his biggest plays of the game against New Orleans’ Quarters and Cover 2 coverages.
One instance came on a second-and-12 play in the second quarter, when the Saints used quarters coverage to try to stop San Francisco. During the play, wide receiver Anquan Boldin was given a free release off the line of scrimmage, slipped behind a linebacker, and got open for a first down. Two plays later, the 49ers scored a touchdown.
Late in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick was able to hit Michael Crabtree for a 51-yard gain against New Orleans’ Cover 2 defense. Many have pointed at Kenny Vaccaro, who abandoned his responsibility to cover another receiver, as the culprit on the play, and he was to a certain degree. But Corey White, playing on the right side, delivered a soft jam, which allowed Crabtree to get on his way toward the big gain.
The 49ers then hit a field goal to tie the game and force overtime, where they won 27-24.
There were several other instances in this game where the Saints failed to put a good jam on Boldin or where receivers were given free releases and Kaepernick was able to connect on quick strikes. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Boldin finished with six catches for 95 yards and a touchdown.
With Browner, the hope is that big receivers can no longer take advantage of the New Orleans secondary. As pointed out in a recent article, he struggles against smaller, quicker receivers, but has a career 71.75 quarterback rating when covering receivers who stand 6-feet or taller. Against guys over 6-3, Browner has a career quarterback rating against of 64.58.
The Saints are well aware of these numbers.
“If you look at our division and you just take a team — Tampa Bay their size,” Payton said. “Atlanta their size at receiver, Carolina — probably more size at the receiver position in the NFC South than any other division in football.
“And so, you don’t want to line up with 5-8 corners, bump and running and bumping their knees. So I think Brandon’s comfort zone certainly would be playing up close to the line of scrimmage. And look, each week — you’re looking at really six games you’re playing the division, you know you’re going to see big, talented receivers.”
And now those big, talented receivers are going to see a big, physical cornerback waiting for them on the other side of the line of scrimmage.