The 2015 season was when Josh Norman went from being a great cornerback to being a superstar and a household name. Norman, who had shown improvement through his first three NFL seasons, broke out in a big way as the Carolina Panthers raced to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance on the strength of not just Cam Newton ‘s superhuman offensive exploits, but one of the NFL’s toughest defenses as well.
The Panthers finished the 2015 season ranked second behind only the Denver Broncos in Football Outsiders’ overall defensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance for down, distance, and opponent), and second against the pass as well. In large part thanks to Norman’s exploits on the perimeter, they also finished third in DVOA (behind only the Broncos and Los Angeles Rams ) against No. 1 receivers.
No. 1 receivers, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. A team’s best receiver is a team’s best receiver, and some teams are better in that area than others. Luckily, thanks to week-to-week tracking done by Pro Football Focus, we can narrow down exactly which No. 1’s Norman himself squared off with. PFF’s trackers had Norman shadowing a No. 1 wideout on at least 50 percent of his routes in eight different games last season.
How did those receivers fare on the snaps during which they were covered by Norman?
Uh, not great.
Those players rank (in order) 14th, 19th, 18th, 15th, third, first, third, and 12th in receiving yards per game over the last five seasons, so it’s no set of slouches. Norman held them to a 44.4 percent catch rate on plays where he was directly shadowing them, limiting their quarterbacks to a disgustingly low 58.9 passer rating on throws in his direction.
Take those eight shadow-heavy games and add them to the other half of Carolina’s season, and Norman was targeted with 80 total throws, per Football Outsiders. He got his hands on an incredible 27.5 percent of those throws, recording 18 passes defensed and four interceptions. He also returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns.
After the Super Bowl, the Panthers rewarded Norman for his performance during the season with a franchise tag designation, intending to negotiate a more lucrative long-term deal with their star corner. You know what happened next: talks broke down, the Panthers rescinded the tag, and Norman took his talents to Washington on a five-year, $75 million contract that contains $50 million in guarantees.
Norman landing in Washington is interesting not only for what his presence brings to the team’s pass defense, but also because they were one of only five teams (along with the Cincinnati Bengals , Kansas City Chiefs , 49ers, and Pittsburgh Steelers ) that didn’t use any shadow coverage during the 2015 season. Then-No. 1 cornerback Bashaud Breeland played 78 percent of his snaps as the team’s left cornerback, per PFF, while the rotating cast of No. 2 and No. 2 corners Washington ran through mostly manned the right side and the slot.
How much will that change in 2016?
We don’t know for sure just yet, but we’re likely to get a pretty good idea on Monday Night Football, when Washington gets a visit from Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brown Bears has led the NFL in catches in each of the last two seasons, and over the last three has increased his catch and yardage total each season. He’s ramped things up from 110-1,499-8 to 129-1,698-13 to 136-1,834-10.
He is preternaturally wide open. Because of his skill set, he is able to shake free of any kind of corner. And assuming Ben Roethlisberger is the one throwing the passes (and not one of his backups), the ball winds up in Brown’s mitts soon after he makes his break more often than not.
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry said his team will occasionally use Norman to shadow Brown, per ESPN.com, though it’s tough to do on an every-snap basis because Brown moves around so much. Per PFF, Brown ran 45 percent of his routes from the right side of the field in 2015, 34 percent from the left, and 20 percent from the slot.
Norman, despite being one of the NFL’s most shadow-heavy cornerbacks (only Darrelle Revis , Patrick Peterson , Malcolm Butler , and Logan Ryan shadowed a receiver on at least half his routes more often), Norman almost never bumped down into the slot, lining up there on only two percent of his snaps, per Football Outsiders. Whenever Brown bumps inside on Monday night, it’d be a surprise to see Norman follow him there. Breeland has experience moving to the slot in nickel situations with Quinton Dunbar taking over as an outside corner, so that seems like a more likely play.
When Brown is on the outside, however, it would seem to behoove Washington to get Norman matched up on him as often as possible. Breeland fared well during the 2015 season himself, but he’s not yet in Norman’s league as a cover corner. Almost nobody is.
Here’s the thing, though: even when Brown was shadowed by cornerbacks of similar quality to Norman in 2015, he mostly torched them — especially when Ben Roethlisberger was under center and he wasn’t stuck catching passes from backups Michael Vick or Landry Jones .
|WEEK||CB (PFF RK)||QB||SHAD/RTE||REC||TGT||YDS||TD|
|1||Malcolm Butler (23)||Ben Roethlisberger||38/43||9||11||133||1|
|5||Jason Verrett (5)||Michael Vick||24/31||3||6||45||0|
|6||Patrick Peterson (9)||Vick/Landry Jones||26/31||3||8||24||0|
|9||David Amerson (13)||Roethlisberger||36/55||17||23||284||0|
|12||Richard Sherman (7)||Roethlisberger||61/70||6||12||51||0|
|15||Chris Harris (3)||Roethlisberger||56/61||16||18||189||2|
While being shadowed on about 83 percent of his routes by Butler, Amerson, Sherman, and Harris — all of whom ranked in the top-25 in PFF’s cornerback grades last season — Brown caught 75 percent of the passes thrown his way, at 13.7 yards a clip.
His two most notable games were the showdowns with Butler and Harris, the latter of which included the first touchdown caught against Harris in two years. As you can see in the videos below, he beat them both in a variety of ways: slants, outs, skinny posts, shallow crosses, fades routes, and more. He made plays within the three and five-step rhythm of the offense, on quick screens, and on scramble drill plays. That’s what makes him so tough. There’s really nothing he can’t do.
Roethlisberger is also unafraid to feed him a consistent diet of targets against even the best cornerbacks. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager that the 12 passes thrown to Brown are the most any quarterback has thrown at Sherman in a single game in a good, long while. Not many passers throw at Harris 15-plus times in a game, either.
So whether Norman is on Brown or not, you can surely expect that he’ll see his share of looks. It’s a tall order holding him down. The only people that have been able to slow Brown’s roll over the last three years are Mike Vick and Landry Jones. He’s caught at least five passes in each of the last 46 games started by Roethlisberger. Norman is going to have his hands full Monday night.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / In Focus: It won’t be easy for Josh Norman to work his shadow magic on Antonio Brown