For the first time in his career, Darrelle Revis has played two bad games in a row. But what’s most surprising isn’t that one of the greatest players of his generation, a 31-year-old, four-time All-Pro cornerback, has looked a step slow. No, what’s shocking is that opposing quarterbacks haven’t hesitated to attack the hell out of him.
In the past, Revis would reward that kind of hubris with an interception or a deflected pass, but the dynamic has changed: After giving up just 583 yards in coverage in all of 2015, he’s already surrendered 173 yards, and that doesn’t even count the 54-yard touchdown bomb to Cincinnati’s A.J. Green in Week 1 that Pro Football Focus generously credited to the safety. Revis wasn’t blameless on that, but he got to take all the responsibility for giving up an 84-yard score to Buffalo’s Marquise Goodwin in Week 2.
Revis Island no longer exists; its namesake can’t just lock down one half of the field every Sunday. Now Revis and New York’s coaching staff have to adjust.
Revis earned the nickname because of a crazy mixture of physicality, short-area quickness, balance, footwork, anticipation, ball skills, and smarts. He’s been able to play any type of coverage, all over the field — outside, in the slot, man, zone — whatever. And quarterbacks have almost always been better off just not bothering to look in his direction.
In off technique, he became one of the best in the game at reading the quarterback’s eyes, adjusting to subtle tells in a receiver’s route or alignment, and being able to decipher where his receiver was going to end up based on route combinations, down and distance, and hours and hours of tape study. He’d often end up where the ball was going before the receiver even got there.
In press coverage, he was just as dangerous. Revis would get his hands on a receiver at the line of scrimmage, make him adjust his route, and then break on the football.
Double moves, jukes, comebacks — you name it. There were times when his coverage looked like a choreographed dance with the receiver. Just look at him completely erasing Golden Tate and Jordy Nelson.
His one real weakness has always been his lack of top-end speed, but he still rarely got beat deep, thanks to short-burst quickness that allowed him to make up ground at the last moment if he was ever caught out of position.
This year, Revis has already been beaten deep for long touchdowns twice.
Against Green and the Bengals, the Jets were in man free coverage (with cornerbacks in man-to-man and a single-high safety playing in a zone), so Revis was expecting help from the safety over the top. He didn’t get it, but it was still on him to stay close enough to Green to break up the pass.
The long touchdown to Goodwin was even more clear cut: Revis straight up got beat. He got beat by an Olympic-caliber sprinter, sure, but Revis should be aware of Goodwin’s track-and-field résumé and adjust accordingly. He kept his eyes in the backfield a little too long, anticipating a slant or stop route by Goodwin, and as Goodwin quickly ate up Revis’s cushion, a moment of hesitation allowed the speedster to blow by him down the sideline. At that point, the Jets cornerback had no shot to make up the lost ground.
That’s basically Revis’s 2016 issues in a nutshell: He’s not able to get away with quite as much as he used to. In his 10th year as a pro, he’s lost a little bit of that recovery speed, and he’s not as quick or explosive reacting to receiver cuts and double moves. Whether it’s in press or in off coverage, Revis hasn’t looked quite as unshakable as he used to be.
Take these two plays against Green: On the first, the Cincinnati wideout was able to use a subtle push-off at the top of his route, and with Revis looking into the quarterback’s eyes a little too long, Green was able to gain the type of separation we rarely see against Revis in coverage. On the second play, Revis was playing zone, keeping his eyes on several routes developing underneath him, and he ended up giving Green way too much of a cushion. He was late to diagnose the out route, and then he stumbled when he saw the ball come out.
Despite his struggles, the Jets shouldn’t freak out. It’s not as if Revis has, all of a sudden, become a bad player and is now useless in their scheme. He’s just gotten older, and he isn’t the athlete he used to be. Jets head coach Todd Bowles, a former safety and longtime defensive secondary coach, now knows that he can no longer rely on the luxury of Revis’s impervious island coverage. He’ll adjust accordingly.
Whether Revis is playing off or up in press-man coverage, expect more safety help over the top — the type that never came on the long touchdown to Green. Revis will still be asked to perform his bread-and-butter coverage, up at the line of scrimmage, pressing and rerouting receivers. But with a loss in explosiveness and long-range speed, the off-coverage technique that gives him a cushion against younger, faster receivers will be featured more frequently. In the off-coverage looks, Revis loses the advantage of being able to control a receiver’s timing off the line of scrimmage, but it gives him more space to adjust to routes. In order to avoid the long bombs like he gave up against Green and Goodwin, though, he must take fewer chances and gamble less on routes he thinks are coming, and instead just make sure he’s not letting the ball get over his head.
We saw a glimpse of what this strategy would look like against the Bengals and Bills. While Green got the best of Revis and the Jets’ secondary in Week 1, keep in mind that apart from that big touchdown play, Green’s average depth of target was just 5.3 yards — well off his 2015 average of 14.2 yards — and most of his catches came on short slant and hook routes underneath Revis’s bail technique. (Those are the types of routes the bail technique is bound to give up). Revis will have to give up those shorter passes more often than he has in the past, but if he can protect against the deep ball, he should still be plenty effective.
Revis hasn’t lost his ability to study tape, react to formations and routes, and read the quarterback’s eyes, so with a few tweaks and adjustments to his technique — to account for slight loss of explosiveness and speed — he can still be a very good starting cornerback. Plus, playing a more hands-off role that requires him to keep his eyes in the backfield should also prepare him for what he knows to be an inevitable move to safety, like we saw with Charles Woodson in Green Bay and Oakland. Revis has made a career out of adjusting to and studying opposing receivers, and now he has to adjust to himself.