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A look at how Ronald Darby matched up against the NFL’s best wide receiver

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Ronald Darby vs Antonio Brown

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Buffalo Bills Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Immediately after Eagles traded for cornerback Ronald Darby, Eagles fans and analysts everywhere began scouring the bowels of the internet for highlights of Darby during his time in Buffalo. One of the storylines that surfaced was Darby’s matchup with all-world receiver Odell Beckham in 2015.

Lost in the shuffle, however, with all of the attention this matchup received, is his 2016 showdown with the one wide receiver who might be better than Beckham. In a game that the Steelers won 27-20, Brown walked away with five receptions for 78 yards but three of those receptions came on screen passes designed specifically for Brown. Take those three passes away and the Buffalo secondary held Brown to two catches for 69 yards, a stat line that any defensive coordinator would gladly accept heading into a matchup with Brown.

Darby wasn’t isolated on Brown for the entire game, the Bills mixed up their coverages quite a bit, using both of their corners and an occasional bracket coverage to match up with Brown. Darby did have a handful of one-on-one matchups with Brown, though, and faired quite well overall. Below are all of the meaningful snaps in which Darby was matched up with Brown.

Context: The game was played in a light snowstorm so the game conditions were not ideal. These conditions, however, typically favor the offense over the defense. It is much easier to run routes and make cuts on a slippery turf if you know when you are going to make them. If anyone was at a disadvantage here, it was the defense.

Setting the Line

The first two plays below show Darby in two different coverages but were very similar. In both plays, Brown takes an outside vertical release down the sideline. On vertical routes down the sideline, receivers are taught to hold an imaginary line that sits roughly three yards in and runs parallel to the sideline. If receivers are able to hold this line, it gives the quarterback a nice three-yard window outside the coverage to throw into. On both of the plays below, even though the ball is thrown elsewhere, Darby does great job getting his hands on Brown and riding him into the sideline and taking away that throwing window.

In the first play, Darby is playing in Cover-2. Darby lines up in press, shaded over the outside of Brown. This ensures that if Brown releases outside, he is automatically going to have to take a wider path just to get around him. He is re-directing his route without even touching him. As Brown tries to push upfield, watch as Darby shuffles outside with him forcing him to widen even further, then finally engages with his hands and rides him out to the sideline. He never fully turns with Brown as he is not in pure man coverage, and is able to keep his eyes on Roethlisberger and get downhill to assist in the tackle on the throw underneath.

On the next play, Darby is matched with Brown again, this time in man coverage. He lines up in press again, this time is more of a head-up alignment. Brown again releases outside, and Darby shows very good hand timing, getting his hands into Brown’s torso and resetting that imaginary line once again. He stays in phase with Brown down the field and is able to turn back and look for the ball late in the route. (Something rarely seen from an Eagles’ cornerback).

Trail Coverage

On the next play, Darby again comes up to the line in press alignment. This time, Darby will have dedicated help over the top from the safety. When the ball is snapped, Brown releases to the outside and Darby lets him pass. He then turns and purposely gives Brown a slight cushion, trailing him as he knows he has safety help over the top bracketing the receiver. With his positioning and the position of the safety over the top, if Roethlisberger wants to go to Brown, he is going to have to make an incredibly difficult throw fitting the ball between the two defenders. As expected, he wisely chose to go in another direction. Good job by Darby positioning his body to take away the throw.

Man-to-Man

The next two plays had Darby locked on Brown in man coverage, one in the short area of the field and one deep down the field. In the first play, The Steelers run a slant-flat combination with Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. Darby is again in press alignment, this time shaded to Brown’s outside. Brown releases immediately into the slant pattern and Darby does a good job getting across Brown’s body and disrupting the route. It appears as if Darby got away with a hold on the play but it was effective. Roethlisberger looked immediately at the slant route at the snap but had to go elsewhere when Darby took it away.

The next play is one I highlighted in another article discussing Darby’s fit into Philadelphia’s defense. Darby is in a head-up press alignment to the wide side of the field with the deep safety shaded to the opposite side of the field. He is on an island with the best wide receiver in football. At the snap, Brown releases vertically to the outside. Darby widens his path a bit but Brown does a good job holding the line down the field. Roethlisberger makes an amazing drop-in-the-bucket type throw right into that imaginary three-yard window and Brown is able to contort his body to make an amazing catch for a 40-yard gain.

Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap to the opponent. Darby played this about as perfectly as he could. He was able to turn and run side-by-side with Brown down the field. He turned back and looked for the ball while doing a great job keeping his hip glued to Brown. Darby is then also shows great body control leaning outside with Brown and getting his hand up to make a play on the ball. Darby forced perfection from the offense and they provided it.

The Deep Third

The final play to highlight was another great play by Darby using his speed to make a play. Darby is lined up far off the line of scrimmage and drops back into Cover-3 where he is responsible for a deep-third of the field. Brown gets a free release and runs a seam bender downfield, initially pushing outside to widen the outside defender (Darby), further opening up the seam. He then adjusts back inside and pushes vertically towards the gap in coverage down the seam.

Darby does an excellent job on this play, again putting his athleticism on display. After widening with Brown’s initial release, he sees the gap in the zone, leaves his area and comes back inside and over the top of Brown. He is able to stack his body over top of Brown, shielding him from the ball and goes for the interception. He doesn’t ultimately come down with the ball because he collided with the safety in the endzone but makes a great play overall. By stacking the receiver, Darby forced Brown to slow down. If he didn’t do this, Brown could’ve made a play on the ball in the endzone, something you don’t want to give him the opportunity to do.

There were other plays in the game where Darby was technically covering Brown but he was either in a strict zone coverage or the ball went out to another receiver really quickly. All of the meaningful snaps where Darby matched up with Brown were included here. Darby did some really good things in this matchup and so did Brown, as expected. In a matchup with the game’s best receiver, the goal for a defensive back is primarily not to be completely embarrassed. Darby allowed one reception to Brown and he was in perfect coverage on the play. Not only was he not embarrassed, he did a really good job.