Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo must test Cardinals' rookie CB
The New England Patriots begin their season with a suspended Tom Brady and a road trip to Glendale to face one of 2015’s best teams, the Arizona Cardinals. How Jimmy Garoppolo handles the starting role will be the big focus going into the game, but the way another young starter handles his business may also play a defining role.
The Cardinals’ secondary has marquee names—starting All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson and All-Pro slot corner Tyrann Mathieu—but the other cornerback spot will be occupied by third-round rookie Brandon Williams.
A third-round rookie starting at corner in itself obviously wreaks of inexperience, but Williams has an added wrinkle to his story above and beyond that—this will be only his second season playing cornerback, having originally been a five-star running back recruit, playing RB for three of his four college seasons. Williams was only moved to corner in his final year at Texas A&M, and his senior tape was far from special; in fact, he wasn’t even the best performing corner on his own team, trailing De’Vante Harris (Saints) in grade and all key coverage stats.
In his final season in college, Williams was targeted 44 times, allowing 24 receptions (54.5 percent) for 328 yards and a score. He didn’t record an interception, but he did break up two passes.
The Cardinals quickly decided that Williams would be the guy starting opposite Patrick Peterson. Justin Bethel played well early in 2015, but deteriorated as the season went on, and surrendered his three highest yardage totals of the season in the final three games he started. Apparently the Arizona decision-makers had seen enough to believe they needed to upgrade that spot, and Williams appears to be the guy they’ve pegged to do just that.
In the preseason, Williams saw 101 snaps on defense and was thrown at 19 times. He allowed nine catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns on those plays, surrendering a passer rating of 105.2. So far, we have seen nothing from him as a cornerback, either in college or the pros, to give teams a reason not to throw the ball in his direction.
Peterson is an elite corner and dangerous pick-six threat, but Williams has yet to even record an interception in his time playing cornerback. With Mathieu and Peterson as Arizona’s other primary options when it comes to targets, the bullseye seems to be firmly on the rookie in this otherwise loaded secondary.
Having a player to pick on in the Arizona secondary might make life a lot easier for Garoppolo as he tries to replicate Tom Brady’s mastery in an offense that requires quick reads and an intricate knowledge of the defense. Whether Williams can hold up against the kind of likely assault he will face will go a long way towards determining how successful Garoppolo’s day is, and therefore, the overall outcome of 2016’s first Sunday Night Football game.
Other key matchups
- Calais Campbell and Robert Nkemdiche versus a young, questionable New England interior O-line: Campbell is a premier interior pass-rusher and Nkemdiche was a force in the 60 preseason snaps he managed once returning from injury. Each has an impressive combination of size, strength, and quickness, and the ability to really disrupt an offense. New England’s O-line is a work in progress, with a rookie, a reclamation project, and a second-year undrafted free agent likely to make up the interior trio. Joe Thuney and David Andrews each had good preseasons, surrendering just three total pressures combined. Jonathan Cooper has missed the entire preseason with a foot injury.
- Patriots inside linebackers against the Cardinals O-line: New England blitzes their inside linebackers a lot, and this Cardinals line has new pieces in place, with RG Evan Mathis added via free agency and center A.Q. Shipley and D.J. Humphries both new starters. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins combined for 213 snaps on the blitz last season and generated 10 sacks, four hits, and 26 hurries on those snaps. How the Cardinals’ offensive line handles the blitz threat of that pair will be important in keeping QB Carson Palmer clean.
- Rob Gronkowski versus the matchup players on defense: Rob Gronkowski—when/if healthy—is the ultimate matchup problem on offense for most teams, but the Cardinals have more than one matchup-type player on defense, with Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon, in particular, hybrid players that can match up with rare offensive weapons. Gronkowski scored 14 touchdowns last season in 17 total games, averaging 16.1 yards per reception and gaining 7.3 yards on average after the catch. Can either Mathieu or Bucannon match up with Gronkowski more successfully than more traditional defenders?
Stat of the matchup
Teams preach not beating themselves. Last season, defenses lined up with only 10 men on the field 69 times, and Arizona was responsible for 13 of those, by far the most in the league (the next most was five times by four different teams). New England didn’t do it once.