Josh Norman is actually playing the best football of his career

Through two weeks, cornerback Josh Norman owns a clean slate against two of the game's top receivers.

| 1 month ago
Redskins CB Josh Norman

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Josh Norman is actually playing the best football of his career

Through two games, Redskins CB Josh Norman is the league’s leading cornerback, with a 91.6 overall grade—a higher mark even than his 87.9 from last season.

Josh Norman season grades

Norman has been thrown at eight times when acting as the primary coverage defender, allowed three receptions for 40 yards, and has a pair of pass breakups in each game. What’s maybe more impressive is his stat line against two of the best receivers in the game:

Redskins WR Josh Norman versus No. 1 WRs in 2016

Josh Norman versus Dez Bryant

When Norman faced Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, he kept a clean sheet across the board. The problem people have, though, is that he hasn’t done it enough. Many see tracking a No. 1 receiver as a necessary step to being classified as an elite corner, regardless of the fact that it’s not the cornerback’s decision to make.

Seahawks CB Richard Sherman is arguably the best cornerback in the game right now, but that comes with an asterisk to many because he isn’t asked to follow top receivers; guys like Jets CB Darrelle Revis and Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson are. Seattle believes the defense is better overall when keeping Sherman on one side and leaning coverage away from him to help the other side, allowing the No. 2 corner to have help from safeties buzzing down from bracket coverage, generally reducing the amount of space a great receiver can utilize to beat him.

They have, on occasion, used Sherman to track receivers when injuries have meant the other side couldn’t hold up against top-flight wideouts even with help, but it’s a schematic choice, not a flaw in Sherman’s game.

Washington began the season with Norman at LCB and Bashaud Breeland at RCB. They clearly felt that their duo was good enough to just line up and win one-on-one against the offense, and because of that, they haven’t incorporated any of the schematic wrinkles into the defense that Seattle does because of what Sherman allows them to do. Instead, the Redskins simply ran their defense as if they had just taken it out of the box and expected it to work. Breeland—talented though he is—just isn’t quite good enough to live with receivers as destructive as Brown and Bryant, and while Norman has been perfect against that pair, Breeland has been eaten alive. He surrendered 113 yards and two scores to Brown on Week 1, and had allowed four catches for 57 yards to Bryant before the team decided they needed to make a change.

From that point, Norman was asked to start following Bryant. When the fourth quarter opened, Norman was lined up one-on-one against the Cowboys’ top WR on the right side of the defense, a departure from his usual spot on the left. Strangely, there was no straw that broke the camel’s back to cause the change—the team just decided to make the switch heading into the final period.

In the final quarter of the game, Norman lined up across from Bryant on 13 snaps, 11 of which came on the right side of the defense. There were only three snaps in which Bryant was on the field that Norman didn’t follow him in the final period, as well as two snaps for which Bryant wasn’t on the field at all.

Bryant had seven catches for 102 yards in the game, but only one of those catches came in the final quarter—and that was on one of the three snaps where Norman was not lined up across from him.

Josh Norman was an elite cornerback in 2015, and the Redskins paid big money to make him the star of their secondary in 2016 (and beyond). So far, he has more than lived up to that billing, but the team hasn’t done nearly enough to maximize the impact that having a shutdown cornerback can deliver.

Their initial strategy was clearly lacking, but the team has at least shown that its prepared to adapt and change, even making the switch mid-game. Whether they take this as a sign that they should be using him to track receivers or not, it’s clear that it’s something Norman can do if asked. More importantly, the fact that he hasn’t been deployed that way for an entire game yet shouldn’t be held against him. Norman spent extended periods of time in each of the first two weeks of this season covering two of the best receivers the game has, and he blanked them both.

What’s more, he has actually broken up every pass thrown into his coverage intended for one of those top receivers.

Josh Norman is playing the best football of his career right now, and all that remains to be seen is if Washington is prepared to change their defensive scheme to let him show it more.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Anonymous

    Problem I have with this is the following: “Norman spent extended periods of time in each of the first two weeks of this season covering two of the best receivers the game has”. 13 snaps against Dez and a handful against Brown is not “extended periods of time.” It’s a handful of plays a game. Was he successful in those handful of plays? yes he was. Let’s see it for a whole game now since they’re obviously willing to switch it up and let him do it. Let’s see him affect the game by having that success for an entire game, including the slot, shutting down the teams top option so Breeland and a safety can negate the other guy.

    • Jay Anderson

      Dude if you expecting him to be a slot guy for get about it. He doesn’t play the slot. Alot of corners don’t play the slot thats why some OC move the player to the slot. Like when Josh played Julio and O’Dell times they put them in the slot to get away from Norman. Deion never played the slot because his man was always on the outside. So kill that play him in the slot because thats not gonna happen. I don’t know if you ever watch football or know about football. Or I don’t know if you ever saw Josh play the past 2 years in Carolina or you probably just like everybody else seen him play only the last couple of games then judge him. I don’t know Washington plan but if you are questioning Josh guarding the #1’s he had success before. Its not him its his coach. Carolina put him on those guys. Washington are not.

      • Jeff

        Jay…wtf did I just read. Mix in a comma or two.

      • Anonymous

        Revis for a very long time, and Peterson now follow into the slot too. That is the point of that.

    • PFFSamMonson

      That was 13 snaps in one quarter. He had other snaps over the first 3. It’s not like Dez was lined up at LWR on them all. Against Brown, Brown spent nearly the same number of snaps against Norman as he did against Breeland.

      • Justin

        Antonio Brown only lined up against Norman on 8 total plays. And lining up against still doesn’t tell the whole story, because in zone the receiver can move out of a corners assignment even if they lineup across from one another.

        • PFFSamMonson

          I’m not sure where you got 8 plays from, but it’s not even close.

          Norman was lined up directly on Brown for 26 snaps.

          • Justin

            Maybe it was 8 passes? You got the stats, right?

            Regardless it was a small sample where Josh was relied on to stop Brown and the point stands. Josh shut-down OBJ for a large portion of the giants game last season and it still wound up being his worst game statistically as guys as good as OBJ only need a play here, a play there to really through a good defensive game out the window.

      • Anonymous


        I always argue with you about cornerbacks. You need to present the statistics in the relevant light. How many of those 13 snaps in the fourth quarter were actually pass plays? How many was it actually Norman’s coverage and not a zone where Dez ran out of his zone after the snap? How about the penalty he got on Dez? Looking at the box score, they ran 9 pass plays in the fourth quarter, 3 of which resulted in a sack. 2 total drives not counting the 3 runs at the end to try and kill the clock. And they gave up a touchdown on one of the drives.

        Then do the same thing for Antonio Brown. Has Norman played well in what they’ve asked him to do? Sure. Is what they’re asking him to do worth $17 million a season? You guys have statistics to distinguish the difference between “snaps” and “coverage” snaps. Present them.

        You present total snaps to make it seem like it was more pass plays where they went head to head than than it actually was. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t successful in the limited plays he did have. You do say “people say he hasn’t done it enough in their eyes” so I’m not discrediting what you’re saying. I’m just saying you should present the full suite of the statistics to make this point.

        • PFFSamMonson

          When we’re talking about tracking receivers we’re talking alignment. It’s not like they know pre-snap if it’s run or pass. If he’s following him he’s following him.

          Norman has played more than just a hand full of coverage snaps across two games covering two of the best receivers in the game. So far he has been thrown at four times when covering them, and has broken up every one of those four passes.

          • Anonymous

            Like I said, he had success in the limited amount of COVERAGE snaps he’s had against them.

            I asked the coverage snaps to be presented. That’s literally how you guys grade corners from a coverage standpoint.

            You did not present them. This leads me to believe they are very low. Yes he followed Dez left and right, not slot as you pointed out. This was never in dispute. I want to know what the coverage snaps was. How many times did he actually cover them from start of the play to the end? When we see that, then we can debate if that worth $17 million?

          • Anonymous

            And no, when we’re talking about tracking receivers, we’re talking about alignment, play type, route, and defensive coverage.

            If I line up across from a guy on every single play, and he runs a crossing route on every single play and I don’t go with him, then I’m not really “tracking” him am I? This is an extreme case obviously, but I just want to see the total coverage snaps against Brown and Dez.


    Norman covers the worse receiver on the field. He’s not elite.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Norman was probably the best acquisition of the off season. For some reason the Panthers didn’t feel they needed him. Of course they just gave up 27 points at home to the most inept scoring team from last season….so they may start second guessing themselves if that trend continues.

  • JGI

    Further proof that your statistical analysis does not take all variables into effect. Which essentially means you use junk science to run this site and people are clicking so good job.

    • Digital Junkie

      You have something better? show us so we can critique it.

  • Ramasez

    It looked like Norman was the only one trying to play defense the past 2 weeks.

  • Justin

    He’s a solid corner so of course he looks good covering #2s, 3s and 4s. Problem is the Skins defense has been getting torched even with Norman on the field and the fact that Norman gets paid follow the #1 around kind of cash. The Skins are finding out it’s easy to scheme away from a zone corner with mediocre man skills if the rest of the defense isn’t up to par.