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Which Patriots CB should be matched up on Colts' T.Y. Hilton?

Posted by Erik Frenz  January 8, 2014 07:00 AM

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(AP Photo/AJ Mast)


The primary objective for the New England Patriots defense is clear: shut down dynamic wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. The person responsible for completing that objective, however, remains a mystery.

Fortunately, the Patriots have options in cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan. Unfortunately, three of the four players I just listed are dealing with injuries: Talib (hip), Dennard (knee) and Arrington (groin) were all listed on the injury report prior to the regular season finale against the Buffalo Bills.

The bye week may have helped them get back to full health, but when it comes to covering a small (5-foot-9, 178 pounds), speedy (4.34-second 40-yard dash) receiver like Hilton, there are certain matchups that are more favorable for the Patriots.

Hilton does a lot of his damage after the catch; his 391 yards after catch were the 19th-most in the league, although he averaged just 4.4 YAC per reception. The Colts like to get him involved all over the field -- short, intermediate and deep; from the slot and lined up on the perimeter; over the middle or near the sideline.

He is a speedster with the ability to take the top off of a defense.

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The Kansas City Chiefs learned that the hard way on his 64-yard touchdown catch in the final minutes of the Colts' thrilling 45-44 comeback win.

"Before we broke the huddle coming off the sideline, coach (Chuck) Pagano told me, 'Go win the game for us,'" Hilton recalled after the game, according to The Star Press. "We got in the huddle. Me and Andrew started talking. He called the play and said, 'Man, just run. Just run.'"

Those two words accurately describe what Hilton did on that play.

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He ran the post route through the secondary, getting past the cornerback and splitting the two safeties as he ran over the middle of the field and leaving the cornerback in his tracks. He ran straight downfield, giving the illusion of a go route, but he broke slightly toward the middle of the field when the safety got turned around.

"He's a dynamic football player," said safety Steve Gregory, "he's fast, he's quick, he has good hands, he makes a lot of things happen after the catch, so he's a guy that we're just going to have to understand where he's at on the field [and] how they're trying to get him the ball."

The Patriots have to be mindful of the long ball, so expect them to double him with a safety regardless. That being said, Hilton does a majority of his damage on intermediate routes over the middle of the field.

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One route the Colts love to use Hilton on is the drag route. It was comical watching against the Jaguars. On the Colts' first drive of the second half, they went to Hilton on this route on two third downs and coverted both times -- once for 41 yards, and this one for 19 yards.

He lined up in the slot and ran from right to left across the formation, underneath the belly of the zone coverage from the two linebackers over the middle. Tight end Coby Fleener ran a 10-yard curl route to clear out the coverage over the middle, and receiver Griff Whalen ran a deep pattern to take the cornerback out of the picture.

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The above screen grab is the point at which Hilton caught the pass. Notice the three receivers, all running routes that are far away from Hilton, which creates enough space for him to catch the ball in stride and easily turn upfield to pick up extra yards.

He can be just as much of a threat underneath as deep.

We know the Patriots will bracket Hilton with a safety when he goes deep; we know they'll need to be able to handle his quickness and lateral speed as much as his vertical speed. Now, the question is, who is most up to the task?

Although Talib would normally draw a team's No. 1 receiver, this is not necessarily right in his wheelhouse. He has done well against bigger receivers that play a physical game, but he was already exposed this year in matchups with similar receivers in the Eagles' DeSean Jackson and the Panthers' Steve Smith -- one had Talib's number in the preseason, the other in the regular season.

"They run different routes," Talib said about receivers like Hilton. "They get different balls thrown to them. Big guys get 50-50 balls, they get balls just thrown up to them. Guys like him run over routes and crossing routes and routes where he can use his speed to run away from guys."

The Patriots could try putting Talib on Hilton at the start, and if that doesn't work -- whether it's a bad matchup or if Talib's hip isn't healthy enough to take the challenge -- they could switch to Dennard, or possibly even Ryan.

Dennard was having a solid season of his own, before the knee injury slowed him down and kept him out of three of the team's last seven games. Ryan has held held his own in coverage all season, allowing a completion rate of just 50.9 percent according to Pro Football Focus. He is physical for a player of his size -- a modest 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame that is still much bigger than Hilton -- and he certainly has the lateral quickness to handle him on crossing patterns, as well.

Ryan is also a sure tackler, which will be important in minimizing Hilton's abilities after the catch.

Also, one way or another, Hilton will most likely end up matched up against Arrington, who is the team's primary slot cornerback.

Arrington has the speed to keep up with Hilton in a footrace and a quickness matchup, and although routes downfield aren't necessarily his strength, he will have the help of the safeties over the top.

There are different ways he can hurt a defense, but it depends on where he lines up.

"I think you need to know where he’s at," said safety Devin McCourty. "That's the key. It all starts with knowing where he's at, then trying to have an understanding of how he can hurt you from each different position he's out there. I think they do a good job of using him in different ways, because teams are keying in on him and want to know where he's at. They’re doing a great job of putting him in positions to be successful."

The Patriots must not only find him, but once they do, they must understand what he can do to them when he gets there. It may be one guy, or a mix of guys, but the game plan starts with slowing Hilton down by any means necessary.




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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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