Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- With one foot on the folding chair in front of his locker, Logan Ryan spoke about his process. Calmly, patiently, he described the weekly behind-the-scenes work that helped him earn and keep his job as a ball-hawking starting cornerback in the Patriots secondary.

It begins, he explained, as soon as he learns his assignment. No matter who he's asked to cover, no matter the role he's told to perform, it's not long before he powers up his iPad and begins to chip away at the film.

By the time kickoff rolls around, he's seen everything there is to see.

"Whatever receiver, or whatever offense it is, I probably watch every snap that they played that year or that season -- at least," Ryan said. "I'll watch hundreds of snaps of certain routes hundreds of times to make a play one time in a game. That's how important it is. I've been fortunate enough to make a couple of those. Wish I could've made more."

Ryan got his hands on the football more than anyone for the Patriots defense in 2015. He finished the year with a team-high four interceptions, and his 14 pass-breakups were just one fewer than fellow corner Malcolm Butler's total. He recorded the second-most tackles on the team (82) behind linebacker Jamie Collins (90), and only Butler played more defensive snaps.

Since his rookie season, Ryan has consistently made plays on the ball when given the chance; he is third among all NFL corners with 11 picks since his rookie season of 2013, trailing only Seattle's Richard Sherman (14) and Miami's Brent Grimes (13).

 

But it was unclear going into this season just how often Ryan would have the opportunity to make an impact.

After coach Bill Belichick opted not to retain the top three veteran corners from last year's Super Bowl-winning squad -- Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington -- the starting cornerback role opposite Malcolm Butler was up for grabs. But Ryan looked like an also-ran in training camp. Veteran newcomer Tarell Brown eventually won the job, while Bradley Fletcher, another veteran free-agent signee, saw more work (68 snaps) than Ryan did in the first two weeks of the regular season (50).

Once Brown suffered a foot injury that landed him on season-ending injured reserve, and once Ryan proved himself to be the better option than Fletcher, the Rutgers product quickly strengthened his grip on the starting job.

Ryan has now started each of New England's last 14 games, and his well-rounded skill set has earned him praise from his coaching staff and high marks from the analytics crowd. He graded out as one of the top 11 corners for Pro Football Focus this year, and his coverage grade was better than that of Grimes, Revis and Denver's Aqib Talib.

As his on-the-field role has grown, Ryan has become a leading voice among players inside the Patriots cornerbacks room. Rookie corner Justin Coleman, midseason acquisitions Leonard Johnson and Rashaan Melvin, and even Butler, the Pro Bowler who is one year behind Ryan in the Patriots system, have all benefited from the third-year pro's presence.

"I’d say Logan has a done a great job," Belichick said earlier this season. "He’s not a coach, but in terms of taking leadership of that unit, in terms of their preparation, their communication, their on-the-field adjustments, helping guys like Leonard, Malcolm, working with the safeties. Logan has been a big part of the development of that whole unit as well."

It's been quite a turnaround. Ryan was attacked with four targets from quarterback Russell Wilson in five total snaps during last year's Super Bowl. He saw just four snaps in this year's home opener against the Steelers.

But once he won the starting job, Ryan was trusted to run with some of the league's biggest and most talented wideouts like Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos, DeAndre Hopkins of the Texans and Brandon Marshall of the Jets.

Though it's unclear which receivers the Chiefs will have at their disposal on Saturday when they visit Gillette Stadium in the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs -- their No. 1 option, Jeremy Maclin, suffered an ankle injury over the weekend -- it's safe to assume that Ryan will factor significantly into how defensive coordinator Matt Patricia deploys his secondary.

That jump in responsibility can be traced back to Ryan's process. It helped him seize this season's breakout opportunity when it arose, and it prepared him to track the football on a play-to-play basis once he was trusted as an every-down player. 

 

BEFORE THE SNAP
Before Ryan lines up across from his assignment -- coiling his 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame by bending at the knees and folding at the waist -- his mind is churning to quickly process the information he's acquired during the week.

He has built up a library of mental images to help himself pick out tendencies and realize route combinations given the score, down and distance. Those are key in the brief moments between plays.

­­"I study all week," Ryan explains. "I watch tons of hours of film. I think that's no secret. Every good player would tell you about their film study. I watch the film to get there. Then you go to sleep, you dream about making plays. You practice making plays and finishing them. In the game, you had all week to Sunday to make the plays and finish."

In order to watch as much film as he'd like, Ryan is practically glued to his iPad, where all the video he needs is a just touch away. He'll have it with him at Gillette Stadium first thing in the morning when he's getting treatment on his legs. That's a perfect time to fire it up, he says. While he's getting a massage? That works, too.

Day or night, the tablet is almost never far from reach as he exploits any small pocket of time that he has to get another look at his opponent for that week. It's on often enough that even Ryan's daughter Avery, who was born in August, may have caught a stray glimpse or two of the All-22 this season.

"It might be at night, putting the baby to sleep, and I might watch some film," Ryan said with a smile. "I might watch 10 minutes here, 30 minutes there, but it'll add up to four, five, six hours during the week.

"Back in the day, these guys would have to come in and log into a computer. Now I literally have my iPad. I'll be on the phone, talking to my parents and watching a game, scrolling through something. I always have it on. It's crazy how much you see. Right before practice, I might watch for a little bit while I'm getting ready.

"I'm always looking ahead. I spend very little time self-evaluating. I think the coaches do a good job of telling me what I need to work on, and I go right to the next thing. I don't look back on weeks. I don't watch my game as much as I watch other receivers."

Ryan's study habits may border on obsession, but it's the kind of obsession that's respected in a locker room where the tone is set by a quarterback who has carved himself a Hall of Fame career thanks to his maniacal pursuit of perfection.

"He has it all the time," Patriots safety Duron Harmon said of Ryan and his tablet. "Everywhere he goes. Everywhere he goes. Carrying the baby with this hand, iPad in the other. When he's in the tub, he's always got the iPad. Getting worked on in the training room, he's got the iPad. We're in the meal room, he's got the iPad. I swear he doesn't leave that iPad. I think he probably thinks of his iPad like it's his wallet or something. But he's a real student of the game, and he challenges me each and every day to get better."

 

All that time spent has paid dividends, according to Belichick.

"[Ryan] has a good grasp of route concepts and overall understanding of the passing game, what the offense is trying to do and how they’re trying to attack," Belichick said. "Combination routes, splits and understanding where his help is in coverage and so forth. I think all those things play into it . . . Each play is different, but Logan studies hard. He prepares well. He does a good job with the communication so that he and his teammates are on the same page with the coverage adjustment or a coverage technique to play it properly so that everybody can do their job."

PLASTERING WITH PLAYING STRENGTH
In the Patriots defense, corners are expected to be able to execute a variety of different demands within the scheme. That means they may be asked to play in a three-deep zone on one play, while on the next they may be lined up man-to-man with a receiver in the slot. 

Ryan doesn't have exceptional size for his position -- he's five inches shorter and about 25 pounds lighter than Browner, who he's helped to replace -- but when in man coverage, he's often asked to lock on to an opponent's biggest wideout once the ball is snapped. That means that he'll find himself on the outside across from some of the game's most physically daunting targets with mind-boggling combinations of size and speed.

Safety help -- with either Harmon or Devin McCourty shading over the top -- is often provided in those situations. For example, Belichick admitted after a Week 14 win over the Texans that the Patriots threw double teams at Hopkins for a large majority of the night.

Still, there are plenty of one-on-one instances -- both at the line of scrimmage and down the field -- where Ryan needs to have a physical presence to stick with his assignment, and the Patriots are confident that he won't be brushed aside.

"Logan has got good strength," Belichick said. "He’s a good tackler. He can get those backs and bigger receivers on the ground. Good hands. Good awareness, and he can play strong on the line of scrimmage and those types of areas whether it’s against bigger guys or getting his hands on smaller guys and kind of knocking them off their route. He does a good job in all those areas."

At various points this season, Belichick has referred to "playing strength" as one of Ryan's best qualities. That may not translate to big numbers on the bench press or at the squat rack -- "I don’t think he’s going to hold the weight room records" at the cornerback position, Belichick admitted earlier this year -- but Ryan's technique, pad-level, and his effort allow him to do more than hold his own physically.

 

Against Hopkins, in the fourth quarter, Ryan played inside leverage and Hopkins tried to run a deep out against him. He drove into Ryan's body, faking an inward-breaking route, then broke to the sideline. Ryan quickly recovered, and he got his hand on the pass for one of his two pass breakups on the night.

Against Thomas in Week 12, Ryan broke up two passes in the second half when he appeared to be boxed out, but he was able to reach around Thomas' back and get his hands on Brock Osweiler's passes without committing a penalty.

Part of Ryan's ability to plaster to his assignment after the snap is that he has sound footwork and a solid base. His film work comes into play post-snap as well, as he'll read a receiver's release for signs on where he's headed.

When he's at his most effective, Ryan is physical yet efficient in his movements. When he's able to combine those two things, he knows his goal is in sight: He has a chance to be in position to make a play.

"He's very smooth," said backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. "He's not jerky like a lot of other DBs might be. He's a very smart guy, too. I'm sure that has something to do with it. When you know what you're doing, and you know what you're looking for, you play a lot more controlled and at your own pace. I think it's pretty clear to see he knows what he's doing."

'I WANT TO COME DOWN WITH IT'
Even by completing his homework well before the snap, and by sticking with his man after the snap, Ryan knows that his job is far from done.

"It comes down to wanting the ball," he said. "I always believe, ever since I was little, that when the ball is in the air, the ball's around me, I want to go get it. I want to come down with it. I'd rather err trying to make a play on the ball than not seeing the ball. Sometimes it helps you, sometimes you make a lot of plays like that. Sometimes you don't. That's something I'll live with. I'm trying to get the ball, trying to play the ball, rather than be a guy who doesn't see the ball and gets pass interferences and stuff. I'd rather try to go get the ball."

Every so often, Ryan's willingness to turn and play the ball will hurt him. Against the Texans, one of the few plays he allowed to Hopkins was a 40-yard completion down the right sideline in the fourth quarter when Ryan slowed down a step or two when he turned to find the football mid-stride.

 

But that's the style Ryan espouses because he's confident in his ability to find the football and attack it. He played quarterback growing up and handled countless snaps. Then as a sophomore in high school, he played as a slot receiver. He considered himself primarily an offensive player.

Not only could he catch it back then, but he was good at it. And he still feels that way.

"When I'm on defense, when I'm near the ball, I want to become the receiver for sure," he said. "That's something that we preach here to prevent penalties: Become the receiver. Devin's had a ton of interceptions in his career, Duron, Malcolm's around the ball a ton. It's just something that we preach in the secondary.

"We want guys, when they're around the ball -- and that's the hardest part: getting there -- to make plays on it. That's honestly what separates interceptions and pass breakups is guys who can get two hands on the ball."

In order to ensure that his mitts are ready when need be, Ryan tries to catch as many passes as he can when he's out on the Patriots practice fields. After snagging throws from cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, or scout Frank Ross, or anyone else who can spin it, Ryan will stick around to work on the JUGS machine for another five or ten minutes. That's usually enough time to snare an extra 50 or 60 footballs.

"I don't like to drop any, though," he said. "If I drop, I might start over. I try to make it some kind of competition to not get bored."

If Garoppolo happens to send a few more Ryan's way while running the scout-team offense, attempting to pick off those passes is as good a simulation as any for Ryan. Of course, Garoppolo isn't looking to help his teammate out in that regard.

"The biggest thing with him is you can't be sloppy around him," Garoppolo said. "He has tremendous ball skills. Not many DBs have that. Most of them, they play DB because they can't catch. Otherwise they'd be receivers. When he does get his hands on a ball, he usually catches it. I always hear the DBs talking, and he always brags that he has the best hands. You definitely can't be sloppy around him."

There are bragging rights to be had in the section of the Patriots locker room where the defensive backs are parked. Picks and plays made are rewarded. Maybe with dinner. Maybe with a few dollars.

But for Ryan, seeing the fruits of his labor come to bear this season in the form of playing time and greater responsibilities -- both on the field and in the classroom with his teammates -- has been a certain kind of prize all its own.

"Spending all that time watching a lot of film, and repping something a lot in practice, and catching all those JUGS, it's all for one opportunity a game," he said. "Corner is a funny position. I remember back in college, our coach used to say, we would get graded on when the ball was thrown our way. We might've played 70 snaps, but we were only graded for eight . . . It's a position where you gotta stay ready, and you definitely gotta have a short memory. You gotta be confident and patient enough to make those eight plays out of 80.

 

"I think that kind of sums up the position. When you do all that work for those plays and you make them in the game, you can definitely see your confidence grow. That's what you do all the work for. That's why I love it."