METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints knew penalties would be part of the deal when they targeted physical cornerback Brandon Browner in free agency.
During his first four NFL seasons from 2011-2014, Browner led the league in penalties by a wide margin, with 48 called and 40 accepted.
The Saints were willing to live with some of that collateral damage. Coach Sean Payton reiterated Friday that they “absolutely” embraced Browner's physical, hands-on style in man coverage and wanted him to help shape their defensive identity.
But the Saints have to find a way to contain that damage.
Browner is on a prolific penalty pace this year after reaching a new personal high with four in a single game in Week 8 against the New York Giants. He leads the NFL with 15 called penalties and 14 accepted this season -- five more than any other player.
Browner declined to speak on the subject Friday. But defensive coordinator Rob Ryan insisted, “Believe me, no one’s working harder on eliminating those penalties than Brandon Browner is.”
“He is the most physical corner in football, and it’s no question. And unfortunately he does have more penalties than most,” said Ryan, noting that Browner has been working to keep his hands off defenders and has been “putting the boards on like the rest of them.”
I assume that was a reference to the boxing mitts some of the Saints’ defensive backs, including Delvin Breaux, have used in practice this season to try to cut down on their grabbing.
Payton mentioned the boxing mitts Friday while stressing that “It’s not just Brandon,” and that the secondary as a whole needs to cut down on contact penalties.
“[The penalties are] a little bit of part of the deal, but not to the extent that we’ve been seeing,” Payton said. “You just want to reduce some of them. But [Browner] is an aggressive player at the line of scrimmage. I like it. He’s very disciplined, he’s smart. And again, it’s not just one player.”
The biggest frustration for the Saints in Sunday's 52-49 victory over the Giants was third-down penalties. The Giants were just 1-of-8 on third downs. But three other times, a Saints’ third-down stop was nullified because of a penalty.
Payton was steamed about one of them that he disagreed with (a defensive holding call against Breaux). Browner was flagged for defensive holding another time. And defensive tackle Tyeler Davison was offside on the other.
Browner’s ugliest penalty against the Giants was his unnecessary-roughness penalty against receiver Rueben Randle in the first quarter, when he continued to yank Randle to the ground even after he had gone out of bounds. Browner was fined for that penalty Friday.
Browner was also flagged for defensive holding on a second-and-goal play from the 1-yard line and for pass interference on a second-and-7 play.
Browner has talked about his penalties before; it has been a longstanding issue. Last season he ranked third in the NFL with 15 flags thrown, even though he only played in nine games for the New England Patriots. In 2011, his first season with the Seattle Seahawks, the Canadian Football League transplant led the NFL with 19 flags thrown.
"I just happen to be the guy that gets caught the most, but I try not to play that way," the 6-foot-4, 221-pounder said in March. "You try to play the game and take it out of the refs' hands."
It could help the Saints to put Browner in better positions and better matchups if their secondary can ever get fully healthy. Cornerback Keenan Lewis is finally on the mend from a lingering hip/sports hernia issue. But now nickel/dime cornerback Damian Swann is out with a concussion heading into Sunday's home date with the Tennessee Titans.
“He knows that it’s easier to function as a defense when you’re not making those penalties and having those third-down penalties especially,” Ryan said. “And he is a hard worker. ... And we know how important it is, and believe me, he knows how important it is.
“He’s such a great leader, and it’s part of our game that we need to improve on.”