Kansas City quarterback Tyler Palko dropped back in the pocket midway through the second quarter on Monday night and immediately locked onto receiver Steve Breaston running a post route on the outside. But, just as Breaston prepared to receive the pass, New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington was ready to defend it.
Arrington's head snapped around instantly, as if someone were trying to get his attention, and the corner pressed towards the cutting receiver. The ball sailed a little high, just deflecting off Breaston's fingertips, and Arrington immediately reversed his direction, settling underneath the ball for his NFL leading 6th - and later 7th -- interception of the season.
That sort of instinctual behavior is exactly the kind of play that has seen Arrington rise up the Patriots depth chart faster than Apple stock over the past few years. But at what point does instinct stop being considered a result of luck and start becoming recognized as talent?
That's the exact question that perplexed the Patriots coaching staff since Arrington's rookie season and has quickly become a point of interest for football fans watching the Patriots defense all season.
Now, 10 games into this regular season, the question has shifted a bit. The conversation is no longer whether Arrington has the talent to play in the NFL, but rather if he's an elite cornerback in the league?
After going undrafted out of Hofstra in 2009, Arrington had a long road ahead of him to even make an NFL roster. Luckily for the spry young defender, Bill Belichick was impressed by his ball skills and decided to keep Arrington around.
Clearly, the 25-year-old defensive back has proven Belichick's hunch right thus far and continues to improve what has been widely viewed as a lackluster Patriots defense.
Now, the defensive emergence in recent weeks hasn't been solely due to Arrington's consistent play. The pass rush of Andre Carter (4 sacks vs. NY Jets in Week 10) and Mark Anderson (7 sacks this season) has certainly played a role in the turnaround not to mention the solid play of reserves -- forced into action due to injuries - like Sterling Moore, Tracy White and even wide receiver turned nickel corner Julian Edelman.
It's been a true team effort for New England to turn their porous defense around in recent weeks, but in the same breath no one can deny Arrington's role as a catalyst.
The league-leader in interceptions (7) has been forced into action constantly as a pro, first with the injury to former Pats CB, Leigh Bodden in 2010 and his subsequent release earlier this season. Now, with the injury to Devin McCourty, the team's Pro-Bowl caliber and arguably top cornerback, has forced Arrington into the CB1 spot on the roster.
Yet, even with all the pressure and constant change in role, he has made the most of every opportunity out on the field this season, showing up not only in the right place at the right time but all over the stat sheet as well.
Through Week 11, Arrington is in the top three on the Patriots in tackles (3rd), Interceptions (1st) and Passes Deflected (1st). But, his dominant play can also be seen nationally, as Arrington ranks 16th in the NLF in passes defended (10), eighth in tackles (50) among cornerbacks and of course 1st overall in interceptions with 7.
These stats certainly help make the case for Arrington, at the very least, becoming an elite cornerback in the NFL. But, it's really his consistent effort and impact on the field that begins to separate him.
Arrington's ability to stick coverage, finish tackles and force turnovers has allowed a Patriots D that ranks near the bottom of the league in yards allowed to keep opposing offenses out of the red zone and off the scoreboard. His instincts drive him to the ball and Arrington's skills allow him to not only stick with some of the best receivers in the league but also make the plays that only elite corners can.
The third-year defensive back may not have DeAngelo Hall's speed, Charles Woodson's ball hawking ability or even McCourty's skill set, but he works hard and knows how to utilize his skills to defend top flight receivers.
Analysts and fans may not accept Arrington's emergence as an elite corner because he wasn't a high round draft pick and he doesn't bring the sex appeal of Hall's speed or Deion's swagger, but he is at the least a good cover corner with an opportunistic eye.
And if that doesn't get you put on the Elite Watch List, then we better start rethinking our definition here.