ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —Through the Broncos' first nine games of the season, cornerback Pat Surtain II was practically flawless.
He allowed fewer than three yards per target, an average passer rating of 69.6 and zero receiving touchdowns.
Week after week, the second-year cornerback locked down every receiver he faced. Matching up against DK Metcalf and the Seahawks, he allowed just six catches for 35 yards. In the Broncos' first matchup with the Raiders, Davante Adams totaled just four receptions for 46 yards while Surtain was in coverage. He allowed zero completions when facing the 49ers and Chargers.
With each faultless performance, Surtain found himself creating impossible standards of excellence. At the end of the day, no player can achieve true perfection — especially not at the cornerback position.
In the last two games, Surtain allowed opposing wide receivers to make plays against him for the first time all season. When Denver hosted Las Vegas in Week 11, Surtain allowed four receptions for 102 yards and gave up a game-ending touchdown to Adams. In Sunday's game against the Panthers, D.J. Moore beat Surtain in the end zone for a touchdown, and again later for a 52-yard bomb downfield.
"It's something I just look at and correct," Surtain said Thursday. "Obviously it's frustrating, but at the same time I'm just focusing on this week. New week, new opportunity. Stuff like that's going to happen, but, you know, you've got to overlook it and not look at it too much. You've got to look past it because we've got a lot of weeks ahead."
While Surtain has comparatively struggled in recent weeks after an incredibly hot first half of the season, Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said that he has no worries about the young cornerback.
"He's such a great young man," Hackett said. "He's going to put his head down and work and learn from every experience that he has. As a DB in this league, you have to have a short memory and you can't win every single play. I mean, he's been out there for a whole lot of plays and done some amazing things, and sometimes that happens. He was right there, and other guys make good plays too."
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Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero, a former college safety who served as the Rams' secondary coach/passing game coordinator before joining the Broncos, has an astute understanding of how difficult it is for defensive backs to completely shut down opposing receivers. He said that he's worked with Surtain to correct the correctable mistakes, but he noted that even the greatest cornerbacks of all time have been beaten from time to time.
"That's part of the NFL," Evero said. "There's never been a corner — even Deion Sanders hasn't made every play — and so corners are going to get beat, safeties are going to get beat, sometimes you're going to get blocked, and so that's part of it. You always correct, you always see where the breakdown was, you look to improve it. The name of the game is, you strive for perfection; you'll never get there. You just try to be as perfect as you can be."
Many cornerbacks in the league would get down on themselves after allowing big plays, but even amid a rough patch, Surtain continues to set himself apart from other players at his position. At just 22 years old, his outlook is mature and composed: No matter what happens, just take it one play at a time.
"You've always got to keep your confidence no matter what the situation is," Surtain said. "That's the biggest thing at our position. It's one of the toughest positions to play in football, so you've always got to have that chip on your shoulder, that one-play mentality. You've just got to focus on the next play and correct some things [from] here on out, and just focus on this week coming up."
Evero added that facing adversity is beneficial for any young player because it allows them to learn and develop their technique.
"I'm not worried about his psyche one bit," Evero said. "We always are going to correct things, and things that he can do better, and technique things and all that stuff. I think it's more that than anything else. I'm not worried about him at all. ... All of those deals are great learning experiences, and when you go through it, it makes you better down the road."
As the Broncos prepare to take on the Ravens this weekend, Surtain has an opportunity to rebound against a dynamic offense. Quarterback Lamar Jackson presents a variety of threats to opposing defenses, and the Broncos will have to be vigilant as they look to limit what he can do.
"The challenge is that he's a very versatile quarterback," Surtain said. "He brings a lot to the offense with his running ability and his passing ability, so he's a major threat. He just creates explosive plays using his feet or his arm, so he's going to be a challenge."
Whether the ball is in the hands of Jackson or the Ravens' running backs, Denver should expect them to run the ball a considerable amount. Baltimore is 26th in the league in passing yards, but they have the third-most rushing yards. Despite his struggles against the pass in recent games, Surtain has played well against the run — and facing one of the strongest rushing attacks in the NFL, the Broncos' defense will rely on him to limit Baltimore's explosive plays.
"All 11 guys have to be able to play the run game, and that's a big part of our evaluation," Evero said. "All the players, even the corners [have to stop the run]. They have done a really good job. Good angles, good toughness ... they've been very good."
In a challenging matchup on Sunday, Surtain may not be perfect — but as long as he maintains confidence in his abilities, the Broncos' secondary will be in good hands.