That, however, hasn’t stopped the discussion and people are finding new ways to help us all better understand CB play. In recent years, advanced stats such as those provided by this site, have added to this. The use of stats such as pass break ups, times thrown at, and yards allowed have all contributed in this regard, but it’s always missing a degree of context.
Has a guy who has been thrown at 80 times and allowed 60 receptions necessarily been more of a target than a player who was thrown at 60 times and allowed 45 receptions? There’s an important piece of information missing and it’s this extra level of context that we search for at Pro Football Focus, aiming to enhance discussion on all things NFL.
So, by way of our game analysis process, we’re bringing you something that will push things a step further. A simple enough premise, we’ll look at how often a cornerback is thrown at and how many receptions he allows compared to how many snaps he has spent in coverage.
Up first, we’re checking out the percentage of plays in coverage that corners were thrown at. For this study we looked at all cornerbacks who were in coverage for at least 300 snaps (playoffs included), and it’s no surprise who has been targeted least often: Nnamdi Asomugha.
When it comes to having a reputation that QBs fear, there isn’t another player like the soon to be free agent. He was targeted on just 6.58% of the 441 plays he was in coverage. Perhaps more of a surprise is that Miami’s Sean Smith winds up in second place. There are some mitigating circumstances as Smith spent time in the safety spot in their third down nickel defense. Still, it’s reflective of the ability Smith has shown, though his inability to turn break-ups into picks impacts the common view on him.
Others in the Top 5 you would expect to see include Asante Samuel and Darrelle Revis. With Samuel, you worry about throwing the ball to him because he’s the kind of playmaker who can turn a game around in one play. Revis, on the other hand, allows so little that it’s not so much a risk to throw in his direction as it’s a pointless exercise. After 2009, where he was thrown at on a staggering 18.27% of plays he was in coverage, teams seemed to realize that was a foolish strategy and the number dropped to 10.32% in 2010 (even with him playing hurt part of that time).
Top 20 Cornerbacks, Times Thrown At per Coverage Snaps
At the other end of the scale, we see some interesting names. Not too surprisingly given how often they’re likely to be targeted on shorter routes over the middle, a number of slot cornerbacks find themselves in the mix. There are, however, a number of starters ranking lowly as well. Players like Brent Grimes and Bryant McFadden both found themselves the guys in the firing line, though they dealt with it in different manners: Grimes managed to make plays on the ball, finishing second in pass deflections, while McFadden ended with a -6.1 grade in coverage.
Bottom 20 Cornerbacks, Times Thrown At per Coverage Snaps
While it’s interesting to see who is targeted the most, it’s more relevant to look at how many receptions a cornerback allows while they are in coverage. In other words, you may be targeted a lot, but if they’re not resulting in anything, then so what. Revis’ 2009, as an example.
In something that will come less of a surprise, up at the top again is Nnamdi Asomugha. Even when quarterbacks get brave enough to throw at him, it’s not likely to end up in a completion. Similar stories for Asante Samuel and Darrelle Revis, with the most interesting stories coming from guys making this top ten list after not making the targets per coverage snaps list.
Despite being targeted on 15.53% of plays he was in coverage, Green Bay’s Tramon Williams allowed a reception on just 7.07% of plays he was in coverage. Similarly, Josh Wilson moved from 43rd in terms of how much he was targeted, to ninth in terms of receptions allowed when looking at how many snaps he was in coverage.
Top 20 Cornerbacks, Receptions Allowed per Coverage Snaps
Meanwhile, those suffering the biggest drops include Richard Marshall who went from 53rd in targets per coverage snaps, to 78th in receptions allowed per snaps in coverage. Some of this is down to Marshall moving inside in nickel situations (a study we’ll be looking to do in the future), but it remains an alarming fall, and not in line with other starting cornerbacks who move into the slot in their team’s sub package such as Charles Woodson or Ronde Barber.
Bottom 20 Cornerbacks, Receptions Allowed per Coverage Snaps
Of course, these aren’t numbers you can blindly look at and say that because a player is being targeted less, or allowing fewer receptions he’s a better player. There are a number of other factors to consider. Take the cornerbacks of the NFC West for example, are you really going to say their receptions allowed per time in coverage doesn’t benefit from having a division somewhat lacking in quality QB play? Or that a cornerback playing for the Packers doesn’t benefit from their high sack count. Then, of course, there are players who are targeted more because their teammates are just that good.
When Champ Bailey’s Bronco partner Perrish Cox was in the lineup, teams went after him. Oakland’s Stanford Routt was targeted on 18.07% of all plays with teams looking at him as a safer option than Asomugha. Dunta Robinson’s contract seemed to scare people into believing he was better than he performed, with the playmaking Brent Grimes the guy seeing more action.
Let’s pause on Grimes for a minute, he’s an interesting one. Targeted on 19.01% of the plays he dropped into coverage (74th out of 83), he only allowed receptions on 10.03% and finished second in the league in combined pass deflections and interceptions. Top it with a +7.5 coverage grade, and you have to think that next year teams may shy away and start looking more towards Robinson (who didn’t perform badly, but didn’t exactly earn his mega contract).
Looking from the opposite point of view, maybe you’ll expect Shawntae Spencer (targeted on just 12.38% of plays in coverage) to get more treatment after allowing 70.1% of the balls thrown his way to be completed (part of what earned him a -4.5 coverage grade).
Ultimately, these numbers are a little offseason fun. They tell us some things we already knew (teams don’t throw at Asomugha, Samuel and Revis if they can help it) and some things we didn’t (they also don’t throw at Rashean Mathis, Sean Smith and Bradley Fletcher).
The real value in them is that they add to the discussion about cornerback play. You can’t truly judge a cornerback and his metrics, without looking at how many times he dropped into coverage. Even that doesn’t offer as much as grading, but as said, it just adds more context to the debate.
So take these number under advisement, but don’t jump to conclusions over all of them … though it is fair to say that Scrabble remains a game quarterbacks don’t like to play.
We’ll leave you with one further look. Combining the tables above to we can illustrate a mashed-together view of each qualifying corner’s times beaten (receptions allowed), times challenged (thrown at), and challenge opportunities (snaps in coverage) – effectively, catch % per cover snap.
Asomugha doesn’t rule this one, as he ranks relatively lower on challenges and challenge opportunities. Players that managed to keep their catch percentage under 50% while racking up higher coverage snap counts like Tramon Williams, Brandon Carr, and Antonio Cromartie benefit.
The number itself is rather odd to look at and could be tweaked to be more glance-friendly, but here it is in raw form:
Top 20 Cornerbacks, Catch Percentage per Coverage Snaps
Catch% per Cover Snap
Bottom 20 Cornerbacks, Catch Percentage per Coverage Snaps
Catch% per Cover Snap