Since head coach Gus Bradley came to Jacksonville last year, he’s made it clear that he’s trying to recreate the defensive success that he had as a coordinator with the Seahawks. It was no surprise when both Red Bryant and Chris Clemons joined the Jaguars after they left Seattle this offseason. But though both those free agents will help bolster the defensive line, it’s important to remember that the strength of the Seahawks “D” comes from its secondary.
Though it’s a near-impossible task for the Jaguars to match the Seahawks defensive backs on pure talent alone, Jacksonville’s secondary showed signs of promise last season in its own right. The most notable revelation was a former journeyman who quietly became one of the league’s more reliable cover corners of 2013. Starting cornerbacks usually don’t just emerge in their seventh career season, but most cornerbacks haven’t taken the tough road that Alan Ball has.
Ball came to Jacksonville as a free agent last year and quickly established himself as a frontrunner for a starting cornerback job, but he had a long and winding career path to get to that point. Originally a four-year starter at the University of Illinois, Ball was picked by the Cowboys in Round 7 of the 2007 Draft and split his first two seasons between the practice squad and special teams. He finally got some substantial playing time in 2009, including four games at free safety that led to an unfortunate decision by the Cowboys coaching staff.
After that season, the Cowboys front office re-addressed the big contract they’d given to free safety Ken Hamlin just two years earlier. Hamlin’s 2009 campaign was solid, but not spectacular enough to justify the nearly $6 million Dallas was scheduled to pay him in 2010. After seeing Ball do some decent work at the position, they pegged him as a cheap replacement and cut Hamlin. It was an ill-advised move.
Leading the Cowboys defense in snaps in 2010, Ball gradually became the weakest link in Dallas’ pass coverage. Historically more of a press-man outside cornerback, Ball looked lost playing deep in space. His -8.0 coverage grade that season was fourth-worst of any safety in the league. He notched just one pass defensed all year, and the seven touchdowns he allowed tied for the most at his position. He was demoted to backup cornerback in 2011, spent some time miscast in the slot, and again posted a negative coverage grade. The damage had been done, and Ball entered free agency in 2012 as a low-valued commodity.
Ball followed his former head coach Wade Phillips to the Texans, where he was once again relegated to special teams duty and had his lowest defensive snap total since 2008. He considered returning to Houston last season, but Bradley sold him on the chance to start, realizing that Ball’s 6-foot-2 frame fit the Seattle mold he so coveted. The decision turned out to be a great one for both parties.
Ball won a starting job in training camp and was reliable for the first half of the season before going on an impressive run down the stretch. He finished with seven positive coverage grades in his last eight games, including a stellar Week 11 where he tallied four passes defensed against the Cardinals. His 13 passes defensed on the season tied for sixth-most among cornerbacks, and his +4.9 coverage grade put him in the Top 20 at his position. For perspective, that was the same grade notched by the more-heralded Alterraun Verner. Ball allowed just two touchdowns in coverage and a reception for every 13.0 coverage snaps, the 10th-best rate among 81 qualified cornerbacks.
The New Norm
It would be easy to dismiss Ball’s season as a fluke. It’s not very often that a cornerback suddenly realizes his talent in his seventh NFL season. But there are good signs that Ball can repeat his 2013 campaign. After years of being misused as a safety and slot cornerback, Bradley finally put Ball in the position that’s best-suited for his skills. Ball spent 33.6% of his snaps last season lined up in press coverage, which isn’t as high a rate as the Seattle cornerbacks, but still well above the league average of 27.3%.
What stands out on Ball’s film is how good he uses press-bail technique to prevent deep passes. On the 15 plays he faced Deep Targets last season (passes 20+ yards past the line of scrimmage), he allowed three completions and a 36.9 passer rating. A perfect example came in Week 11 vs the Cardinals, with 0:22 left in the second quarter, when Ball lined up in press, matched Michael Floyd stride-for-stride on a go route, and knocked the ball away as soon as it arrived.
As we watch this class of rookies enter the NFL, it’s important to remember that a player’s landing spot is often just as important as his skill. For six seasons, Ball languished on depth charts and under coaches who didn’t put him in the best position to succeed. But once he joined Bradley, Ball showed how effective he can be when he’s asked to rely on his strengths. With another year in this system and a seemingly improved defensive line in front of him, don’t be surprised if this veteran Secret Superstar carries his newfound success into 2014.
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