Analysis Notebook: Week 1
Football is back, and after many hours lacking sleep, it’s time to get around to the first Analysis Notebook of the season. The most interesting thing to catch my attention this week, given one of the bigger football-related stories of the offseason, was how the big three cornerbacks of the NFL fared from a schematic standpoint.
Much debate all offseason was focused on Richard Sherman vs. Patrick Peterson vs. Darrelle Revis, and while many admitted Sherman was fantastic at what the Seahawks asked him to do, they pointed out (loud and often) that he didn’t track wide receivers the way Revis had in the past and the way Peterson was doing for Arizona. If he didn’t do what they did, how could he be as good?
Revis is now with a new team in another new defensive scheme and Peterson is playing his first games with a new cornerback partner in Arizona that takes some of the pressure off him to be the one guy the team feels confident in matching up with opposing threats. The net result of this in Week 1 action was that none of the three was used to track receivers. All three players played primarily at left corner – we can finally start to analyze each player on closer to a level playing field.
Let’s take a look at how each performed in this role (and run around any other pretenders to the crown of best cornerback in football at the end).
Richard Sherman – 61 of 61 snaps on the left side
Richard Sherman has been arguably the best corner in football over the past two seasons. I say ‘arguably’ precisely because people always point to the fact that he doesn’t track receivers and stays at left cornerback (the more targeted side of the defense), guarding only whoever the opposition decides to send out to that side.
I wrote a little in the offseason here about how there is a school of thought that suggests that is actually the best thing for the defense overall. Maybe Sherman isn’t being asked to do something as tough as Peterson or Revis, but the way the Seahawks use him is actually the best thing for the defense overall.
The Green Bay game on opening day gave us a fascinating demonstration of that theory in action. The Packers decided that if Richard Sherman was going to play left corner all day then they were simply going to put their third receiver out there and write him off from the game plan.
This is what we saw for most of that game. Sherman on an island up top against Jarrett Boykin, with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb on the other side of the field.
You might think that renders Sherman almost useless. Sure, he’s taking away Boykin, but who was really concerned about him in the first place? What about Nelson and Cobb, two far more dangerous weapons that can still be deployed by the Packers against the weaker players in the Seattle secondary? Well, the image also shows how the Seahawks can use Sherman to cheat the coverage and help the other players out.
Here Earl Thomas is aligned showing the middle of the field closed as the single deep safety. This is one of the key reads for a quarterback pre-snap. He isn’t quite aligned dead-center of the formation, leaning to the passing strength (the side with more receivers), but when the ball is snapped he actually pedals even further to that side, leaving Sherman entirely on an island on the far side of the field.
When people talk about safety help, this is what they’re talking about. Sherman is left isolated one on one against Green Bay’s third receiver, who the Packers have essentially publicly written off by alignment all game long, and the Seahawks have been able to give safety help to the other side of the field.
The plan did well overall. Byron Maxwell got worked a little by Nelson, but despite being targeted all game long (Sherman wasn’t tested once), he didn’t allow 100 receiving yards and didn’t surrender anything longer than 16 yards. Sherman was the foundation that the Seattle game plan was based on, and it allowed the rest of the defense to limit what the Packers passing attack could do.
Patrick Peterson – 58 of 62 snaps on the left side
Last season Patrick Peterson couldn’t match Sherman’s coverage numbers (except playing at left corner, ironically), but he was asked to do more. He shadowed receivers all season, tracking a specific weapon that the defense wanted taking care of and trying to take him out of the game. The only problem was he wasn’t able to do it too often. Peterson surrendered seven touchdowns in the air last season in this role, and now with Antonio Cromartie in the defense they seem to be coming around to the idea that he may be best served sticking to one side.
Against the Chargers he did play a few snaps in different spots, but usually in specific situations, and the vast majority of his time was spent at left corner while Cromartie took the right side. As is often the case with Peterson, his performance was a mixed bag.
At 6-foot-0 and 219 pounds, Peterson is something of a freak athlete at corner, and we got to see the good side of that on this play:
In man coverage Peterson was lined opposite Eddie Royal, who was running an end-around. Peterson read it quickly and actually outran Royal across the formation, beating him to the corner and forcing him to turn back inside where the rest of the defense crashed in around him. This is usually a banker for the offense for a good gain on the play and you very rarely see the play made by the corner originally lined up across from the receiver, at least not before a significant gain. This was Peterson the athlete at his best.
The problem sometimes with being that good an athlete is it can lead to getting sloppy or complacent with technique and fundamentals. This is where we see the bad of Peterson. Working against Keenan Allen in man coverage he tried to jam at the line only to lose control of his feet with the first step and end up coughing up a couple of yards of separation almost instantly.
This type of crossing route gets termed a ‘man beater’ precisely because you can run away from the contact of the corner, but here Allen gains all of his separation right at the start because Peterson’s technique and footwork were off.
Darrelle Revis – 64 of 65 snaps on the left side
When Darrelle Revis was playing for the Jets he was the prototype for the tracking corner argument. In much the same way as Sherman eliminating one side of the field (or at least one receiver on that side) allows the Seahawks to roll everything to the other side, Revis was able to take away one receiver wherever he lined up, allowing the Jets to similarly cheat coverage elsewhere.
With the Patriots, at least in Week 1, there was no shadowing of receivers, and much like Peterson we saw some good and some bad from Revis. The worst of it came when he was badly beaten on a double move by Mike Wallace into the end zone only for the famous Tannehill-Wallace connection to find itself just inches off yet again and save the score.
Even the good of Revis often owed a little to the Miami side of the ball helping him out. He broke up a pass on a hitch route intended for Wallace on 3rd-and-12 that seemed like a great play until you take a look at the replay and see how badly beaten he was to begin with until Wallace stopped working back to the ball and allowed him to regain position and break it up.
When Wallace ran at Revis who was lined up in off coverage he was able to get him turned around completely and gain a yard or two of separation. Had the ball been in the air here Revis would have been beaten for a first down and the drive continued, but it was late arriving and rather than work back to his quarterback, Wallace simply held his ground, allowing Revis to break back towards the football and save the play.
Regardless of where your allegiance lies in this debate, there is little doubt that Sherman, Peterson and Revis are the three players that everybody looks to when they discuss the best corners in the game. Based on the first week of action each is at least now performing a similar role – sticking to one side of the defense and not tracking a receiver across the field – so the debate between the three is at least on a more level playing field.
• Joe Haden – Remained shadowing receivers as he was last season. Beaten for a touchdown and had a bad day at the office overall, grading at -4.6 for the day.
• Keenan Lewis – Played all but one snap at LCB. Allowed six of seven targets to be caught but for just 47 yards (and a touchdown). Graded at -0.7 overall.
• Aqib Talib – Played all but two snaps at LCB. Was thrown at 10 times but allowed just five receptions, breaking up two passes and earning a +2.7 grade.
• Brent Grimes – Played all but one snap at LCB. Allowed four of six targets to be caught for 29 yards and a touchdown. Graded at -0.2 overall.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam