Analysis Notebook: Week 4
This week was a vintage one for cornerback performances, and there were several I could have chosen to look at — but perhaps the most interesting came when New England traveled to Atlanta on Sunday Night. While some of the other standout corner performances came from players with some history of one-on-one shutdown skills, Aqib Talib’s job of stopping the Atlanta combination of Julio Jones and Roddy White was perhaps more surprising, even considering White’s relative lack of health.
Instead of asking Talib to track a receiver or match up one-on-one all day long the Patriots gave him plenty of help, but he responded by playing perfectly given that safety help, upping his aggression within his coverage and taking advantage of the cushion corners often don’t get.
Plenty of players get safety help each week in the NFL, but all too often they fail to take advantage of what that allows you to do as a corner — namely, cheat toward the underneath stuff knowing that if you get it wrong, your job becomes simply to recover enough to make the throw tough and help the safety out.
New England @ Atlanta | 1st Q, 4:04
On 3rd-and-long Aqib Talib plays underneath Julio Jones’ deep hitch and helps prevent a completion
As you can see from the first image, Jones didn’t have just Talib in close attendance on this 3rd-and-long play, as he also had a safety over the top ready to guard the first-down markers and prevent the catch. This afforded Talib the luxury of playing the receiver completely and just staying between him and the quarterback. He didn’t have to worry about staying tight to him in case he broke off toward the sideline or in on a dig because he knew the safety had his eyes on the quarterback and could jump either of those moves by Jones, so he just shadowed him from a trail position.
Jones was stuck in bracket coverage and did his best to shake off the defenders, faking to the outside before turning back to the quarterback. This got the safety moving to jump that out route and took him away from the play, but Talib had just been sitting underneath Jones waiting for him to react and play the ball. When he finally did turn and jump for the ball all Talib had to do was match that movement and throw his arms up in the air. Though the ball looked like it actually got through to Jones, Talib made sure that there was little chance he could have ever successfully come down with it by the contact he made. Having safety help over the top allowed Talib to play the underneath super aggressively knowing that he didn’t have to worry about the ball going over his head.
New England @ Atlanta | 3rd Q, 11:59
On 2nd-and-7 Aqib Talib breaks up a slant route intended for Julio Jones, by playing aggressive man coverage
This play is another that shows the difference in coverage when you know the safety is behind you playing anything deep. Instead of lining up over Jones, this time Talib had an exaggerated inside leverage, essentially daring Jones to release to the outside and declaring in no uncertain terms that he was not going to be permitted inside.
Talib cheated so much that when Jones gave him the outside fake to try and open up the inside for the slant, he didn’t even move. He had zero respect for anything to the outside because he knew the safety was watching for that and ready to come down over the top. All he was concerned about was anything in-breaking underneath that would pick up the first down before it reached anybody else. Despite all this, Jones was actually able to fight across his face and give QB Matt Ryan a shot of making this throw, but Talib recovered and used the contact on Jones to ride underneath, and he got an arm around to swat down the ball.
It’s worth noting that the officials in this game were clearly allowing a lot of contact, which is music to the ears of a corner playing more aggressively with this kind of scheme. In another game this could easily have drawn a flag, but Talib had established early that he was going to be able to get away with this level of contact all game long and exploited it.
New England @ Atlanta | 4th Q, 00:41
On fourth down from deep in the red zone the Falcons tried to hit Roddy White on a crossing route to tie the game, but Aqib Talib stayed with him and batted it away to seal the win.
Given how he had played in the game, the Patriots got more adventurous in terms of freeing up Talib to play his man one-on-one and that allowed them to roll coverage toward the guy who had been really hurting them, Tony Gonzalez.
You can see from this shot that the Patriots were adamant that Gonzalez was not going to be the guy that the Falcons got the ball to. He had been catching balls with defenders draped all over him all game long, so they decided the way to combat that was to simply not let him off the line of scrimmage at all. New England lined up three defenders (two linebackers and Rob Ninkovich) over Gonzalez, and though Ninkovich ended up rushing, that still left them with a pair of linebackers sandwiching the big tight end off the line and locking him up, preventing any kind of release into a pass pattern.
That kind of play leaves things open elsewhere, and this time Talib was left on an island against Roddy White as he crossed the formation into the end zone. FS Steve Gregory would have been in position to help, but instead jumped down on the dig route from Harry Douglas which left Talib on his own. Given the leverage White had on the route a better throw might have gotten this done. Had Ryan led the receiver away from the cornerback on his inside hip and let him separate to go get the ball laterally it could have worked, but as it was White needed to fight through the contact to have any chance of getting there. Talib maintained close contact throughout the route and made a better play on the ball than White did, jumping and batting it down with his left hand. His jump meant that for White to fully extend he would have needed to fight against the cornerback’s body, and he just wasn’t winning that battle with physics.
While New England certainly gave Talib more help than you expect for a true shutdown corner, the interesting thing about the encounter was how he reacted to that help, knowing that it gave him extra freedom to be aggressive on his underneath coverage, and exploiting that advantage perfectly. By the end of the game Talib had been thrown at seven times, but allowed no catches at all, while intercepting one and breaking up another two (the latter two we see above). Matt Ryan’s passer rating when targeting Talib in this game was 0-0.
The other thing worth noting is that though he had help throughout the game, on the final play, the play that decided the game, he had none but was one-on-one with White and won that battle. Though better throw location might have asked a tougher question of the corner, he played the ball to perfection and beat his man on an island to seal the win.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam