What makes Josh Norman the NFL's top CB right now
There has been one true standout at cornerback this season, and it’s probably not one you’re expecting unless you’ve been keeping an eye on PFF: Carolina’s Josh Norman.
Norman has been playing well for a long time now, dating back to last season, and the coverage numbers he has been putting up have been getting into ludicrous territory.
In 2014, he had some fantastic coverage numbers but the grades didn’t quite match them. That’s different this season. He has the highest coverage grade of any corner, leading Tyrann Mathieu by 2.7 grading points, and anybody else by 4.6 points. The difference between Norman and the third-best grade in the NFL alone would rank 14th in the league, ahead of players like Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis, and Richard Sherman.
The league has yet to catch up to the idea that Norman is a really good corner, so he continues to be targeted, though that rate is slowing down. Only 14 cornerbacks have seen the ball come their way more than the 37 times Norman has this year, and none of them has performed to his level.
He has allowed just 45.9 percent of those 37 passes to be caught and opposing passers throwing his way have a passer rating of just 24.1. That is the best mark in the NFL, and to put it in some context, just throwing the ball into the turf every play would give a passer rating of 39.6, 15 points better than putting the ball near Josh Norman.
In six games he has allowed just 17 receptions for 127 yards (7.5 per catch), and has yet to be beaten for anything longer than 23 yards.
We are talking about a shutdown corner here.
When you start talking about elite, shutdown corners, one of the first things some people focus on is whether they track receivers. No matter how well Richard Sherman plays there are people that won’t give him the credit he deserves because the Seahawks don’t ask him to track receivers. I wrote about the subject at length here, and I think it’s a far more complicated concept than “tracking = better,” but it is interesting to note that the Panthers have moved Norman around this year to cover both sides of the field and run with receivers.
Of his 353 snaps this season, Norman has played 193 (54.7 percent) at left corner, 139 (39.4 percent) at right corner, and the rest lined up in the slot or in and around the line of scrimmage in short yardage packages.
Some people may question the competition Norman has faced this year, but he has had a mix of good quarterbacks and good receivers to deal with — although he is yet to see both at the same time. He held DeAndre Hopkins to his lowest target count, receptions total, catch rate and yardage of the year. He surrendered just 43 yards to the Saints, allowed Vincent Jackson to catch only two of the six passes sent his way while intercepting one and breaking up another himself, and surrendered two catches to the Seahawks … which gained them -2 yards in total.
So let’s take a look at what makes him so good, starting with his matchup with Hopkins. Playing cornerback is often about understanding the play isn’t over until the whistled is blown, and simply allowing the ball into the hands of the receiver doesn’t mean you have been beaten on the play, especially in today’s NFL where receivers can only be sure of a catch after a second date with the football.
Here Hopkins runs a simple hook route where he runs to the markers and turns around for the catch. Norman was never far off in coverage, but there is space for the ball to get in and an accurate pass from Ryan Mallett finds its mark. For most corners this would be a 10-yard reception and we would move on, but Norman goes straight for the ball, knocking it out of the receiver’s hands shortly after he catches it. These moments after the catch by the receiver can be crucial for cornerbacks and rescue a lot of plays where the coverage alone wasn’t enough to prevent the ball getting in. Instead of giving up the catch, Norman notches another pass breakup.
Remember the ridiculous pass Jameis Winston attempted while being taken down by Jared Allen? He actually got it right to a receiver and the only reason it wasn’t complete was because Norman again came in late to break it up, spotting the threat in zone coverage and breaking on it to prevent a near miracle play from Winston.
One of the biggest plays he made this season was also one of the first. It shows some serious ability from Norman and an understanding of the game. It’s a play that just looks like a terrible throw from Jaguars QB Blake Bortles, but when you look at it in detail you can start to understand why he threw it and what went wrong.
The first thing to note is that this isn’t Norman’s coverage on paper. The Panthers are running cover-3 on the play, and Norman is responsible for a deep third of the field. Here you will usually find the corner giving a significant cushion to avoid getting beaten over the top. Short routes like hitches, smoke routes, slants and speed outs regularly pick up good yardage against the cover 3 corner because of this cushion, as long as you can avoid the underneath defender with the pass. That is what Bortles sees on the play pre-snap.
The issue Bortles has is that Norman doesn’t back off or give a huge cushion. He simply watches the quarterback from five yards off the line and waits for him to hit the pass. Whether Norman knew what was coming from his tape study – the Jaguars motioned RB TJ Yeldon out of the backfield so this could have tipped their play – or whether he just bet on himself and read the quarterback, he broke on a pass that most cornerbacks would never come close to playing and was rewarded with a walk-in touchdown because of it.
It looks like a simple play that was almost thrown straight to him, but given the coverage this was an elite read and gamble from Norman that earned his team a score.
Playing man coverage and zone down the field is one thing, but in today’s NFL you need to be able to aggressively take down the variety of wide receiver screens that every team in football employs these days. For years Antoine Winfield was the master of defeating these plays. He was good enough against the run and screens that he could almost single-handedly shut down that part of the game on his side of the field. Chris Harris Jr. is the closest that the league has right now to Antoine Winfield, but Josh Norman has some game too.
This play by the Texans was telegraphed a little, but watch how quickly Norman plays it and blows it to pieces before it can go anywhere, bringing up fourth down and killing the drive. A lot of people don’t consider this “coverage,” but these plays can go for big gains if cornerbacks don’t play them aggressively. They can turn third and long into first downs and set an offense up for bigger things. Coverage is shutting down the passing game in whatever form it comes at you, and Josh Norman is the best corner in the league this season at doing that.