Much as some players might not like to think it, there is more to playing corner in the NFL than coverage. The league might draft almost entirely on the basis of their coverage skills, but half the snaps they’ll see are running plays, and when they do get beaten in the passing game they need to be able to tackle, lest they compound their error with a miss, turning a completion into a touchdown.
In a league that is ever more pass-oriented, the gap seems to be widening between corners who are almost exclusively coverage guys and appear to almost shy away from contact, and the guys that seek the contact out and set the tone physically.
The poster child for the shy of contact in recent years has been Eagles corner Asante Samuel. In our missed tackle study last season, Samuel was way out in front of the pack, missing a ridiculous 19 (which led the league for the position on significantly fewer attempts than others.) The only good news for Eagles fans is that Samuel wasn’t the worst performing corner this season – he was the second worst.
The bad news is that his numbers remain staggering.
Samuel attempted just 36 tackles, and missed 10 of them, missing a tackle in every 3.6 attempts. Only Brandon McDonald had a worse ratio, missing one of every 3.2 attempts he made. Asante Samuel’s skills lie in coverage, and his coverage numbers last season – despite an injury-shortened campaign – were verging on ridiculous.
Opposing quarterbacks had a rating of just 31.7 when targeting Samuel; comfortably the best mark in the NFL (Tramon Williams in a breakout year was the next best mark at 48.3.) Samuel allowed 46.3% of passes thrown into his coverage to be completed. Darrelle Revis topped the NFL with 38.6% but with just 7.4 yards per completion, Samuel averaged nearly ten fewer yards per reception given up than the Jets’ star. With 13 combined interceptions and passes defensed, Samuel caught or deflected the ball just six fewer times than he allowed receptions, and the longest catch he allowed last season was a mere 25 yards.
It is difficult to overstate how impressive those numbers are in terms of pure coverage, but the rate at which he misses tackles is a huge problem, and has seen him removed from the field by Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid on more than one occasion in his career. The NFL isn’t a place for one-dimensional players, and Samuel has to realize that if he is ever to get the recognition his coverage skills dictate he should.
At the other end of the scale sits a player who has long since earned that recognition, and did it precisely because he has always been a complete corner. Denver’s Champ Bailey enjoyed an excellent season last year, after struggling through injuries in recent times. The Broncos star missed just a single tackle on 44 attempts, showing that he is as adept in run-support as he is in coverage. That mark wasn’t good enough to lead the league at the position though; that honor goes to a young corner hoping to work his way into the echelon that Bailey has resided in for some time.
Brandon Flowers from the Chiefs amassed 65 attempts, and missed just one tackle. NFL Draft guru Mike Mayock raved about Flowers’ physicality and tackling ability when he was drafted, and he is being proved right the longer Flowers plays. The Chiefs have put together an extremely talented young secondary, and Flowers’ career path has been steadily on the rise since he was drafted. Kansas City has themselves a corner with the potential to emerge as one of the league’s true elites, and he has the tackling skill and toughness to do so as a total package at the position, not just as a cover corner.
Nnamdi Asomugha may already be one of the league’s elite, but for the second season in a row there is a spot for him amongst the poorest performances in missed tackles. Last season, he was the 4th poorest, this year he was the 7th worst, missing five tackles, or one in every 4.8 he attempted. For a corner with his physical attributes, and given the fact that he is able to shut down his side of the field so effectively in coverage, he has to do a better job of showing that he can step up and get the ball-carrier to the ground when he is called upon.
The Case of Charles Woodson
One player that deserves a bit more of an in-depth look is Charles Woodson, who gets a lot of press for his tackling ability, but whose raw numbers don’t stand out; he missed 14 tackles on the season. He did, however, attempt 119 of them. Woodson is one of the most active corners in the league inside, working close to the line of scrimmage and away from the traditional territory of a cornerback, and so we looked a little deeper to see exactly who he missed his tackles against.
Interestingly of Woodson’s 14 missed tackles, more than half of them came in games against the Lions and Bears. He missed tackles on the following players last season: Ryan Torain, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte (2), Kevin Smith, Maurice Morris, Danny Woodhead, Tony Scheffler, Jason Witten, Ovi Mughelli, Jay Cutler, Percy Harvin, Nate Burleson and Bryant Johnson. With the possible exception of Bryant Johnson, none of those players would be considered easy to tackle – even Jay Cutler has been responsible for juking DBs into injuries, and at 6’3, 233lbs is no light load to bring down. It tells the story of Woodson’s playing style that only three of those missed tackles came against wide receivers, and just two were when he was covering receivers on the boundary as opposed to inside over the slot.
The bottom line for Woodson is that simple numbers don’t tell the whole story. His missed tackle-to-attempt ratio isn’t much better than that of Tramon Williams or Sam Shields, but anybody close to the Packers will tell you that is a misleading figure, and Woodson is clearly the superior tackler. When he is matched up on receivers he more than holds his own, but can occasionally be overwhelmed by bigger players inside.
When we first talked about these numbers, one of the first players talked about was the Cardinals’ Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. DRC finished the year with the 8th poorest ratio for cornerbacks in the league, missing one in every 4.92 attempts he made, but it’s worth noting that those figures don’t include the plays where he showed no interest whatsoever in even getting to the position of attempting a tackle, of which there are at least two such incidents that leap immediately to mind. DRC is another case of the raw numbers not telling the entire story, but unlike Woodson, the broader context isn’t so kind. For those of you surprised that he wasn’t closer to the worst tackling corners in the league last year, he may have been just as bad as you fear.
Top 10 Cornerbacks, Tackle Attempts per Missed Tackle
Bottom 10 Cornerbacks, Tackle Attempts per Missed Tackle