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Next man up: Quandre Diggs (Part two)

Continuing the analysis of CB Quandre Diggs' development from the 2015 season.

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Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Next man up is a series of articles examining players further down the depth chart, particularly young players being developed for larger roles.

This time, we are looking at cornerback Quandre Diggs.
For the first article in this series, see Next man up: Quandre Diggs (Part one)

Prelude: Big corners from the Steel Curtain to the Legion of Boom

Big, physical cornerbacks have been a valued commodity for a long time in professional football. They played a key role in the original cover-2 defense under Bud Carson. From Jim Wexell's Behind the Steel Curtain, here's coach Carson on why size mattered at cornerback:

"J.T. Thomas was a perfect corner for cover-2," remembered Bud Carson, the Steelers' defensive coordinator and secondary coach up until 1978. "You can't just get a little piss-ant out there and ask him to play cover-2. Those receivers will run right over you."

Carson's system was predicated on having big corners who could jam receivers at the line to throw off the offense's timing and hang tough as the edge setter against the run. Tim Layden's article on cover-2 in Sports Illustrated underscored the importance of having large bodies out there on the perimeter:

4. The cornerbacks must be physical enough to jam wideouts at the line and also tackle ball carriers. In Tampa Two the corners are not expected to run down the field with receivers but rather to disrupt them and pass them along to the safeties."One of the big reasons Tampa Two developed was to take pressure off the corners in terms of coverage," says ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski.

Yet disruption is vital. "Our job is to get our hands on the receiver and knock him off his route," says Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. "That little bit of a bump can change the whole play." Mel Blount, the Steelers' 6'3",205-pound Hall of Famer, was the prototype in the '70s. It's hard to imagine a more perfect Tampa Two corner.

Going back up to what Carson said about J.T. Thomas, it is interesting to note that Thomas was 6-foot-2 and a punishing hitter. The emphasis on big, physical cornerbacks continued through to the Kiffin-Dungy modification of Carson's defense, the Tampa Two. Adding a deeper drop to the middle linebacker's coverage responsibilities to cover the center hole in the scheme, the defense started to look almost like a hybrid three deep zone.

But going two high too often with secondary players who are run defenders first and less skilled as coverage players gets you shredded against modern offenses that go slot receiver heavy. Slowly, much of the league drifted away from the Cover-2 base. Tampa Two defenses in 2013 performed poorly.

Teams needed to cover spread out passing attacks with better pass defenders or apply ridiculous amounts of pressure to help the coverage -- or both. The rise of various 3-4 defenses under the old hands like Dick LeBeau at Pittsburgh and Dom Capers at Green Bay plus the Ryan family defense under Rex and Rob added diversity to the defensive mix of NFL teams, but no other influencer has been as powerful as Pete Carroll.

The calling card of the Seattle Seahawks' back to back Super Bowl appearances, Carroll's press Cover-3 defense has a familiar element that other teams scrambled to copy: big corners like Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Again, this is not new, but the obsession over whether a cornerback is over six feet tall spread to the nickel position: defensive coordinators employing so-called big nickel strategies now demand height and physicality to match up with flex tight ends like Jimmy Graham.

So this begs the question: Is Detroit okay going with a 5-foot-9 nickel player? If everyone else is going big and a "big nickel" player is so important it made Pat Kirwan's roster depth checklist in 2014, what does it mean for us that our main fifth defensive back is... not big?

Over the Top

The immediate risk of a shorter player in coverage is that opponents can attempt throws out of reach for our guy to defend against. Whether this is a jump ball or simply outreaching for a high throw, if the shorter player simply can't get to where the ball is placed by the quarterback, there is not much he can do.

2015 DEN, 4Q (2:31). Third-and-6 at the Detroit 11.

Denver runs a very Peyton Manning play here: mirrored smash divide. To Peyton's left, 12 WR Andre Caldwell and 11 WR Jordan Norwood run a Flat-7 on the back side from a tight flip pairing. On the front side to Peyton's right, 81 TE Owen Daniels in the slot and 10 WR Emmanuel Sanders breaks short to the inside. Finally in the center of the formation near the box, 88 WR Demaryius Thomas has the divide route, running a post up the middle to occupy deep coverage in the middle of the field.

Detroit's defensive alignment is a double A gap look from a "big dime" personnel package: 23 CB Darius Slay, 31 CB Rashean Mathis, 28 CD Quandre Diggs, FS Glover Quin, SS 32 James Ihedigbo, and S 42 Isa Abdul-Quddus are all on the field. The lone linebacker is 57 OLB Josh Bynes. Initial look has Ihedigbo and Bynes threatening the A gaps and everyone else lined up over a man, showing Cover-0. In reality, this is a disguised Man Free (Cover-1) because Ihedigbo drops to cover Thomas while Quin backs out as a single high safety at the snap.

The problem with this setup is obvious in hindsight to Lions fans: Ihedigbo is not the best coverage safety, and will struggle to get over in time to take away Thomas. This forces Quin to play relatively neutral over the top instead of shading over more to the trips side. Quin is already starting to the inside and is tethered to the hash until he's confident Ihedigbo is in position to take over on Thomas. This means 5-foot-9 Quandre Diggs is giving up half a foot to 6'3" Owen Daniels with limited (at best) deep help.

The high throw to the corner for Daniels to "go up and get it" ensures Diggs has no chance to make a play on the ball. You can see at the end from the reverse angle that Quin was too far to provide any help. Diggs actually has okay positioning here, but the high and outside throw by Peyton is on the money to exploit the match-up.

Lock Up

Although throws dropping in from above can be a problem -- particularly back shoulder throws or fades -- another place where size can matter is the jam at the line Bud Carson and the old cover-2 crowd wanted. Whereas slot receivers in the past were generally smaller and faster and played off the line, offenses now move bigger receivers or tight ends (as above with Denver and Owen Daniels) into the slot unexpectedly. Sometimes these slot receivers will run deep routes as opposed to the old mix of mainly underneath stuff, so being able to redirect or disrupt as a nickel defender is important.

2015 at SEA, 2Q (11:03). First-and-10 at the Detroit 24.

The throw here looks to be dropped in from above to 89 WR Doug Baldwin, beyond an outstretched Quandre Diggs:

But that's not where Diggs was beat; he was beat twenty yards earlier in the route on a double move by Baldwin to get downfield cleanly. Chris Spielman talked about how bad it is to allow receivers to get off the line cleanly and the meaning of 'if he's even, he's leaving' on the 3 & Out video with Mike O'Hara on the official Lions site following the Arizona loss in 2015. We can apply Spielman's commentary to the Seattle play under consideration: no obstruction from the coverage allowed Baldwin to get vertical behind Diggs.

Around the 20-yard line, Baldwin gives a shoulder fake and manages to get Diggs to turn his hips a little. At that point, he's toast. Diggs can't get a piece of Baldwin, who gets even around the 15-yard line and takes off. 3 QB Russell Wilson reads it and throws a magnificent deep ball to the back line of the end zone for a score.

2015 MIN, 3Q (2:50). Second-and-12 at the Detroit 40.

On second-and-long, Minnesota comes to the line and Teddy checks to a new play after seeing Detroit in single high press coverage. The play is a regular dropback smash combination to the left hand side with 17 WR Jarius Wright running the corner route over 11 WR Mike Wallace on the hitch underneath. Teddy peeked right and gave a token shoulder pump fake to pin Quin in the middle of the field before firing to an open Wright.

What happened?

First, watch Diggs at the line against Wright at the bottom near the TV graphic for down and distance. In press coverage up in the face of Wright, Diggs gets no jam on the receiver whatsoever and is caught flat-footed when Wright takes off. For comparison, look a little further down at Mathis on the outside against Wallace. After a few steps, Mathis gets his hands on Wallace. Even at the top of the screen Slay may not get a big push on the receiver, but you can see him get his right mitt on his man.

Wright has several steps on Diggs when the ball arrives, and a big part of that was how cleanly he got off the line into his route. Instead of actually running a corner route with a break on top of a stem, Wright doesn't even bother and simply sprints straight-line to the target area to gain separation. Luckily a terribad drop by Wright bailed out the defense:

Staying Alive

Being physical at the line extends beyond messing with timing routes, and can relate to all of the tackling and run support stuff we looked at last time. Certainly Quandre Diggs can make the reads and react well in open space, but he needs to keep clean to make plays. Having to fight off bigger blockers -- if he gets engaged by them -- can lead to bad outcomes.

Preseason 2015 at NYJ, (0:32). Third-and-1 at the New York 13.

86 TE Wes Saxton comes out of a bunch formation to block Diggs for 18 WR Walter Powell on a screen pass. Saxton is 6'4" and 235 pounds:

The players have been put in a bad situation here, so we can't be too disappointed: Stanford and Diggs are two-on-three. Nevertheless, it's still a bad look for Diggs to be put on the ground that way. Thankfully, this was just preseason.

2015 at SDO, 4Q (7:03). Second-and-9 at the San Diego 33.

Early in the season, we have San Diego running a WR screen with a TE firing out to lead block. 89 TE Ladarius Green (6'6" and 237 pounds) comes out from being an in-line TE to lay a block on Diggs while 80 WR Malcolm Floyd (6'5" and 201 pounds) on the edge takes on Slay. No matter how you slice it, if these guys get their hand on our guys, it's going to be tough for the defense to prevail.

Set aside 98 DE Devin Taylor getting blocked in the back and focus on Diggs. Green releases and zeroes in on Diggs, knocking him to the ground. 11 WR Steve Johnson took this for 34 yards before Slay took him down.

2015 OAK, 3Q (12:14). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 15.

Now this is what we want to see. Later in the season facing a WR screen to 89 WR Amari Cooper, Diggs stays alert not only to the throw but to where the blockers are. He spots and evades a cut block by 10 WR Seth Roberts (6-foot-2), staying alive to make a play. As we saw last time, Diggs moves up aggressively and gets enough of the legs to force Cooper to the sidelines on a bad angle for just 4 yards.

Next Time: The Specialist

That last play against Oakland encapsulates a lot of what I believe about Quandre Diggs. Yes, he's shorter than many pundits consider to be "ideal" height for a cornerback, but who cares? All it means is that his technique and focus will be different from other players with different body types. He is a smart player who adapts - if he has a problem with bigger blockers, he uses his quickness to avoid them. If there's a bigger ball-carrier, he uses his center of gravity advantage and takes out the legs to negate the height disparity.

The press coverage stuff is something I am sort of concerned about, and maybe there's something in leverage or positioning that can help Diggs get a better jam at the line or take control of the route runner in coverage. I don't know, but Teryl Austin and Tony Oden are both tremendous secondary guys, and if there's a way to get it done, they will. Something like the Denver throw by Peyton sending Daniels to climb the ladder would be hard to mitigate, but the free releases by Baldwin and Wright were at least partially preventable. Wilson made an outstanding throw (like Peyton's throw), so there's some solace in knowing most quarterbacks won't make those plays. The Wright play, on the other hand, is the type I absolutely want to see Diggs eliminate, and is something I'll be looking forward to seeing him do when we finally get some preseason footage to look at.

So don't worry too much about what you might think Quandre Diggs can't do or that he won't be a "big nickel." What Quandre Diggs can do, he does very well. Next time we'll look at what makes him such a great nickel for the Lions: excellent coverage skills. It may be tough to stomach matching him up against bigger targets like tight ends or 6-foot-4 slot freaks, but as a cover nickel specialist against fast receivers in the shallow cross and 3-step game, it'd be hard to find a better guy for the job.

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