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 Nevin Lawson.
For the first article in this series, see Next man up: Nevin Lawson (Part one)
Route recognition and reaction
Playing the outside corner position requires the ability to play one-on-one situations where nobody is nearby to assist. As Sam Monson pointed out in an article about the vaunted "Revis Island" effect in 2009, this allows defensive coordinators to get creative with how they use safeties and more generally everyone on the field with coverage assignments:
Think of Revis as a catalyst that allows a whole series of schematic changes each of which squeezes something an offense wants to do to New England. If they face a team that wants to run the ball all day they just bought themselves an extra man in the box. If they face a team that wants to spread them out and exploit the safeties deep, they just bought themselves the license to change the safety’s responsibilities and attack those routes.
Now, few cornerbacks will ever be able to do what the Darrelle Revis or Patrick Peterson type shutdown artists accomplish. But if Nevin Lawson can play solid man coverage on the outside against your typical isolation routes, that goes a long way towards providing some of that schematic flexibility to defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
From Field Gulls' Danny Kelly, we have the following passage about off coverage in his article An illustrated guide to playing cornerback with Richard Sherman:
The most important tenets of off coverage are play recognition, anticipation, body control, ability to backpedal smoothly and transition to moving forward while making a break on the ball. "Click and close" is the scouting lingo.
Here are two great examples of Lawson making solid reads on the quarterback to prevent catches on timing routes.
2015 at NOS, 4Q (3:24). First-and-10 at the Detroit 40.
Detroit brings 57 LB Josh Bynes on a blitz against the empty backfield set and plays man free across the board against New Orleans. 9 QB Drew Brees went straight to the right side of the formation after the snap, and went after Lawson on the quick read to 34 HB Tim Hightower. If you recall pre-injury Hightower from the early part of his career, he was regarded as a very good pass catcher out of the backfield. As best as I can reconstruct it, the play call here by Sean Payton is (11) (Heavy) Flank LT Scram Dbl Henry:
The formation in the diagram is a little different since it displays a motion set from 21 personnel (the "Jump Hawk" stuff) and different protection (382), but let's see what we have here.
- (11) = Personnel: HB Hightower and TE Watson
- (Heavy) = HB aligned as a plus or numbers split WR
- Flank = 11 personnel with two receivers set back to same side as TE
- LT = TE aligns on left side of the line
- Scram = Basic 5 man shotgun protection
- Dbl Henry = The name apparently assigned by Payton in his old Giants playbook to the inside seam go plus outside curl route combination mirrored to both sides.
Hence, I dub thee (11) (Heavy) Flank LT Scram Dbl Henry. The TE on the line is no longer the No.2 receiver on that side. This is not talking about the ranking in terms of best and next-best receiver on the roster, but the relative position of where they are standing, starting at the sideline and coming in toward the center of the field. 82 TE Ben Watson is now the No. 3 and essentially doing the job of the F receiver (fullback) check hook: he released and appropriately ran away from 59 LB Tahir Whitehead to provide a short dump option over the middle.
This play is designed to allow the quarterback to scan the field for his best man-to-man match-up and take the easiest throw, which is something that Drew Brees is a master at. Although he has a potential mis-match to exploit with 12 WR Marques Colston against 42 S Isa Abdul-Quddus on the lookie seam, Brees spots what should be free yards in Hightower vs. Lawson playing off man coverage.
Lawson sinks with Hightower, reading his man with good technique. At the decision point, Lawson breaks on the ball and closes rapidly to make a tremendous stop. This is outstanding off man coverage.
2015 SFO, 2Q (0:57). First-and-10 at the Detroit 22.
Threatening to score near the end of the first half, San Francisco spreads the field with all kinds of stuff going on. To 2 QB Blaine Gabbert's left, two veteran receivers are running something similar to a Mills or Matt Bowen's sucker concept. The curl by 81 WR Anquan Boldin in the slot holds the seam coverage shallow while 82 WR Torrey Smith breaks to the post behind it. Gabbert didn't even bother looking this way since 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch is positioned well to slide in behind 28 CB Quandre Diggs to take it away anyhow.
On Gabbert's right side, 84 TE Blake Bell runs straight up the seam to carry IAQ out of the picture. This clears the throwing lanes to either hit 38 HB Jarryd Hayne on the angle against 57 LB Josh Bynes or an isolated comeback route on the outside by 11 WR Quinton Patton against Lawson. Hayne's route is run too narrowly, and wasn't really open, but Gabbert was looking to push the ball deep down the sideline with the clock situation anyway.
This is the right throw to make since both IAQ and 27 FS Glover Quin will be occupied by Bell's seam vertical leaving Lawson with no help. Gabbert does a nice job looking at Bell to ensure Quin is out of the play, and then delivers the ball. Once again left on an island by a vertical seam clearout, Lawson makes an outstanding play to break up the pass, this time on a deeper comeback.
Fighting the good fight
Sometimes you need your man in coverage to not only read and react well, but to get in there and mix it up -- contest the route or the catch. Our friends at Football Outsiders had an extended article on Davante Adams failing over and over against an unnamed defensive back. The article shows four very good examples of Lawson (the unnamed defensive back) playing nice man coverage.
If you don't have the time or inclination to read the article, I still recommend looking at the four coverage GIFs here, here, here, and here. The first one has Lawson locking up with Adams at the route break, the second one has Lawson reading Adams looking and reaching back for the ball to break up the catch, and the fourth one demonstrates Lawson pawing at Adams all the way down the field. The third is just a dropped pass by Adams, but is still worth seeing because it is an example showing Lawson can work on his press coverage.
For something a little different, let's look at Lawson using his body against a double move in loose man coverage. This is still playing physical, just in a less common way.
2015 SFO, 2Q (0:53). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 22.
On the play immediately following the comeback route breakup we looked at earlier, the Niners go after Lawson again. The pattern sends Patton on a post-corner double move route:
Lawson mirrors well and doesn't overcommit, using his body to get in the way of the route. On the replay, the broadcast team of Brennaman and Davis raved about the coverage:
Charles Davis: That's a really nice read by Nevin Lawson, because they try to sell it by... (instant replay begins) watch it's supposed to be here (draws the post onto the overlay) and here (draws the corner onto the overlay). Watch what he (circles Lawson) does on this play. (GIF above starts here) Watch how he moves his body, beats the route, and takes away the second move. Does not bite on the first one, and stays outside.
(Blaine Gabbert appears on screen, pointing and signaling for pass interference)
Davis: Of course, he's going to ask for interference.
Thom Brennaman: No.
Davis: That was just terrific play.
Brennaman: Well, yeah. Patton ran into him.
2015 at GBY, 4Q (6:03). First-and-goal at the Detroit 4.
Deep coverage is not the only place we want to see aggressive man coverage, though. The end zone pass breakup most Lions fans remember from the road game at Green Bay was Crezdon Butler's play on the two-point conversion, but Lawson made one in the fourth quarter as well.
Backed up at the goal line, Lawson gets in there to mess with 89 WR James Jones as soon as Jones makes his move. A great play to slap the ball away and prevent the touchdown.
Next time: Know your role
So many of the draft previews made mention of Lawson playing grabby or handsy in coverage as if it was a bad thing. Of course nobody likes to see defensive holding penalties or pass interference calls giving away first downs, but getting hands on the receivers is necessary to play tough coverage and deny easy completions. Even the best corners in the NFL like Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden, and Josh Norman end up getting called for such penalties. But they still play physical and know that referees don't throw flags at every sign of contact:
"I don’t care. I’m playing aggressive," Revis said, further addressing his pass interference penalty. "That’s just what it is. Like I said, we don’t have that much of an advantage anyway with our new rules and all that. ... I’m not complaining. If I get a pass interference, it is what it is. If any of us do, there’s a lot of football to play. We’ve got to focus on the next play."
If you want to get shutdown performance from your outside cornerbacks, you must be willing to accept there will be some bad penalties called on them from time to time. Focusing on penalties is a bad way to evaluate the play of guys like Slay or Lawson because we want them to contest the route and make receivers earn their catches. There is ample evidence that Lawson is capable of playing very high quality coverage for the full length of the field.
Next time, we'll finish with the other piece of the puzzle when it comes to Lawson shutting down his half on the outside. While he gives excellent coverage once locked up on an opposing receiver, Lawson needs to work on making sure he's taking the correct guy in crowded formations.