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.
Terminology Review: Switch combinations
One of the staple concepts in the old Mouse Davis/June Jones run and shoot offense, old(ish) Lions fans will remember seeing the action in a switch play from the Wayne Fontes era when Detroit ran the Silver Stretch:
There's an old guy named Tiger Ellison [a quarterback coach for Woody Hayes at Ohio State in the '60s], who wrote a book called Run-and-Shoot: The Offense of the Future [in 1965]. He called me when I was with the Denver Gold and said, 'Mouse, keep scoring touchdowns! Every time you do, I sell another book.' Here we're calling it the Silver Stretch, Wayne's idea, because it stretches the defense. I like that. I never cared much for the name run-and-shoot."
The switch concept involves two receivers very close to each other (usually a split wideout and a slot receiver) criss-crossing at the line (a switch at the top of the route downfield would be a scissors), often getting a rub effect. Switch plays in the run and shoot offense were some of the earliest pick plays to be widely used:
The outside receiver slants inside before running down the seam, while the inside receiver runs a wheel route down the sideline. Against man coverage, the Switch often creates a pick that can free up one or both receivers. Against zone coverage, the Switch can put deep defenders in a bind by forcing them to choose between covering the seam or the sideline.
By lining up one way and then quickly switching who is inside and who is outside, the offense forces defenders in coverage to all make correct reads and coordinate with each other to ensure every receiver ends up covered. If anyone on defense gets confused as to who gets which route, the integrity of the coverage breaks down and the quarterback gets a man running free for easy pitch and catch.
Terminology Review: Match coverages
A defensive counter to this type of action is to run match coverages, whether some kind of pattern matching zone that reacts to receivers after their initial route declaration or banjo match man coverage (emphasis added):
Here's what I think was really happening on the offensive left: DRC, Dansby, and Wilson executed a kind of banjo coverage on Jones, Driver, and Jennings. No matter what the receivers did, DRC was responsible for the receiver closest to the sidelines, Wilson for the one nearest the middle of the field, and Dansby the receiver in between. If the receivers crossed, the defenders would switch off. And any receiver that went deep would be traded off to one of the safeties.
This kind of banjo coverage is similar to zone coverage in some ways, but there's a key difference: the defenders don't play as far off the receivers. DRC and McFadden maintain tight coverage on the outside receivers instead of dropping off and preparing to stop other players threatening their zones. This tight coverage takes away some of the easy reads and throws a quarterback gets when an opponent plays four-under, three-deep zone. It's a very good strategy to use against the Saints: the banjo principle negates some of the advantages the Saints get by stacking and crossing their receivers, and the three-deep coverage reduces the risk of a Devery Henderson bomb.
Execution against route switches that mess with coverage assignments is tough. NFL teams do a lot of funky motion, stack, twins, and bunch formation things -- all with the intent of getting someone on defense to screw up.
Lawson in combo coverage
2015 at NOS, 3Q (5:10). Third-and-1 at the Detroit 27.
The Saints come out with two tight ends to the right side of the formation and motion 10 WR Brandin Cooks from the flanker spot wide right all the way across the formation. He ends up in the slot next to 83 WR Willie Snead, who is the split end to the left. Defensively, Detroit is playing single high and you can see both 23 CB Darius Slay and 42 FS Isa Abdul-Quddus waving for 32 SS James Ihedigbo to rotate down and cover Cooks.
After the shift, the formation looked like this:
Cooks and Snead switched with Snead running the first route more or less vertical and Cooks bending behind him. Trailing as the underneath dump option was 82 TE Ben Watson coming across the faces of 59 LB Tahir Whitehead and 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch. 9 QB Drew Brees would not need the check down, though.
At the snap, Lawson locked in on Snead and stayed with him on the vertical. Snead's route was well run, bending in ever so slightly. The pick was so good that Ihedigbo tackled Snead, drawing a declined defensive holding flag. More important, though, it allowed Cooks to break uncovered to the corner behind Lawson's back with deep help (IAQ in center field) way out of position.
Lawson realized much too late that Cooks had switched at the start of the route, and was completely turned around when Brees put the ball in the air. It is surprising Lawson committed so hard to the inside since that's where his deep help was; the sideline was the weak spot he needed to really protect, and Brees made him pay.
2015 at NOS, 3Q (6:55). Second-and-5 at the New Orleans 36.
The thing to notice here is that Snead starts to the outside, so the banjo coverage is Lawson on Snead and IAQ on Colston at the snap. However, Colston drifts outward and Snead angles to the inside behind him, causing IAQ to switch off to Snead since he is now the No. 2 receiver (Colston is closer to the sideline). But Lawson stays locked onto Snead and does not switch off to Colston. Both IAQ and Lawson follow Snead when he reverses back to the sideline, and neither of them picks up Colston streaking down the field:
On the back side, Brandin Cooks has a post route attacking the middle of the field. As his back foot hits, Brees knows he has Colston breaking free. Once he reads which way Ihedigbo goes, it's an easy throw away from the single high to whichever of Colston or Cooks is open.
That's what the scoot forward by Brees is for: he's giving Colston time to get clear, waiting for Tulloch to move up on Watson and get out of the throwing lane. When the camera pans over to where Colston catches the ball, look how bunched Lawson and IAQ are near the sideline. After the tackle, IAQ goes over and clarifies what he'd read and what he expected Lawson to do:
The main thing with the receiver switches is that they cross paths at least once and sometimes twice, not that they start next to each other. The same effect can come from an inside breaking route and a running back release to the flat.
2015 at STL, 3Q (13:32). First-and-24 at the St. Louis 14.
Although this play does not actually go to the man Lawson is supposed to pick up in coverage, it is a nice demonstration of how dangerous it can be to put too many inexperienced players on the field at one time. In the blue box, 53 LB Kyle Van Noy is pointing at 89 TE Jared Cook split wide to the Rams' right. He is checking with 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch on how the defense is responding to this weird spread out look from heavy 12 personnel. At the same time in the pink box, 24 CB Nevin Lawson is looking back to 32 SS James Ihedigbo to get instructions.
The Rams run a version of all curls here, with 18 WR Kenny Britt running some kind of rounded off thing that ends up turning into a half-curl, half-crossing route. In any event, 17 QB Case Keenum went to 88 TE Lance Kendricks on the center check down in spite of close coverage by 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch. The ball fell incomplete, but a better quarterback could have really taken the Lions for a ride here.
Keenum's first read is Cook on the front-side curl. Look at the pink box. Cook is double covered, so Keenum moves on and resets to the middle to find Kendricks on the middle curl dump. But wait -- Cook was double covered? Who was on 30 HB Todd Gurley on the front-side flat component of the curl-flat combination to that side?
A more experienced quarterback might have made the first read and realized Lawson was playing the wrong assignment. Since Cook broke to the inside, he's Van Noy's responsibility. If you look at the top of the picture, that's what 23 CB Darius Slay and 57 LB Josh Bynes are doing: Slay stays outside to pattern match against 11 WR Tavon Austin breaking to the sideline while Bynes stays inside to match against Britt crossing into his zone. Lawson is supposed to be doing the same thing as Slay, but screwed up here and followed Cook inside.
Just suppose this was a Kurt Warner or even a Nick Foles or Sam Bradford. Those guys might have realized what was going on and hit Gurley in the flat with a huge lane outside the numbers. At that point, it's a footrace against Ihedigbo to the end zone. Watch Van Noy and Ihedigbo at the end of the play as Lawson approaches them from the side:
Van Noy points over to Gurley then back to the middle of the field where he's standing. Ihedigbo points at Lawson then to Van Noy. Both of them are telling Lawson he misread the play: "You're supposed to stay outside and he's supposed to stay inside."
Playing smart is playing fast
The problem during the 2015 season was that Lawson often read the pattern wrong and matched up with the incorrect receiver. From last time, we saw that Lawson can shut down a receiver in man coverage once he is running with the correct guy. What the Lions need is for him to process things faster and get on the right assignment.
2015 SFO, 1Q (10:28). Second-and-goal at the Detroit 8.
Prior to the snap, 2 QB Blaine Gabbert waves 82 WR Torrey Smith over from left to right. Lawson, originally lined up over Smith, follows across the formation. As Smith passes 81 WR Anquan Boldin on the right edge of the initial formation, Slay calls a defensive coverage switch before the snap:
Slay widens with Smith and points for Lawson to move up and fill against Boldin. Clear on his assignment, Lawson fluidly takes Boldin at the snap to the sideline and even dodges a switch rub attempt by Smith:
In the design of the play, Gabbert expects Boldin to be open (mostly due to the rub), but such was not the case. Rolling towards the sideline, Gabbert is unable to throw safely to a covered Boldin and gets forced out of bounds for a loss (recorded as a sack). When Lawson knew which guy to cover and had awareness of the switch coming thanks to Slay's guidance, he played it flawlessly. This is where the Lions need Lawson's play diagnosis to be without requiring assistance from veterans like Slay, Quin, or Whitehead.
Bonus easter egg: Watch Josh Bynes all the way through that GIF in the middle of the formation.
What to watch for before the season starts
Over the next two months, including training camp and preseason, the crucial development to look for from Nevin Lawson will be accelerating and cleaning up his decision loop in taking tackling angles and registering coverage assignments. In 2015, Lawson showed us the raw material necessary for a successful NFL cornerback and now it's time to polish and shape it into something great.
Pro players react faster and employ more complicated move sets, while overall offensive and defensive schemes are more complex. Look for Lawson to move and react as fast as everyone else on the field, diagnosing and flowing with the complicated route combination and switching attacks by receivers. We want to have no ugly busted coverages and smooth transition from initial assignment to final assignment during each play. That will be the evidence Lawson is ready to handle the full-time job.