Not all preseason battles need to be fought
There are several fluid situations for Lions fans to follow in the defensive secondary during the preseason: the battle for the slot/nickel corner job, Alex Carter’s move from corner to safety, Miles Killebrew and Tavon Wilson competing for the strong safety job, Teez Tabor proving his 40-yard dash time was nothing to worry about, and Jamal Agnew’s path to making the 53-man roster. Who is missing from fans’ water cooler chatter over the defensive backs?
There is a reason our Mike Payton pegged Nevin Lawson as the Lions’ biggest secret weapon back in July: the scrappy fourth-year cover man from Utah State turns in quality play without attracting attention. A major reason his name does not come up as often as it should is because his true value on the field often translates to numbers on the stat sheet for his teammates. Here is how Glover Quin explained it during the 2014 campaign:
"We play as a team defense," safety Glover Quin says. "Yeah, we had eight sacks, but [Bridgewater] had nowhere to throw the ball. Obviously, if his receivers are wide open, we don't have eight sacks. That's why great defense goes hand in hand."
The last time we looked at Nevin Lawson’s development in detail, there were two areas we wanted to see improvement in. First, providing quality run support. Second, processing his role in coverage faster while maintaining his aggressiveness. Notably, both of these have a lot to do with understanding and playing within the scheme laid out by defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and the rest of the defensive coaching staff.
Just do your job
Disciplined assignment football has been the hallmark of great defenses for decades. How big of a deal is it to commit to playing team defense? Consider the man who was hired by Don Shula in 1966 “to help the Colts get past Green Bay” (MacCambridge, p.120) and later led the Steel Curtain during the Steelers’ dynasty in the 1970s: Chuck Noll.
Longtime broadcast analyst Paul Maguire, who was a linebacker on the AFL’s Chargers in the early 1960s, remembered what Noll preached from the earliest days of his pro football coaching career on the defensive staff in San Diego (p.114):
“I will tell you the most important thing he taught me and taught all of us,” said Maguire. “And he kept stressing it every time we either had a scrimmage or if we had a game. You only do your job. Just let everybody else take care of whatever the hell they’re supposed to do. You do what you’re supposed to do, and everything is going to be fine. It’s a team thing, but it is individuals doing their own jobs. Once you do that, the whole team is successful with it.”
It is no surprise that some of the best defensive minds in the game today also live by the “do-your-job” mantra. This requires unselfish play by athletes who understand and accept that they may not get the gaudy interception or sack numbers, but will help the team win by creating opportunities for their teammates. Through two preseason games, Nevin Lawson has done just that.
Sealing the edge in run support
Playing the outside means a cornerback like Lawson will often have to step up and contain the runner, squeezing the play back inside to the rest of the team for a solid gang tackle. This may not—and often will not—result in a tackle for the cornerback, but instead show up as a tackle for whoever cleaned up from the back side. We now take a look at two plays showing good positioning by Lawson to funnel an outside play back to the swarming defensive front.
2017 Preseason at IND, 1Q (3:55). Second-and-4 at the Indianapolis 48.
The play call for the Colts is a toss sweep to the left, with 74 LT Anthony Castonzo pulling to the outside in front of 33 HB Robert Turbin. In the first panel above at the top, taken right at the snap, you can see Castonzo starting his pull action. 24 CB Nevin Lawson for the Lions is the far outside man near the 50-yard line number painted on the field while the nearest linebacker is 52 OLB Antwione Williams.
As the contain man to the outside against the run, Lawson must widen and prevent Castonzo from sealing the edge for Turbin to turn up the sideline. If the offensive blocker can turn the last man on the edge to the inside, the only thing that can stop the play is the sideline. Here is an example of a successful outside run where 68 LT Taylor Decker blows his man off the line and 46 FB Michael Burton cut blocks the last unblocked defender; 25 HB Theo Riddick took this for a pretty big gain before running out of space near the sideline.
Now, it is kind of common to see the puller (or other lead blocker, like a fullback) cut block the last guy. In the third panel of the stills from the Colts play, notice how Castonzo is on the ground in a heap with Lawson. What is interesting there is that the defender cut block the offensive lineman: Lawson widens the puller and takes him out, clearing a gap for Williams to shoot and drop Turbin for a four-yard loss. If Lawson takes a bad angle and tries to get inside to make the tackle himself, that could allow Castonzo to block him into Williams’ lane.
Kudos to Williams for attacking up the field and finishing, but at least some of the credit for this play has to go to Lawson for setting the table. The second example of nice edge run support shows how carrying out an assignment can influence a play without any contact at all.
2017 Preseason NYJ, 1Q (11:29). Second-and-11 at the New York 49.
On first down from midfield, 29 HB Bilal Powell tried to ram the ball up inside and was met by 35 S Miles Killebrew flying into the mush pile for a one-yard loss. On second down, the Jets again ran inside with Powell with no success. Instead of riding his blockers the whole way, though, Powell attempted to bounce it outside. What we see in the three panels above is the diagnosis by Lawson to read run, his move up into run support, and then squaring up solid to meet the runner.
Powell sees the dark jersey on the edge unblocked and is forced back inside, where he met 98 DL Jeremiah Ledbetter for a minimal three-yard gain. Sticking to his assignment with a good read and solid positioning, Lawson helped make that happen, setting up a favorable third-and-long for the Lions defense.
Right place, right time in coverage
The biggest opportunities a defensive player can set up for his teammates is a potential takeaway, and we have a nice example of that in the second preseason game against the Jets. Most fans will remember the fact that the usually reliable ball hawk 27 FS Glover Quin dropped a gift-wrapped interception, but few will remember who wrapped the present.
2017 Preseason NYJ, 1Q (9:20). Third-and-5 at the New York 21.
Yes, Lawson is playing a little “handsy” here, but this is absolutely the kind of aggressive tight man coverage that Teryl Austin needs from him. Given the down and distance and the location of help behind him, getting in the face of the assigned man is both appropriate and necessary: an uncontested quick slant will move the sticks.
Notice the targeted 6-foot-2 receiver 17 WR Charone Peake has a massive size advantage over 5-foot-9 Lawson, but it does not seem to matter. The Lions’ cornerback pokes the ball away with quick hands to prevent the third-down conversion. Although Quin was unable to finish it off with an interception, this is still a tremendous play that gets the ball back for the offense.
2017 Preseason at IND, 1Q (3:15). Third-and-8 at the Indianapolis 44.
Again in an important third-down situation matched up against a much larger receiver (6-foot-4 rookie, 83 WR Bug Howard), we have a nice example of Lawson doing a good job within the called coverage. Here, the Lions are playing robber, with 35 S Miles Killebrew in deep center field and 40 MLB Jarrad Davis dropping from a double A-gap look up front (59 OLB Tahir Whitehead blitzes) into the hole underneath. All other defensive backs are in man coverage.
The defensive call places some stress on Lawson since Killebrew’s disguise alignment means he is moving away from Lawson’s side of the field at the snap. Lacking deep help behind him (Killebrew must be ready to help on the more threatened right side of the Colts’ formation), Lawson plays off quite a ways because he cannot afford to get beat deep.
The offensive call presents some problems as well. 16 QB Scott Tolzien has Howard coming across the field underneath three clearout routes on the right. 84 TE Jack Doyle, crossing back against the grain of Howard’s shallow cross, has an opportunity for a possible rub/pick against Lawson.
Tolzien throws a bad ball, which falls incomplete, but look at the nice job Lawson does to get in position to stop the third-down conversion. The spacing between receiver and defender is 6 yards at the snap, but a quick read and alert avoidance of Doyle puts Lawson in pretty decent position to make a stop if necessary.
By the time the ball is anywhere near the receiver, the distance has closed enough where Lawson could reach out and prevent yards after the catch. Though such a tackle was not necessary due to the poor pass, the demonstrated awareness of what else is happening on the field is great to see.
Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell you everything
If we simply went off the official statistics and saw that Nevin Lawson had just one tackle and one pass defended to show for the first two preseason games, it might sound like he is not doing much. That would be a big mistake, because it is all the stuff that does not come in countable units that show the more dependable kind of veteran player Lawson has grown into.
What he’s doing is not flashy, and it’s not lighting up the box scores, but it provides important value to overall team defense. Not every defensive back will be a Darius Slay or a Glover Quin, and that’s okay. Sometimes you need some Nevin Lawsons to go with those kinds of guys to make it all work.