The Detroit Lions had a lot of needs in the defensive backfield entering the 2019 offseason. The release of both Nevin Lawson and Glover Quin felt inevitable, and Bob Quinn would be tasked with finding three new starters in the team’s backfield between free agency and the draft.
They found their first, and possibly best, new starter at the beginning of free agency when they signed former Seattle Seahawks corner Justin Coleman to a deal worth $36 million over four years.
Coleman went undrafted in 2015, but was initially signed by the Minnesota Vikings. He failed to stick in Minneapolis, though, and was snatched by Matt Patricia’s New England Patriots defense at the start of the 2015 season, and ended up appearing in 10 games that year. He played another 10 games for Patricia’s Patriots defense in 2016 before moving on to Seattle.
He truly broke out in 2017 and 2018 with the Seahawks. Coleman played in all 32 games in two years and was one of the league’s underrated stars. Seattle’s defense was supposed to take a huge step back in 2018, but great play from Coleman, among others, led the team to a wild card berth.
Coleman plays almost all of his snaps out of the slot—a majority of his snaps were out of the slot in the games watched for this evaluation—and has made his name in the NFL as a nickel. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, he is just a touch taller than Lawson (5-foot-10, 180) who was arguably the team’s best nickel corner last season.
While they may have similar body types, the play of Lawson and Coleman could not be any different.
Lawson primarily thrived in press-man coverage. He was very physical at the line, and his main goal on every snap was to bump his opponent off of his route and never give the receiver a chance to get the ball on the play. When the ball did come his way, though, he often failed to ever make a good play on the ball.
Detroit’s newest corner is a polar opposite.
First, he is a zone corner. Seattle’s defense plays almost exclusively in zone coverage, and Coleman thrived in his role there. He does a great job quickly getting into his zone after carrying an opposing receiver for a few yards after the snap, and he has great awareness and control of both his assigned zone and the quarterback.
Coleman is lined up as an inside corner on this play. His assignment is to drop into the left curl/flat to both cover a shallow pass in front of him but also give support to the wide corner that drops behind him. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford ends up looking Coleman’s direction after going through his reads on the other side of the field. Wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. found space between zones, but Coleman is quick to see him and get back to cover him. As the play breaks down and Stafford is flushed from the pocket he still looks towards Jones Jr.. Coleman does a great job staying within range of the receiver as he tries to break free while also being aware of Stafford’s changing position in order to continue blocking the passing lane.
Coleman’s great awareness also comes into play when he is forced to make a play in shallower zones. On this play against the Minnesota Vikings he cuts down a runner before the play can even really get going.
Minnesota designed this play to get receiver Laquon Treadwell open in space. First, they ran a play action to the opposite direction of him, and then all of the split wide receivers ran deep routes to clear out the defense. Treadwell first feigned as if he was blocking on the play, then leaked out to the flat for an easy catch. Coleman was quick to come off of his man who was running into a deeper zone, though, and read the play happening in front of him. His shows off his quick closing speed and cuts the play short for only 2 yards. Had Treadwell gotten by Coleman, the play may have gone for much more.
He takes a majority of his snaps in off coverage and relies on his instincts and quick reaction time to make a play when a team tries to attack him underneath. Coleman is great at diagnosing plays and reacting accordingly when he is range.
His coverage instincts also allow him to be a decent playmaker from the cornerback position. He intercepted two passes for touchdowns in 2017, and got a lone interception against the Lions in 2018. Coleman was also credited with 19 passes defended in his time with the Seahawks. While the numbers do not jump off the page, they are a significant improvement from his predecessor.
While his prowess in zone coverage made him a huge asset in Seattle, the Lions are not a team that focuses on playing zone—at least not in 2018.
All of the Lions corners played primarily in man coverage last season, and Coleman struggled a bit when he was asked to do the same in Seattle.
The corner is not very fast, and while he usually does have enough speed to keep up with majority of receivers—especially after he gives them a cushion pre-snap—he usually is not fast enough to recover if he falls a step behind.
This puts him at a huge disadvantage when he ends up biting on a double move or head fake. Crisp, more creative, route runners took advantage of him.
Coleman is lined up in the slot across from San Francisco 49ers receiver Trent Taylor on this play. The receiver runs a deep in, but before he breaks on his route he quickly fakes as if he is going to break outside. The corner bites on the fake and loses a step that he never can recover.
While Coleman is not awful in man coverage, the Lions seem to have given a large contract to a player that does not quite fit their defensive scheme. This may be a sign of a change that general manager Bob Quinn has been trying to make for years now, though.
Since Quinn took over in 2016, almost all of the defensive backs that he has added to the team have been players that excel in zone coverage. Both Teez Tabor (2017 second-round selection) and Tracy Walker (2018 third-round selection) were heralded by our own Alex Reno for their skills in zone coverage coming out of college. Last offseason, Quinn brought in DeShawn Shead, another former Seahawk who thrived in Seattle’s base cover-3 defense. Detroit also reportedly had a meeting set up with former Seahawk and zone coverage aficionado Richard Sherman last offseason before he signed with the 49ers.
While neither Tabor nor Shead worked out for the Lions, and Walker is still adapting to the NFL, there has clearly been some sort of effort in the past to bring in players who are skilled zone defenders, particularly players who have played in cover-3 systems.
On the other hand, Detroit also did just sign Rashaan Melvin, a big=bodied physical man corner who likes to beat up his opponents at the line of scrimmage.