On the second defensive drive of Saturday’s preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions second-year cornerback Jeff Okudah let receiver Diontae Johnson run right by him for a big 43-yard play. For Lions fans, it was a disheartening moment given all the optimism surrounding the 2020 third-overall pick and his offseason progression. Others wondered whether Okudah was expecting more help over the top from a safety and as a result was not as much to blame for the play.
New Lions defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant provided some valuable context to the play on Monday, explaining what Okudah did right, and what he did wrong.
“Got a little greedy with his eyes,” Pleasant said. “Was a condensed split. (He) kinda wanted to jump one route, but didn’t play what he saw. I like it because he was thinking, but I don’t like it because I need discipline.”
Let’s set the stage a little, if you’ve forgotten about the play. The Steelers were facing a third-and-3 early in the game. Here’s the defensive alignment:
Safety Tracy Walker is walking in towards the line to play zone over the middle to prevent a short at-the-sticks throw. That leaves Will Harris as the single-high safety to prevent anything over the top. The corners and linebackers are all in man-to-man coverage.
Here’s what the Steelers countered with:
Pittsburgh runs four vertical routes likely to try and free up some space for the crossing route over the middle. But with Walker down in the box, that crosser is covered, which leaves Ben Roethlisberger with four one-on-one deep routes, with Harris in a tough spot having to cover all four as the last line of defense.
Here’s where Okudah gets greedy eyes:
He sees the in-breaking route, which is not his assignment, plus Walker has a good jump on it. His receiver, though, is taking all of the inside leverage Okudah is giving him. There’s a pretty good chance Okudah sees that, and thinks to himself that an inside move is coming. So he sits on it. Even though, again, Walker is in a good spot to defend that, Okudah thinks he sees an indicator for an inside route, and is flat-footed, ready to drive on it. In fact, you can see him kick it into gear towards the middle of the field, expecting a potential post or dig route:
Instead, Johnson just runs right by him. And because the Steelers kept Harris honest in the middle of the field with fly routes at the bottom of the screen, it was likely too much to realistically ask for the young safety to get there in time.
Pleasant doesn’t want his defensive backs to give up big plays, but he also doesn’t want his players to play too passively. He’s looking for a middle ground, which he terms “controlled aggression.” That’s no easy needle to thread, especially when NFL games are heavily slanted towards the offense. But Pleasant, who has a pretty good track record of improving young defensive backs, believes it’s on him to get Okudah to that point.
“The hardest thing, in my opinion, for a rookie, now second-year player, is learning what to do and how to do it at the same time, and it’s up for me as a coach to slow it down for the learner,” Pleasant said.
Okudah has had the game slow down for him considerably, according to Pleasant, and the defensive backs coach was extremely pleased with how he bounced back in this game.
“Started a little slow, rebounded very well. To me, it’s not about how you start, it’s about your finish. That’s why they’re in the preseason, and that’s why you see our starters out there trying to get better.”