An NFL record 763 points were scored in Week 15, topping the previous mark of 759 from January of 2012. Many will attribute this to potent offenses in a so-called “passing league,” but it’s more about defenses, particularly their secondaries.
The defensive back play in the NFL is atrocious. Bad players always play bad, but good players are also playing bad. Both are struggling with the fundamentals of their position, such as angles and backpedals. When players are isolated in man coverage, they seem to lack the concentration or patience to see through their backpedal. When players are in zone coverage, they struggle to get help from their freelancing teammates. Whichever coverage is called, players get beaten like a drum because of their own undoing.
One example of a bad angle taken by a fairly good player — although he’s struggled this year – is Chris Conte against the Cleveland Browns.
It was 1st-and-10 in the fourth quarter, and the Bears were leading 38-24. There was more than a minute left in the game, making it vital that the Bears prevent a potentially disastrous downfall by not giving up a touchdown. The Browns lined up in a Trips Right formation with star wide receiver Josh Gordon in the wide side (“field”) of the field on the left. Defensively, the Bears showed a two-deep shell, with both safeties lined up well outside the hashes and indicating Cover 2.
When the play began, Gordon released straight off the line of scrimmage and then was rerouted back inside by the cornerback. This is done to funnel the receiver to the safety, which in this case is Conte. Conte’s responsibility is to get over the top of Gordon’s route and prevent a big play from occurring.
Conte does a good job of this to begin with, shuffling before backpedaling again as he reads quarterback Jason Campbell. When Campbell throws the ball, however, Conte opens his hips up and takes a straight angle to Gordon instead of an anticipatory one that would lead him to the ball. This makes it difficult for him to make a play on the ball and predictably he misses it, giving up a touchdown.
Shifting to the St. Louis Rams facing the New Orleans Saints, Rams safety Rodney McLeod can be seen freelancing when teammate T.J. McDonald caught his first career interception.
Early in the first quarter, it was 1st-and-10 when the Rams lined up in a two-deep shell. A quick shift by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham changed that, bringing McDonald over and down to matchup with him while McLeod rotated to the middle of the field to become a single-high safety.
With the shift to a one-deep shell, McDonald knew he had help inside from McLeod, who was supposed to stay through his backpedal until quarterback Drew Brees released the football. He ended up making a mistake that many safeties do, however, biting on Brees’ quick turn to his left.
When Brees turned his shoulders left, McLeod rotated over to that side, leaving McDonald in single coverage against Graham. The problem? McDonald was shaded outside and giving Graham a free run through the seam because he expected McLeod to cover over the top. Fortunately Brees was pressured and threw up a soft football, allowing McDonald to jump Graham’s route and intercept the throw.
That’s part of the bad safety play. Bad angles and indiscipline are common issues in the back end of defensesd, just like false steps and impatience are common issues at the cornerback position.
In the Indianapolis Colts-Houston Texans matchup, cornerback Kareem Jackson added to the Texans’ awful season by taking a false step and getting burned for a touchdown by wide receiver Griff Whalen.
With more than 10 minutes to go in the first quarter, the Colts had a 2×2 set with quarterback Andrew Luck in the shotgun. The play-call was double posts, a common concept in the red zone. The Texans had one-deep safety and appeared to be playing man coverage across the board. That meant Jackson was one-on-one with Whalen, meaning he must have good technique. Otherwise, it’s a touchdown.
When Whalen released off the line, he ran a vertical stem nearly 10 yards before making his first move, a jab step to his right. Jackson had to expect a vertical route was coming, especially on the inside since he was shaded there. All he had to do in this situation was continue to stay inside and keep his hips squared. If he opened them up at the hint of the jab, it would all be over.
When Whalen jabbed with his right foot, Jackson opened his hips up and faced the sideline, fully committing to an outside-breaking route that wasn’t happening. The receiver jabbed right and opened left, releasing inside for a wide-open touchdown catch.
For the Green Bay Packers’ Sam Shields, there was little difference when he man-covered the Dez Bryant.
Late into the second quarter and facing 2nd-and-4, the Cowboys lined up in a 2×2 shotgun set like the Colts did. Because of the early down and short distance, they had an opportunity to open up the playbook here and attack the defense vertically if they wanted to. They chose to do so, targeting Shields, who matched Bryant on the far left of the wide side of the field.
Lined up outside the 30-yard number, Bryant released off the line freely and stemmed his route vertically. Nearly eight yards later, he weaved inside as if he was running an inside-breaking route. Shields, who was shuffling as he faced the play, jumped on this, hoping to interrupt the throw. He was duped into a double-move, however, as Bryant planted his right foot and accelerated past Shields. He ran back outside the numbers and eventually down to the sideline, where he caught a deep pass to the opposite 35-yard line.
Can these mistakes be fixed?
You’d like to think so. They’re simple ones tied to the fundamentals of the secondary positions, which should be ironed out with drills. But the secondary play in the NFL has been poor for a few years now because defenders don’t have the discipline to play with the fundamentals that are instilled in them. It’s uncertain if that will be fixed anytime soon. One thing that is certain, though, is that there will be more scoring records broken if it continues.