The Iowa State outside receiver motioned inside the numbers before going back out. A yard from the line of scrimmage, Justin Gilbert followed across the formation and back, distancing himself more than five yards now and waiting for the receiver to make his first move. He switched his stance from a traditional backpedal to a shuffle, using the technique to match the receiver’s route. It went eight yards up the field and then he abruptly cut outside. Gilbert jammed his left foot out like a cane in the concrete and exploded off to the receiver’s direction, driving on the out route and the incoming throw. He had a couple yards of ground to make up in a hurry, but that wouldn’t be a problem. He’s always been known for his speed. As the throw sailed slightly inside, he craned his neck around to find it, intercept it above his head with both hands, and take it to the house.
The interception showed Gilbert’s physical talent when combined with proper technique. It’s what NFL evaluators want to see. Frankly, it’s something they need to see more of from him.
Gilbert’s slated to go in the first round in May, and for good reason: he has great tools to mold. He has blazing long-distance speed that’s evident when he’s left trailing a receiver. He’s instinctive and can make splash plays like the one above. He has incredibly quick feet for his size, a six-foot sized positive. He also has the ability to plant his foot and drive on the ball with ease.
But what he doesn’t have yet is sharp technique. It isn’t easy to find many college cornerbacks who do — they’re just not coached well enough at that level. They’re often relying on their athleticism to make plays, hence why their burn rate can sometimes reach absurd levels. In the NFL, however, athleticism can’t solely be relied on, even for the most talented cornerbacks.
Look at the New York Jets’ Antonio Cromartie, a extremely talented cornerback who possesses an outstanding height to length ratio, blazing speed, and overall skill. His technique is subpar, though, and there have been many times when he should have made a play he didn’t. His hands were hanging down his sides or his backpedal was too upright and so on.
Another example is the New England Patriots’ Aqib Talib. When Talib came out of Kansas and to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his technique was sloppy. This was a bigger problem than those facing Cromartie because Talib isn’t nearly as athletic. To make up for it, he had to play with crisp technique. But he didn’t, and he predictably struggled. He couldn’t locate the ball because he turned his shoulders too early when running downfield with receivers. He would open his his up too early at the line of scrimmage as well. Now playing for the Patriots, he’s become a better player because his technique improved.
For Gilbert, he’s most likely going to stick around in the NFL for many years because of his athleticism and speed. He has great potential, and NFL teams are always looking to add depth in the secondary. To live up to his potential, he’ll have to improve his technique and not open his hips up too early like Talib used to, and like he has a tendency to do now.
Now Gilbert is lined up across the field to the far sideline, where he’s rolled up to the line of scrimmage at the 50-yard line. He’s in press-man coverage against the Missouri receiver. His shoulders are squared and his feet are shoulder width apart. When the play begins, the receiver jabs his right foot inside and weaves his body outside. Gilbert mirrors the steps, but when the receiver takes three steps further next to the sideline, Gilbert opens up. His hips quickly shift and his shoulders are no longer squared; they face the sideline. He’s welcomed trouble by opening his hips up too early. This is almost always fatal in man coverage, and it nearly is here when the receiver shakes the tight outside coverage and shifts back inside, leaving Gilbert to turn his body 360 degrees as he falls behind. As the play unfolds, Gilbert uses his speed to catch up, but would have still been beaten if not for a poor throw. (2:07 mark)
More often than not, matchups are won at the line of scrimmage. Whether it’s a quarterback calling a play or a cornerback mirroring a receiver early in the route, a lot can be decided in only a few quick seconds or steps at the line. This is why it’s vital that Gilbert improves at the line when in man coverage. As said, he has speed in spades, but he can’t only rely on it because he’ll still get beaten. Here’s another example, one that he doesn’t get thrown at but if he did, he would’ve been beaten.
Now he’s lined up inside the 30-yard number. He’s squared and his arms hang down as he awaits the release of the Mississippi State receiver. At the snap, the receiver swings his arms as he takes one long step with his left foot outside and Gilbert matches — too aggressively. Now he’s on the top of the number, and the receiver’s running a slant route inside of it. One slide too far outside, one false step with his right foot nearly gets him beaten. (5:08 mark)
Technique isn’t limited to man coverage. Contrary to novice thought, it isn’t as simple as standing in one area and waiting for the opposition to invade it. It’s more than that. It requires the defender to stay disciplined on his toes and pick up defenders as they come in and out of the area. The defender can’t get caught cheating, otherwise he’ll lose sight of his new responsibility. That’s what Gilbert did and he was punished for it.
The down and distance is first-and-10. Gilbert’s at the bottom hash, closer to the line of scrimmage than usual because he’s on the nub side of the formation. This means only the tight end is to that formation’s side and because Oklahoma State will be playing zone, Gilbert must have a watchful eye on him.
The tight end releases from his three-point stance and runs directly at Gilbert, who is expanding his coverage near the flat. The entire time he’s watching the quarterback, and when the tight end is set to run by him, he only sticks out a long right arm that’s expected to throw him off course — it doesn’t. Now the tight end is turning past the first down marker and running parallel to the sideline with no one covering him. Gilbert’s eyes are still glued to the quarterback, and they only shift when the ball takes flight. It goes right over his head and into the tight end’s hands more than 20 yards downfield.
The game is played from the ground up. The ball lies on the ground before ever being thrown or caught. Offensive linemen start with their hands and feet in the ground. A quarterback’s throwing accuracy is dictated by his feet. It’s not different for a cornerback, whose coverage is dictated by his feet.
Sharp footwork is vital. It’s what Gilbert will have to clean up at the next level if he plans on taking interceptions back to the end zone. He certainly has the tools to do it, but it’s more than just talent — it’s technique too.