He was a sophomore at UCLA. Playing in off-man coverage against a stacked twin set, he backpedaled on the balls of his feet, squared his hips, and drove on the throw to the receiver running a quick out. He intercepted California’s quarterback, Nathan Longshore, and took it 76 yards to the house. That was the one of the first times in college that Alterraun Verner’s feet took him to the ball for an interception. They never stopped after that.
His feet. They’re what make him one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks. They are the wheels in motion that allow him to make the big plays that Lovie Smith so fondly talked about when he signed him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent. They allow him to mirror routes effortlessly and make plays on the ball explosively. They pin him back like a slingshot and have him ready to shoot forward the second his back leg releases off the ground. They also make him a risk taker, allowing him to cover the ground that he loses when he has aggressive intentions to gamble on a play.
Against the New York Jets in Week 4 of the 2013 season, he gambled and hit jackpot on the second play of the game.
The Jets faced second-and-six from their own 24. Two backs in the backfield crouched along with Geno Smith under center. Outside the numbers, a single receiver was to each side of the formation. To the left side was Stephen Hill shadowed by Verner. Verner was in press coverage with single safety help in the middle of the field.
When the play began, Verner opened his hips to the outside and invited Hill to a free vertical release inside. He knew he had the help inside, so he’d funnel the receiver in that direction. Hill ran vertically nearly a dozen yards before rounding his route inside, and forming a half-assed skinny post route straight into double coverage. Verner was covering outside, and because he had safety help over the top of Hill’s route, he knew he could gamble underneath for an interception.
As Hill crossed his 45-yard line, Verner easily mirrored the route and slid in front, cutting off the ball’s path before diving to intercept it.
Notice how he never loses the separation from Hill even after the route turns into the middle of the field? He maintains the distance and takes advantage of an opportunity to undercut the route when he gets his chance. It’s how he has made plays his entire football career, dating back to when he was at UCLA. It’s why Lovie Smith is fond of his playmaking skills, even though Smith hasn’t directly talked about his footwork.
A quarter later on first-and-10, his feet shined again. He was shaded inside nearly eight yards from the single receiver, Saalim Hakim, in the wide side of the field. He watched the quarterback until the snap and then shifted his eyes to the receiver. He remained shaded inside, playing man coverage and using the sideline as extra help in addition to the safety rotating over the top of him.
Hakim ran vertically 15 yards, cut inside, cut outside, shook his shoulders, and went back inside. Verner never left his side. He was there every step of the way, mirroring Hakim throughout the route and blanketing him with outstanding quickness and patience, all the while playing aggressively.
There are times when he gambles too much and gets too aggressive. He tries too hard to make a play. Sometimes when he’s in Cover 2, he’ll bite too hard on the flat route and get beaten over the top. He has safety help, but he still needs to sink deeper from the flat than he typically does. Other times, in man coverage, he’ll grab the receiver and not let go until it’s too late, violating NFL rules. It shows on double moves.
It showed against the Denver Broncos in Week 14. It wasn’t one of Verner’s best games. He got beat a couple times and was flagged a couple times. He didn’t play nearly as bad as many have said, partly because some of the plays he was beaten on, he wasn’t really beaten. It was his help that was. Nonetheless, he struggled some, including on a double move by wide receiver Eric Decker that drew a flag.
Early into the third quarter, Verner was rolled up on the line in press-man coverage against Decker by the Broncos’ sideline. He had safety help over the top but still had to stay disciplined with his outside shade.
At the snap, Decker released vertically 10 yards and sank his hips like he was running a curl route. Verner saw it and sank his hips to try to close aggressively. Decker opened his shoulders back downfield, however, and leaned into Verner to knock him aside and started running again. Off balance, Verner tried to grab Decker and failed to, drawing a holding penalty as he fell to the ground.
It happens. The reality is that no cornerback is perfect and there will bad days. It’s the volatility of the position.
What separates Verner from other cornerbacks is that he doesn’t have too many bad days, and his good ones are filled with turnovers and outstanding footwork. Both traits make him a fit for Smith and the Buccaneers, where he’ll shine in a Tampa 2 defense that features both a heavy dose of squat coverage (Cover 2) and man coverage (Cover 1, Cover 1 Robber and Cover 3), which Verner has experience in.