Brian Poole has provided arguably the best slot coverage in football since joining the New York Jets, yet he gets little recognition for his efforts.
From 2019-20, 36 defensive backs in the NFL logged at least 300 snaps in slot coverage. The best of that bunch in terms of the fewest yards allowed per snap? That would be Brian Poole, who allowed 472 yards on throws in his direction across 629 snaps in slot coverage, a stingy average of 0.75 yards per cover snap that topped the 36-player group by a wide margin.
Overall, when we compare Poole’s numbers against all qualified cornerbacks over the past two seasons, and we include all of his coverage snaps (both in the slot and outside), he stands out as one of the toughest corners to beat in football. Among qualified cornerbacks over the past two seasons, Poole ranked third in fewest yards per cover snap allowed (0.65), fourth in fewest yards per target allowed (5.4), and fifth in overall Pro Football Focus grade (78.3). The only other player who ranked top-5 at the position in all three of those categories is Richard Sherman.
Poole’s coverage numbers are downright elite. In a league where slot cornerbacks are toasted in embarrassing fashion on a weekly basis (hello, Buster Skrine), Poole has almost never had an outing where he was a consistent liability in his 23-game New York Jets career. In fact, he has only had one game with the Jets in which he allowed more than 50 yards in his direction (for comparison, Skrine had 12 of those from 2017-18).
Yet, Poole is rarely discussed as an elite player. What gives?
Let’s figure out how Poole has been able to be so incredibly productive without garnering nearly enough recognition to match his impact level.
Thinking about how cornerbacks are evaluated
We as a football-viewing community have been misleadingly trained to judge players solely by their on-ball production – events that involve the player with the football can be easily tracked in the box score and are the clear center of attention when watching the game live. Generally, the average viewer is noncognizant of the countless other actions occurring on the field that matter just as much as what happens near the football but simply aren’t as visible.
Why does the general public evaluate players in this crude way? Well, it’s just a natural product of the game’s core elements.
First off, there are a whopping 22 players on the field who affect every single play, but these plays tend to last only a handful of seconds. Evaluating the actions of 22 players in a few seconds is an impossible task for any human, so, naturally, our eyes tend to follow the football. This leads the community to overlook crucial off-ball elements of the game, namely blocker-vs-rusher battles in the trenches and receiver-vs-defender battles in coverage.
This phenomenon is made especially worse when you consider that about half of the players in the game aren’t even visible on the television screen for the majority of passing plays. Defensive backs are the greatest victim of that unfortunate fact. As the furthest players from the quarterback, the majority of their work happens off-screen. On passing plays, unless a given defensive back is targeted, he will most likely be off-screen for nearly the entire duration of the play.
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That brings us back to Poole and the many players like him. If you are a defensive back and you do not make flashy plays, people just are not going to talk about you, even if you are actually playing good football in spite of the lack of highlight-worthy moments. It’s the unfortunate reality.
Interceptions, pass breakups, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries are the things that catch the casual observer’s eye during a game and then can be easily referred to in ESPN box scores as a measure of a player’s impact.
So, when you have a guy like Poole who has posted rather non-impressive totals in the box score – three interceptions, 12 passes defended, one forced fumble, and zero fumble recoveries over his two-year Jets career – he’s naturally not going to get any recognition. Hot-take-loving anchors will not notice his name when they skim the top of the league’s interception leaderboard, while fans will forget he exists when watching the games on Sundays (which is actually a good thing for a cornerback).
It is a shame that defensive backs are evaluated this way, because, in reality, those numbers tell you very little about how well a player is actually playing. They have nothing to do with the primary responsibilities of a defensive back.
When the ball is snapped, a defensive back’s main goal is never to snag an interception or force a fumble. His goal is to fulfill his responsibility as effectively as possible in hopes of eliminating his man or his zone as an option for the quarterback. If he is successful in this endeavor, the ideal result would be that the quarterback doesn’t throw in his direction. That would be a positively impactful play for the defense made by that defensive back, but yet, no fan would see it happen on TV and no stat in the box score would record that it happened, either.
In many instances, a defensive back will force an incompletion on a target in their direction through excellent coverage even if they don’t actually get a hand on the football. If this happens, they get no statistical credit in the traditional box score even though their impact is the same as if they did deflect the pass, and these plays will be far less likely to be remembered or make it into a highlight reel.
Thus lies the main dilemma of how we evaluate cornerbacks: the general public ignores the vast majority of a defensive back’s impact because most of it is either not visible on TV, cannot be measured by the stats that are easily accessible to anyone, or both.
Great cornerback play is usually not flashy. Simply executing his responsibility at a sufficient level without making a huge mistake is often the best thing a cornerback can do, and if an individual can do that on an extremely consistent basis, he will become a lockdown force.
The fact of the matter is that there is never going to be a highlight reel on YouTube of a cornerback merely doing his job on a bunch of plays. It’s boring to watch a guy repeatedly just do what he is supposed to do without interacting with the football.
However, regardless of how non-sexy it may be, being able to “do your job” is actually the top trait required to become a true star in coverage – not making a couple more interceptions than the next guy. This is a position where consistency is much more important than racking up signature plays. It’s all about logging as many snaps as possible without making that one killer mistake. That’s what the true star corners do: mess up less often than the rest.
Poole is a victim of our collective tendency to overvalue the most noticeable aspects of cornerback play and completely devalue the highly subtle aspects of the position that are far more common and arguably more important. He performs at an elite level overall, but just not in an eye-popping way. He rarely blows coverages as a zone defender, consistently shuts down his man when covering intermediate-to-deep, and forces a lot of underneath throws where he frequently makes the tackle short of the first down marker and does not allow any extra yardage after contact.
Sure, the memorable moments have been infrequent for Poole, but on the whole, he has allowed far, far fewer memorable moments to his opponents than the average player would have allowed in his shoes over the same time period – and that right there is the core goal of the cornerback position. It’s not about making plays. It’s about minimizing the number of plays you let your opponent make.
It’s time to visualize what we’ve been discussing through the game tape. Here are some examples of Poole providing high-impact coverage that did not show up in the box score and will not be seen in the next highlight mashup posted by the Jets’ Twitter account.
Poole’s zone coverage is one of his best attributes. He does a great job of understanding his responsibility, rarely blowing an assignment. In addition, he has an innate feel for his surroundings, as he is adept at recognizing the threats in his area and taking them away.
Playing the hook/curl zone in this Cover-2 look, Poole feels Miami wide receiver Isaiah Ford sit down beside him, and he breaks in front of Ford – doing so just before Ryan Fitzpatrick even turns in that direction. When Fitzpatrick pivots from right-to-left to look for Ford, Poole is in the passing lane, taking away Ford as an option. Fitzpatrick is forced to scramble and ends up getting sacked by Bryce Huff.
On this next play, Poole once again drops into the hook/curl zone, and simply by doing his job, he takes away a throw over the middle and creates a big play for the defense.
Poole lines up as the WILL linebacker in a 4-3 under front. Josh Allen identifies Poole as a blitzing threat pre-snap. Poole drops, but with Cole Beasley running a slant behind him and to the outside, there is a window for Allen to complete that throw due to Poole’s pre-snap positioning if Poole is unable to locate Beasley. However, Poole does indeed locate Beasley, getting plenty of depth to close the throwing window. Allen is forced to scramble out of bounds for no gain.
The quarterback (Brett Rypien) never looks Poole’s way on this play, but it’s a good coverage rep that sums up what Poole is doing the majority of the time to discourage quarterbacks from throwing his way. In the slot against Tim Patrick, Poole turns-and-runs to stick with Patrick step-for-step on the vertical route.
Matched up against Golden Tate in the slot, Poole helps to create another sack. Daniel Jones looks to Tate as his first read, but Poole shuts down Tate’s out route, anticipating it beautifully as he gets outside before Tate even breaks. Jones is forced to hold the football and is sacked.
Poole is left on an island in the slot against Jarvis Landry. Baker Mayfield pumps the ball twice looking to get it to Landry on a slant, but with Poole attached to his hip pocket, Mayfield pulls the ball down and takes a sack.
Analyzing beyond the box score is key at every position in football, but there might not be a position where it is more crucial to do so than cornerback. Poole is the poster child for corners who provide lockdown coverage but are overlooked simply because they play a more fundamentally-sound style of football that produces fewer big plays.
Remember the main goal of the cornerback position: it’s not about being the star of the game, it’s about making sure the guy lined up across from you isn’t.
In just about every one of his games as a Jet, Poole accomplished that goal.