Robert Saleh wants fearless third-down winners
Speaking to the media on Thursday, Robert Saleh described what he will be looking for in his cornerbacks as he sets the order of the depth chart.
Robert Saleh was asked today what traits he'll look for when picking starting CBs next month: "Can you win on third down? That's pretty much it. It's that simple." He's looking at mentality more than body type, guys w the "fearlessness" to win 1v1 battles w the game on the line.
— Andy Vasquez (@andy_vasquez) August 5, 2021
Saleh is more concerned with mentality than he is with physical traits. He wants players who boast “fearlessness” and can use it to win 1-on-1 matchups on third down.
The Jets project to run a zone-heavy defense, but on third downs, man coverage rates increase for every defense in the NFL. Offenses pass the ball extremely often on third down (save for short-yardage situations), so defenses respond with heavy blitz rates. Blitzes often require man coverage behind them.
Thus, it’s crucial to have cornerbacks who can win on an island so third-down blitz packages can be executed effectively.
Let’s take a look at the man-to-man coverage statistics of each Jets cornerback to get a feel for who may have the best chance of fitting Saleh’s mold.
- 2020 man coverage passer rating allowed: 108.3 (31st percentile among qualified FBS CB)
Jason Pinnock rarely played man coverage in 2020. Only 15% of his coverage reps were man-to-man while 85% were zone.
When he did play man, Pinnock had some extremely volatile results. He allowed only two completions on nine targets (22.2%), but the two completions were a 77-yard touchdown and a 13-yard touchdown.
Pinnock stands at six feet and 204 pounds with 32.38-inch arms, so he has impressive physical tools to work with.
Pittsburgh gave Pinnock a ton of press coverage experience. Pinnock played press coverage on 74.9% of his coverage snaps in 2020, the highest rate in the nation among qualified cornerbacks. However, the majority of those snaps were in press-bail technique, where he would press and then drop into zone coverage.
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- 2020 man coverage passer rating allowed: 141.1 (8th percentile among qualified FBS CB)
Like Pinnock, Brandin Echols barely played man coverage last year. A minuscule 11% of his coverage reps came in man-to-man coverage compared to 89% in zone coverage.
When playing man, Echols gave up six catches on eight targets (75.0%) for 71 yards and two touchdowns.
Echols was better in zone coverage, giving up an 87.3 passer rating (52nd percentile), although that is fairly unimpressive for an NFL prospect. His numbers were much better in the 2019 season.
Michael Carter II
- 2020 man coverage passer rating allowed: 80.5 (58th percentile among qualified FBS CB)
Michael Carter II was actually a fantastic man coverage defender for Duke in 2020. His passer rating suffers merely because of the touchdown-to-interception ratio (2-to-0).
In man coverage, Carter II gave up only 11 catches on 27 targets (40.7%) for 128 yards. He also collected six pass breakups. As previously mentioned, the two touchdowns and zero interceptions balloon the passer rating, but that is still an excellent line of production.
Most of that work came in the slot, which is where Carter II lined up for 68.5% of his defensive snaps.
Carter II had tremendous numbers in zone coverage, too. He allowed 14 catches on 19 targets (73.7%) for only 131 yards while giving up zero touchdowns and snagging two picks. His allowed passer rating of 52.6 in zone coverage ranked at the 88th percentile among qualified FBS cornerbacks.
- 2020 man coverage passer rating allowed: 74.5 (64th percentile among qualified FBS CB)
Despite being an undrafted free agent, Isaiah Dunn boasts the best man-coverage passer rating of the Jets’ four incoming rookie cornerbacks.
In man coverage this past season, Dunn allowed seven catches on 18 targets (38.9%) for 93 yards, one touchdown, and zero interceptions, recording four pass breakups. He played man coverage on 61.1% of his coverage snaps.
- 2020 man coverage passer rating allowed: 129.3 (13th percentile among qualified NFL CB)
Undrafted rookie Lamar Jackson was picked on a lot in man coverage, giving up 14 completions on 23 targets (60.9%) for 204 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
Jackson should be given a pass, though. He was asked to handle a ridiculously difficult workload for an undrafted first-year corner. In Week 5 alone, Jackson allowed 4-of-4 passing for 59 yards and a touchdown in man coverage against DeAndre Hopkins. That is an extremely difficult assignment for a young player.
Standing at 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds with 32.25-inch arms, Jackson has the frame to become a physically imposing man-to-man corner. The main concern for Jackson is whether he has the agility to stick with receivers while carrying such a large frame.
- 2020 man coverage passer rating allowed: 109.7 (36th percentile among qualified NFL CB)
Javelin Guidry only saw a small sample of targets last season. In that small sample, he was substantially better in zone coverage than in man coverage.
Guidry allowed five catches on six targets for 62 yards in man coverage (10.3 yards per target). When playing zone, Guidry gave up seven catches on nine targets for 49 yards (5.4 yards per target).
That is way too small of a sample size to take seriously, but Guidry’s film does show a player who is at his best when clicking-and-closing out of zone coverage, not one who thrives at covering man-to-man.
- 2020 man coverage passer rating allowed: 122.0 (22nd percentile among qualified NFL CB)
In man coverage, Bless Austin allowed 16 completions on 22 targets (72.7%) for 153 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
The most concerning aspect of Austin’s man coverage is how eagerly teams attacked him. Austin was targeted once every 4.4 snaps in man coverage, tying for the 29th-worst rate out of 137 qualified cornerbacks (21st percentile).
- 2020 man coverage passer rating allowed: 113.9 (29th percentile among qualified NFL CB)
Bryce Hall had rookie growing pains in man coverage. He gave up 15 completions on 24 targets (62.5%) for 184 yards, one touchdown, and zero interceptions.
Unlike Austin, teams did not pinpoint Hall when he was asked to play man-to-man, which is an intriguing fact for a rookie. Hall was targeted once every 5.2 snaps in man coverage, a perfectly normal rate for an NFL cornerback (ranking at the 51st percentile).
Hall was much more effective in zone coverage. As a zone defender, Hall allowed an 80.8 passer rating (63rd percentile) and had a 75.4 PFF coverage grade (79th percentile).
Throughout OTAs, minicamp, and training camp, Hall has been frequently drawing man-to-man matchups with the much smaller and quicker Elijah Moore. While Moore has recorded a lot of impressive catches against Hall, most of them have been tightly contested, an impressive feat for the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Hall. His man coverage should benefit greatly from the countless duels with Moore.
Carter II and Dunn seem to have the best man-to-man resumes on the team as of right now, but there’s no telling how the rookies’ college success will translate to the NFL. As for everyone else, there is plenty of room for them to improve their man coverage going forward even if it has not been great thus far. Each player is so raw that no aspect of their game can be considered set in stone.
This is ultimately a cornerback group that was built to fit a zone-heavy scheme. Most of the players in the unit boast more impressive numbers in zone coverage than in man coverage.
However, while zone assignments are likely to vastly outnumber man assignments in this defense, it seems clear that Saleh is placing a premium on those few man reps that will come in crucial third-down situations. The players who can prove that they can hold up man-to-man when asked to do so will win Saleh’s heart and the snaps that come with it.