Sauce Gardner’s coverage was stellar in his second New York Jets appearance
That’s a testament to just how good he’s been.
Gardner played 11 coverage snaps in his first preseason game against the Eagles and was not targeted a single time. He played 8 coverage snaps against the Falcons and once again was not challenged.
At 21 years old, Gardner is already being avoided by opposing quarterbacks. “Sauce Island” is officially up and running.
Of course, it’s important to note that this is a very small sample size of reps. Gardner’s total of 19 coverage snaps through two games is approximately equal to half of one full game. That’s far too limited of a sample to anoint him as the second coming of Darrelle Revis.
With that being said, Gardner’s performance thus far is still worth noting because of this crucial truth: His film backs up the numbers.
Gardner’s “0” in the target column looks cool on paper, but it means nothing without context. Over such a small number of plays, Gardner easily could have just gotten lucky to not be targeted.
That’s not the case, though. When you watch Gardner’s film, you can see that he is earning his lack of targets by providing lockdown coverage on a snap-to-snap basis.
Gardner was sticking to receivers like glue throughout his short appearance on Monday night. Let’s take a look at some of his best work in coverage against Atlanta.
Sauce Gardner film
Gardner stays square as he waits for the receiver to commit. When the receiver looks to get outside, Gardner gets hands-on, slowing the route. Gardner flips inside, attaches to the receiver’s back hip, and sticks to him the entire way. The route is completely erased. It’s a good example of Gardner’s unique combination of length and agility.
This is a smart play in zone coverage by Gardner, who plays the outside third. He has two threats entering his area: a tight end running a deep corner route and a wide receiver running into the flat.
Gardner does an excellent job of taking away the greater threat. He gets enough depth to prevent a throw to the TE, forcing the ball into the flat. He then comes down and makes the stop.
Because of its non-flashy nature, it’s easy to overlook just how impactful of a play that is. But think about what the average Jets cornerback from recent years might have done in that same situation. Bless Austin, for example. There is a good chance that Austin would have broken hard on the flat receiver in search of a big hit, neglecting the TE and leaving him open for a touchdown pass.
Gardner essentially saves a touchdown in comparison to what many other NFL corners would have done. Plays like this are how he got through three seasons of college football without allowing a touchdown.
Another great display of awareness from Gardner in zone coverage.
Gardner matches the vertical route from this receiver, playing with heavy outside leverage knowing he has a safety to the inside. Gardner stays on the route until the inside safety is in position to pick it up.
Gardner also sees there is a tight end running wide-open into the flat on his side. To make sure he accounts for both the deeper and shorter threats, Gardner speed-turns with the receiver when he breaks outside. The speed-turn allows him to stay underneath the receiver for long enough to shut the route down and buy time for the safety to pick it up, and it also allows him to immediately come out of the turn and dart into the flat to cover a potential throw to the TE.
The throw is poor due to pressure, but if it were placed in the right spot, the TE would have had a chance to catch-and-run into the end zone – and Gardner would have been right there to stop it.
Gardner uses a soft press technique against the outside receiver, as he presses the line but does not get hands-on immediately after the snap. The receiver fakes outside before breaking back inside to set a pick on the running back’s man, hoping to get the RB open in the flat. (This is a pretty blatant attempt at a pick and I’m not sure why a penalty wasn’t called.)
The pick is actually fairly successful due to a lack of awareness by Jason Pinnock, who runs right into Gardner’s man since his eyes are glued to the QB. For whatever reason, the QB doesn’t throw this ball to the RB.
Gardner’s contribution on this play comes after the pick is attempted. The QB initiates a scramble drill, and he runs toward Gardner’s side, so Gardner’s man should be one of the best options here. Instead, Gardner sticks to his man like gum on the bottom of a shoe, removing him as an option and helping to force a throwaway. Gardner did a good job of keeping his hands on the receiver (without grabbing), allowing himself to feel out the receiver as he began improvising.
Playing about eight yards off the line of scrimmage, Gardner stays patient after the snap. Gardner has slight outside leverage but remains square to the receiver. As soon as the receiver extends his outside foot, Gardner knows an inside break is coming. Gardner pushes off his outside foot in sync with the receiver’s inside break, shuffling inside and matching the dig route with ease.
Far tougher challenges await him in the future, but Sauce Gardner’s early work is still highly promising
Gardner is definitely going to see quite a few throws in his direction at some point. Over the last two games, fellow starting cornerback D.J. Reed sat out, meaning that Gardner was playing opposite struggling backups who attracted plenty of targets (such as Bryce Hall against Atlanta). Once Reed is on the field, his quality coverage should push more targets over to Gardner’s side. And, of course, teams will be more likely to challenge Gardner when he is covering Ja’Marr Chase or Stefon Diggs rather than the Falcons’ backups.
So, yes, it is still very early. We’re looking at a tiny sample size against mediocre competition. Sauce still has everything to prove.
Regardless, the work that Gardner is putting on tape looks sustainable. His awareness, smarts, and fundamentals are off the charts for a rookie. Couple those things with his natural physical gifts and you have a player with superstar-caliber upside.