Sauce Gardner does not get enough credit for his excellence in a hidden facet of the cornerback position
New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner only needed one season to establish himself as the best player in the world at his position. Gardner led all cornerbacks with 43 first-place votes (out of a possible 50) in the AP All-Pro voting, more than twice as many as second-ranked Patrick Surtain II (20).
Gardner showcased a variety of dazzling skills in his mesmerizing debut campaign. In particular, there are three signature skills that Jets fans grew to expect from Gardner on a weekly basis.
For one, Gardner’s ability to break up contested passes was undoubtedly the most notable weapon in his toolbox. He led the NFL with 20 passes defended, using his incredible length, size, and ball skills to erase one completion after the next.
Jets fans also thoroughly enjoyed Gardner’s knack for protecting the end zone. With consistently tight coverage on red-zone coverage snaps and a plethora of breakups on deep shots into the end zone, Gardner ended up allowing just one touchdown all season despite consistently matching up with superstar receivers. And even that one touchdown (@ CLE in Week 2) appeared to be a miscommunication in which Gardner may not have been completely at fault.
Finally, Gardner shined as a tackler. Gardner provided good support against the run and was a menace when charging downhill to cover the flat. He gained notoriety for being a hard hitter, but more importantly, he was consistent, as he only missed six tackles in 17 games. His missed tackle rate of 7.6% ranked at the 88th percentile among qualified cornerbacks.
All three of these skills – the pass breakups, the touchdown prevention, and the tackling – are commonly associated with Gardner. They are the first things that come to mind when you ask Jets fans what makes him so great.
But there is one skill that Gardner does not get nearly enough credit for: his target minimization.
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Sauce Gardner was outstanding at preventing the ball from even coming his way
Most of the praise directed Gardner’s way is in response to the plays he made when he was targeted. However, Gardner was equally impressive and impactful on plays where he wasn’t targeted.
Despite being a rookie cornerback (NFL teams love to challenge rookie corners) who faced a daunting schedule that was loaded with standout receivers, Gardner was one of the least-frequently targeted cornerbacks in the NFL.
According to PFF, Gardner was targeted on 74 of his 642 coverage snaps. That’s a rate of 11.5%, which ranked 10th-lowest out of 82 qualified cornerbacks.
For perspective, the league average for cornerbacks was 14.3%. At that rate, Gardner would have been targeted about 92 times over his sample of 642 coverage snaps, so with his actual total of 74 targets, Gardner was targeted 18 fewer times than expected. He essentially saved one target per game versus the league-average cornerback.
Gardner’s excellence in this category might be surprising for some Jets fans. Since he was making highlight-reel plays on a constant basis, it would seem as if, in order for him to have the chance to do that, he would have to be targeted at a fairly high rate.
The truth is, Gardner was so ridiculously consistent at making noteworthy plays when he was targeted that it was hard to realize he wasn’t actually targeted that often.
On 74 targets, Gardner amassed a league-high 20 passes defended (a stat that combines INTs and pass breakups), meaning he recorded an interception or a pass breakup on 27.0% of his targets. This rate led all qualified cornerbacks and was more than twice the NFL average for cornerbacks (12.0%). The league-average cornerback would have had 9 passes defended at Gardner’s volume of targets.
Leading the NFL in pass-defense rate (at more than double the league average) is what made Gardner pop off the TV screen at an abnormal frequency. In actuality, he was consistently blanketing his man and forcing quarterbacks to continue through their progressions.
The impact provided by Gardner in this specific area helped the Jets do a phenomenal job of shutting down opposing stars.
New York’s opponents threw only 7.3 targets per game to their “No. 1” wide receiver, according to Football Outsiders, which ranked as the seventh-fewest. Coupled with Gardner’s elite responsiveness when targeted (as well as D.J. Reed), the Jets allowed a league-low 5.82 yards per target to No. 1 receivers, which ultimately translated to a league-low 42.5 yards per game.
Here are some of the No. 1 wide receivers who had their target total restricted to a lower number than their season average when facing Gardner and the Jets:
- Diontae Johnson: -4.9 targets // 4 targets vs. Jets, averaged 8.9 in all other games
- Tyreek Hill: -4.5 targets // 6.0 over 2 games vs. Jets, averaged 10.5 in all other games
- D.K. Metcalf: -3.5 targets // 5 targets vs. Jets, averaged 8.5 in all other games
- Stefon Diggs: -2.4 targets // 7.5 targets over 2 games vs. Jets, averaged 9.9 in all other games
- Christian Kirk: -1.9 targets // 6 targets vs. Jets, averaged 7.9 in all other games
Let’s look at some examples of how Gardner helped the Jets’ defense through his ability to minimize the number of targets thrown his way.
Cornerbacks don’t have to get targeted to make an impact on the game. On any given play, if they shut down their matchup and the quarterback is looking at it, they can force the quarterback to bypass the option and continue holding the football, which buys more time for the pass rush to get home. This play is a great example of that.
On this third-and-4 play, Gardner takes Jonnu Smith on the post route and matches him perfectly, removing the throw as an attractive option. Mac Jones holds the ball and gets sacked by Quinnen Williams.
You can see from the end-zone angle that Jones is reading the right side of the field just before he gets sacked, so Gardner’s coverage certainly makes an impact. Yes, Williams wins very quickly, but still, if Gardner was in a poor position, Jones may have felt compelled to stand in there and make a throw. Instead, Jones saw Gardner in tight coverage (as well as Michael Carter II on the slant underneath), so he decided to hold the ball and take a sack.
Here’s another sack assisted by Gardner.
Gardner sees Jakobi Meyers’ out route coming from a mile away. Before Meyers even makes his outside cut, Gardner is sliding outside and squatting down, readying himself to break on the out route. Gardner is all over Meyers once he finally cuts outside.
From the end-zone angle, you can see that Meyers’ route is the first one Jones reads after he takes the snap. Upon seeing Gardner’s positioning, Jones declines Meyers before Meyers even breaks, because he knows Gardner has the route covered. Jones is forced to continue through his progression and eventually gets sacked by Jacob Martin.
In the Jets’ Week 14 trip to Buffalo, Gardner racked up a bunch of impressive untargeted coverage reps against Stefon Diggs, consistently preventing Josh Allen from throwing to his favorite weapon.
Gardner’s tight coverage was instrumental in limiting Diggs to only five targets, his second-lowest mark of the season. Diggs also had his second-worst marks of the year in receptions (3) and receiving yards (37).
Remember to keep target minimization at the forefront of your mind whenever you talk about the brilliance of Sauce Gardner. It’s not just what Gardner does when he’s challenged that makes him such a difference-maker – it’s also what he does to prevent opponents from challenging him in the first place.