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Washington’s secondary is preparing to get scary

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

When Washington lost Ronald Darby in free agency this offseason, there was concern about whether the team could replace his competence in the defensive backfield, but I don’t think most fans were necessarily expecting a radical transformation in approach as a function of his departure.

The first hint that something might be afoot, though, was when the team snagged William Jackson III from the Bengals in the early days of free agency. It didn’t take long for savvy followers of the team to start wondering aloud if Jackson’s strengths might be differently aligned than Washington’s recent approach to its cornerback play:

This potential shift to more “man coverage” was particularly notable because Washington had been one of the more zone-heavy defenses during Jack Del Rio’s first year in DC:

In the tweet above, “EPA” is “expected points added,” so a negative EPA per play, like the one shown above, indicates that when Washington was in man coverage last year they tended to keep points off the board.

At this point, I think it’s important to remember how good Washington’s pass defense, overall, was last year. It was the second stingiest, in terms of both yards allowed and passing TDs allowed. It allowed the fewest passing first downs in the league and it was also tied for 5th in terms of interceptions. It was already impressive, and there’s good reason to think it’s gotten better.

A Brief Refresher on Coverage

Many fans probably already realize the differences - and some of the disadvantages of man coverage versus zone coverage, but for those who are a bit rusty, I’ve copied a discussion of each below:

Man Coverage

Man coverage has a lot of benefits, whether it is press-man or off-man coverage. Playing man allows a corner to focus solely on the guy in front of them without much concern about what is going on around them. Man corners rarely look into the backfield and instead have one piece of information to read, their receiver/pass catcher. It is quite simple.

Playing man often leads to more pass breakups, a lower completion percentage and allows a defense to take certain players out of the game as much as possible with a quality corner and safety or linebacker help, with those players either playing a zone or doubling a great pass catcher.

Man coverage has negatives as well. Man corners are more susceptible to getting beat and rarely have help once they are beaten. In man, corners are more susceptible to pick plays and receiver screens to create openings for the man they are covering.

Zone Coverage

Cornerbacks are tasked with covering an area of the field while also keeping their eyes in the backfield. Their coverage includes any receiver coming into their area while knowing when to release them as they enter another defender’s area while being aware of others that could be entering their zone at the same time.

Zone coverage often leads to a higher completion percentage for quarterbacks and, often like Watson explained, leads an offense to dinking-and-dunking their way down the field. One goal with zone coverage is to prevent the big plays even if there is some level of blown coverage by the defense, unlike man coverage.

Playing with their eyes in the backfield, zone defenders often have higher interception rates and can help with mobile quarterbacks. Zone coverage keeps corners more engaged in plays as they are not locked in on one man and can quickly move from their zone if a play is made on the other side of the field.

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Event

Over the course of the past couple of years, Jackson has been one of the few bright spots on a terrible Bengals’ defense. In 2020, Cincinnati allowed the 7th most yards in the league. In 2019, they allowed the 4th most.

Not much went right for Cincinnati’s bottom-feeding defense in 2019, but Jackson was a rare standout in a positive sense. Though he struggled with injuries in the second half of the season, An outstanding boundary cornerback who was negatively affected at times by some perplexing safety “help” looks, Jackson seemed more comfortable when he could just erase his target on his own. Last season, Jackson did allow one touchdown in man coverage (which the Bengals used on just 33% of their snaps), but aside from that, he gave up just 10 catches on 28 targets for 159 yards, and a Positive Play Rate of 32.1% — good for fourth-best in the league.

So, Jackson has basically been a lockdown outside corner for much of his time with the Bengals, but the issue with man coverage - even great man coverage - is that it breaks down if the surrounding pieces are sub-par. It’s unforgiving in the sense that each man has his own responsibilities, but that the defense is only as strong as its weakest link. Unfortunately for Jackson, the Bengals D was a heavily weathered chain.

Given that reality, Washington’s subsequent moves in the secondary this offseason make a ton of sense.

Reinforcing the Boundary

While Jackson’s acquisition before the draft left some question about the direction the defense might be taking in the years ahead, Benjamin St. Juste’s selection in the third round of the draft, began to clear up most remaining doubt.

While many (most?) fans were completely caught off guard when the lightly heralded St. Juste was selected with Washington’s first third round pick, his selection made a ton of sense once his strengths were better understood:

The most consistent thing St-Juste has shown to this point, is his ability to disrupt passes at the catch point. He has the extraordinary length to reach in at the last moment and jar the ball loose from the opponent’s grasp. Furthermore, St-Juste displays terrific extension to still cause havoc, even if his positioning and footing are not the greatest. Mainly, getting his arms in the throwing lane can distract opposing receivers. St-Juste also takes great pride in being physical at the line of scrimmage, while playing press man coverage.

So, like Jackson, St. Juste is a “press man coverage” specialist: A big, boundary corner who is physical enough to neutralize his man at the line of scrimmage, and to provide effective disruption of the short, quick passing game.

His addition also has an additive benefit, it brings Kendall Fuller in from the boundary and it allows him to play where he’s most effective - in the slot. (I’ve compared this move to Dyami Brown’s selection on other side of the ball, which frees up Curtis Samuel to play in the slot. These two draft moves and their ripple effects deserve their own attention, but that will have to wait for another piece).

Engaged fans will recall that, in 2017, before he was traded to the Chiefs as part of the package for Alex Smith, Fuller was rated by several evaluators the top slot defender in the entire league.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Fuller’s game in his second season is how many techniques he’s mastered. When asked to play more aggressively, he gets his hand on the receiver to use him as a landmark and smoothly follows the receiver through the route. In zone coverage, he has the smooth backpedal and quick hip turn to stick and stay with receivers, as well as the recovery speed to race in and grab the football. He has the potential to be the best slot cornerback in the NFL, and one could argue that he was just that in 2017. - Doug Farrar

Interestingly, recent acquisition Bobby McCain finished 7th on that list that year.

Whether Fuller or McCain (or someone else) will play predominantly in the slot this year, or whether they’ll play safety or on the boundary is still surely something that will be refined this offseason and pre-season. They’re both incredibly versatile players, however, and the replacement of Darby and Fuller (and Moreau) on the boundaries with Jackson and St. Juste allows the linebackers, slot, and safeties to focus their defensive efforts more narrowly, and should provide Washington’s increasingly menacing line a bit more time to disrupt offensive operations.

Why More Man?

The reasons why NFL teams would be increasingly interested in playing more man coverage are fairly apparent, once they’re articulated:

As a rule, NFL teams are playing more man coverage in recent seasons, and the reason is clear: The modern NFL is a quick-passing game, and even the best pass-rushers can’t always pressure the quarterback when he’s taking a series of zero- to three-step drops. So, defensive coordinators and secondary coaches are deploying their defensive backs to play tight man coverage to disrupt the early timing of routes in order to delay the throws, and thus create more pressure.

The problem is, as seen with the case of William Jackson above, if you don’t have the players - and it requires several of them - to execute it well, your defense will get eaten alive. Most teams tend to play zone defense more frequently because it’s more forgiving.

One way to think about the two defensive approaches, conceptually, is with the floor/ceiling model often applied to players. Zone coverage has a higher floor - you’re less likely to get burned for the big play - but it also has a lower ceiling - good QBs can nickel and dime your defense down the field. Alternatively, man coverage has a lower floor - it is susceptible to catastrophic breakdowns if a player misses his assignment (because he generally has very little help) - but executed well, it can have a very high ceiling, by essentially smothering offensive production

Sharp Football Analysis (SFA) dug even deeper into the data on this issue last year, and explored the effectiveness of two types of man coverage: press-man versus off-man. The main difference here is that in “press” the defender works to disrupt the receiver’s route right at the line of scrimmage. In “off,” the defender gives the WR a cushion, in order to protect against getting burned by the deep route. So, in terms of defensive aggressiveness, it’s basically: press man > off man > zone.

What SFA found was that, in 2019, league wide, press was used slightly less (44%) than off (56%), but that when it was used, it resulted in a significantly lower completion percentage (48% v. 59%), lower yards per target, and substantially lower EPA per target. Not surprisingly, press resulted in slightly higher yards per reception, but that downside was more than offset by the lower completion percentage overall. These findings, though, like the man versus zone findings above, were highly variable by team, depending on the personnel. That is to say, just playing more press alone was no guarantee of greater defensive success, on a team-by-team basis. The analysis is very interesting to think about it, if you have time to read the original article.

Conclusion

Looking at the raw numbers, it was pretty difficult to see how Washington’s defense could get much better from 2020 to 2021, but examining their offseason moves, it appears that Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio believe they’ve found a pretty dramatic way to do just that - lock down the backside of the defense by bringing in the personnel to be far more aggressive in the secondary, which should have ripple effects throughout the rest of the defense. They now have the talent to move away from defense focused on “containing the damage” to one that can actively work on inflicting it on opposing offenses.

If I had to guess, Benjamin St. Juste ends up starting fairly early as a boundary corner in this defense, opposite Jackson, with some very interesting scheming going on in the middle of the field, from the linebackers, through the slot and safeties. I’m incredibly excited to see how it all plays out this season, as this defense makes life absolutely miserable for opposing offenses.

Poll

Where do you think Washington’s defense will finish 2021, in terms of points allowed?

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    Top 16
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  • 14%
    Top 10
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  • 31%
    Top 5
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    Top 3
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  • 11%
    Number 1
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  • 3%
    Among the best defenses ever
    (102 votes)
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