It’s been a telling three weeks of football for the New York Jets. And when I say telling, I mean utterly perplexing about what is going on in the secondary with players often injured and moves being made with the depth chart. It seems that Dee Milliner could return in two weeks or might be the next Derrick Rose, judging from Twitter. Players on the back end have already flashed a little bit of everything. We’ve seen the good, we’ve seen the bad, and we’ve seen things that might hint at what will (or should, for that matter) happen within the secondary when Milliner returns.
After the excruciatingly frustrating Monday Night loss, it’s hard to derive conclusions in the secondary since most of the guys heavily featured are either new to the position (Antonio Allen) or we simply haven’t seen that much of them in the starting lineup to confidently believe anything with their play (Calvin Pryor and Darrin Walls). Entering Week 4, we can only infer and hope that with better defensive play-calling, the pass coverage will get better as a whole, though the upcoming offenses are daunting to say the least.
The main debate among Jet fans seems to revolve around Allen. It’s hard to say that he’s played well because he’s had to face receivers like Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery, and Brandon Marshall: all whom have beaten him fairly easy at some point in their respective match-ups. However, we’ve still seen flashes of why the coaching staff was confident that he could relieve pain in a banged up secondary from the start of the season with Dexter McDougle out for the season and Milliner very unclear with his status. Since only three games have been played and the play at cornerback has been a highlighted issue and will continue to be scoured over with more dominant passing offenses up ahead, Allen is being unfairly counted on for a whole lot. How he plays might determine his long term future regarding his position (safety or corner), but I think we already have enough clues at just how efficient he can get out wide.
As a frequent third safety who also saw a lot of starting reps in Cover 2, Allen was a force last year. He was arguably the Jets’ best defensive player not on the defensive line. He played in the box, deep, covered tight ends out of the slot, and saw a little time in press out wide. His most valuable role had to be limiting the production of tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. Luckily for him, covering bigger targets was his bread and butter because it allowed him to run with guys and be physical, without having to rapidly change direction to follow more precise routes. In fact, a lot of the time his success came from having to step out of zone to crash down on tight ends looming over the middle. By just having to run primarily straight, use ball skills, and play mostly with the play out in front of him, his weaknesses were hardly exploited.
So what are those weaknesses? Well for one, it’s easy to forget that Allen’s true position at South Carolina just four years ago was an extra linebacker with roaming responsibilities. He was heavier, slower, and wasn’t asked to ever have to flip his hips and run. His transition to safety in the NFL wasn’t too slow, though it did require him to make a conditioning adjustment. He shed some weight and his new body type gave him much more flexibility in more types of coverages that he didn’t necessarily see often at South Carolina. It wasn’t until switching to corner this year that we saw Allen struggle in man coverage.
Nobody should be surprised at this. Allen rarely had to cover receivers in man coverage last year and when he did, he was picking them up downfield out of his zone and not pressing them right off the line. Thus, we’ve seen receivers take advantage of his adjustment this year. Guys are testing his ability to both keep his head on a swivel to eye the quarterback and the ball while also keeping with his given man coverage assignment. The raw speed difference in the tight ends he covered and the receivers he’s covering now have already given him fits because he can’t efficiently run with them while keeping watch of the developing play. As a result, Allen has had to make a lot of ill-timed contesting of the football without a clue of where it is, like this one versus the Packers that resulted in an obvious pass interference.
This problem for AA alone is why it’s not surprising to see him lose against routes that seem like the easiest for him to defend based on last year’s success. When he dedicates himself to hanging with receivers step for step on deeper routes, he sacrifices his ball skills because he has to attack at the point of the catch similar to how he did in the example above. On the other hand, when he chooses to make an effort to backpedal and/or keep a frequent eye at the quarterback, receivers predictably have a leg up on him because they’re the ones that know where the ball is likely going to be placed and they have the speed advantage as is. This creates an annoying unbalance for the young player. If he has to try and find a perfect medium between these two dilemmas, he has to react so fast while unprepared if receivers cut off their routes.
For an example of this issue, take this crucial play from this past Monday’s loss in which the Jets desperately needed to get the Bears off the field on offense on third down. ex Ryan screwed Allen with an all-out blitz call that put him on a complete island with Jeffery with no time to react. He had to position himself perfectly to make the play.
Allen is on the bottom of the screen, covering Jeffery who’s cutting towards the middle of the gridiron. Since he can’t run step for step with Jeffery and still make a play on the ball if he were to try and mirror him through the middle of the field, he sits back and waits for his next cut. Unfortunately, Cutler was already under such duress that he heaved it to Jeffery before he could continue his route. With Allen allowing a steady but necessary cushion on this play, he was not laterally quick enough to cut off his treading diagonally and contest the pass. Cutler completed it to Jeffery for an easy first down.
This brings up the other major limitation we’ve witnessed in Allen’s game out wide already this season: lateral quickness and agility. Allen is a smart player, but his raw instincts aren’t good enough to make up for these stated deficiencies. The truth here hurts, and it’s that big, fast, athletic receivers have a significant physical advantage over Allen when facing his man coverage. Who else could prove this better than Jeffery again, who’s a natural freak?
Antonio decided to man Jeffery here by eying Cutler while treading diagonally with #17. Alshon ran a simple go route, so Allen should hopefully be okay.
Instead of sending Jeffery long, Cutler was pressured and decided to chuck him a prayer. Honestly, it’s not even a bad idea when your receiver is a monster with body control like Jeffery. Thus, Allen has to chop his feet and not overrun the route. With the ball coming and Allen fully aware of its arrival, he has to sink his hips quickly and make a fluid near 180 degree turn.
AA made the turn decently, but his fluidity is just not going to cut it here. It’s not straight-down to his jumping ability, because we’ve seen him elevate fine before. It’s synchronizing himself once he’s turned to get the power to elevate accordingly that’s the issue at hand. To put it more simply, this play required too much athleticism at one time for Allen to make a legit play on the ball. With Jeffery’s height, he would have been beat here. He’s lucky Cutler threw it too close to the sideline.
The great Jordy of Wisconsin embarrassed Allen in another example from Week 2 that exposes Allen’s ability to change directions fast with his agility.
#39 was running with him just fine on a go route in the same looking approach as the Jeffery example above (a diagonal sort of backpedal so an eye can stay on the passer). When Nelson dig that foot in the ground to complete this comeback route, Allen’s lower body does not have the ability to react fast enough and retreat. Significant separation was gained and as a result, it was an easy first down pickup.
At the end of the day, Antonio Allen doesn’t seem to be physically able to efficiently cover most of the receivers he’ll face day in and day out. He’s a fantastic tackler and overall smart defensive player, but he can only play so consistently when his physical ability caps off when compares to his foe in man coverage. Of course, Rex Ryan’s scheme demands him to play on this island out wide, and usually without any safety help. I would imagine Allen’s struggles will continue. He would be a very average corner long-term no matter how well he’s refined by Dennis Thurman and company, and it’s a massive waste of his talent and broad skillset if they work on keeping him their after Dee Milliner returns healthy. With that said, let’s move on to an abbreviated version of this week’s grade sheet for the secondary.
Snaps- 66 (100%)
Me saying Allen isn’t a good idea long-term at corner doesn’t by any means state that he isn’t a formidable short-term solution there. He still made his fair share of nice plays in this game, just like he has been so far this season. Inconsistent, but not a lost-cause in the slightest. His faults were pretty crucial in this one, however, and he was lucky that a hands-to-the-face call on the Bears negated the easy touchdown he gave up to Marshall. While he made some beautiful tackles like he always seems to, he was definitely victimized the most often out of the Jets’ corners and entire secondary, for that matter.
Snaps- 66 (100%)
Walls is continuing to make myself and other TOJ writers look good for hyping him up this off-season. He has played quite well this season versus some very good receivers, and has even shut down some of the receivers who were scorching Allen. He hasn’t been perfect and neither was his game versus Chicago, but it was definitely his strongest performance of the year. There was a bogus pass interference call against him in the first quarter and he couldn’t stop the Bears’ first touchdown to Martellus Bennett that went through his coverage, but he was practically flawless throughout the rest of the game. This included many key break-ups when he sprung out of his backpedal fast down the stretch.
Snaps- 21 (32%)
This was kind of an irrelevant game in terms of evaluating the slot corner. The Bears’ third receiver was Santonio Holmes, who hardly did anything and never posed a threat. Wilson was often blitzing a lot of the time as a result, and performed average in that department. He didn’t have to cover all that often, and when he did, you can’t really point to Holmes and say, “well thank God he shut him down.”
Snaps- 4 (6%)
Four measly snaps is hardly anything to be able to give a grade on, but Adams blew it the only time a ball ever challenged his coverage. Well actually, it technically wasn’t his coverage since he missed it completely. The Bears ran two receivers on his side and successfully confused him enough to cover the wrong guy and allow the easiest touchdown a Bear will score this season.
Snaps- 66 (100%)
Landry is the definition of a JAG (just another guy) at this point in time, and it’s kind of unfortunate that he’s in the starting lineup getting all of the snaps available It is what it is. Like every week, Landry had his fair share of lapses in trying to cover tight ends, and Martellus Bennett abused him there. It was so essential for the Bears to have a target who could beat man coverage not on the outside in Bennett, and Landry was the man responsible for not letting that happen.
Snaps- 65 (98%)
It was a comeback week for the rookie after his disastrous performance versus Green Bay, yet it’s tough to decide how much a good performance from him means. I say that in context, since Pryor had considerably less responsibility deep downfield this week and was playing a lot more in the box with specific underneath zone requirements a lot. Either way, he made a couple of absolutely necessary pass deflections over the middle of the end zone in which he needed to contort his body to do so. His body control in coverage is making things a little harder for him than they need to be, but it’s encouraging nevertheless.