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Windmill Series: Cleveland Browns Joe Haden and Arizona Cardinals Patrick Peterson

Doing away with the traditional analysis of defensive backs.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded a first round draft pick for then New York Jets' cornerback Darrelle Revis this off-season, most of the NFL world lauded the move. A few questioned Revis' ability because he was still recovering from a torn ACL, a few more questioned the value of acquiring a cornerback in today's offense inclined league. Very few people questioned Revis, the perceived best player in the league at his position, despite most having watched so little of him.

Watching NFL defensive backs is like playing miniature golf. You see the ball go into the windmill, but you only see where it ends up rather than how it got there. That's fine for the windmill, because there is only one way to go, but seeing where a defensive back lines up on the field and where he is if the ball goes his way tells us next to nothing of what we need to know.

As a result, casual fans and many analysts are completely reliant on a player's reputation, often inaccurate analytics and a flawed Pro Bowl voting system to guide them in their evaluations. Now that's not to say that Darrelle Revis is a fraud, he's exactly as advertised, but there are many more misrepresented players in the league right now. Two of those cornerbacks are entering important seasons in their careers.

Only five cornerbacks have gone in the top seven of their respective drafts since 2003. Two of those players, Terence Newman and Adam Jones, are coming to the ends of their careers, while the other, Morris Claiborne, was a rookie last season. Instead, it's Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden who are closing in on their primes entering the 2013 season.

In the eyes of many, Peterson and Haden are already elite cornerbacks, if not shutdown cornerbacks. It's no surprise really. Combining their draft spots with glistening spells in college at two of the top programs in the country gave them bloated reputations entering the league, while game-changing plays kept their names relevant despite playing for losing teams. Playing on losing teams has actually helped the pair sustain their reputations because they only get national exposure when their highlights are shown.

How many times have you seen Peterson's punt returns or Haden's interceptions opposed to them giving up big plays or touchdonwns?

It is true that Peterson and Haden are extremely talented players, but it's also true that they are not elite cornerbacks just yet. Both are still developing and even though Peterson entered the league after Haden, he appears to be much closer to his potential. Crucially however, both players are set to enter new eras of their careers with new defensive coordinators and new defensive schemes. In fact, Peterson's former defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, is taking over for Haden's Cleveland Browns while Peterson himself is inheriting Todd Bowles from the Philadelphia Eagles. 

In order to project both players into their new roles, we must have a clear understanding of what it is both do on the field. In order to understand this you can't just watch football on Sundays, as has already been stated that is a pointless exercise. Instead, we must shift to the All-22 camera, allowing us to see the whole field, and we must also watch every single snap because the cornerback position is about consistency from snap-to-snap. Running backs or wide receivers can live off one or two big plays per week, but defensive backs' days are often ruined by one or two big plays per week.

Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays:
Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown.
  • The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn’t part of the screen, these plays do not count.
  • Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn’t follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays(duh!). Including designed quarterback runs.

Failed Coverages:

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is NOT an alysis of how many completions the cornerback allowed, that can be found elsewhere, this is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arms reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

2012 Results

In 2012, Peterson had a successful coverage percentage of 62.9 percent on 313 qualifying plays opposed to Haden's 73.6 percent on 186 qualifying plays. In a simpler world, Peterson would be the player to attack for fantasy owners. However, when you project into the 2013 season it's clear that Peterson is the player you want your receivers to avoid and Haden is the player you want to attack.

While Haden gave up fewer coverages, he was beaten deep more often and played in many more cornerback-friendly situations. According to Pro Football Focus, Haden was targetted 70 times during his 455 plays in coverage giving up 41 receptions for 528 yards and six touchdowns. Under the same criteria, Peterson was targetted 95 times on 568 plays in coverage giving up 49 targets for 671 yards and six touchdowns.

Notable Individual Matchups

  Peterson Success %   Haden Success %
1 Danny Amendola 1/5 0.2 1 Donnie Avery 4/8 0.5
2 Steve Johnson 4/12 0.34 2 Anquan Boldin 3/6 0.5
3 Calvin Johnson 11/15 0.44 3 Torrey Smith 2/4 0.5
4 Brandon Marshall 7/16 0.44 4 T.Y. Hilton 4/7 0.57
5 Percy Harvin 3/6 0.5 5 Leonard Hankerson 3/5 0.6
6 Roddy White 3/6 0.5 6 A.J. Green 5/8 0.62
7 DeSean Jackson 15/28 0.54 7 Mike Wallace 4/6 0.67
8 Brandon Gibson 7/13 0.54 8 Darrius Heyward-Bey 7/10 0.7
9 Michael Crabtree 11/19 0.58 9 Terrence Copper 6/8 0.75
10 Davone Bess 4/7 0.58 10 Reggie Wayne 3/4 0.75
11 Michael Jenkins 3/5 0.6 11 Rod Streater 3/4 0.75
12 Brandon Lloyd 5/8 0.62 12 DeSean Jackson 16/21 0.76
13 Chris Givens 5/8 0.62 13 Eric Decker 14/18 0.78
14 Jeremy Kerley 8/12 0.67 14 Malcom Floyd 4/5 0.8
15 Brian Hartline 8/12 0.67 15 Demaryius Thomas 4/5 0.8
16 Julian Edelman 8/12 0.67 16 Antonio Brown 4/5 0.8
17 Sidney Rice 18/25 0.72 17 Pierre Garcon 10/12 0.83
18 Julio Jones 9/12 0.75 18 Robert Meachem 7/8 0.87
19 Jordy Nelson 4/5 0.8 19 Armon Binns 4/4 1
20 Austin Pettis 4/5 0.8 20 Jacoby Jones 4/4 1
21 Tony Scheffler 4/5 0.8 21 Jon Baldwin 4/4 1
22 Legedu Naanee 5/6 0.84        
23 Golden Tate 11/13 0.85        
24 James Jones 9/10 0.9        
25 Randy Moss 5/5 1        
  Average - 0.66   Average - 0.74

This chart lists the players who faced off against each defensive back on at least four snaps.

Again, the numbers on this chart favor Haden, but it must be noted that Peterson faced more tougher matchups. When evaluating man coverage numbers, you have to consider how often and who the defender was covering because that is half of the matchup itself. If you remove the players who aren't legitimate first choice options from both lists, you get this chart:

  Peterson Success %   Haden Success %
1 Danny Amendola 1/5 0.2 1 Anquan Boldin 3/6 0.5
2 Steve Johnson 4/12 0.34 2 Torrey Smith 2/4 0.5
3 Calvin Johnson 11/25 0.44 3 A.J. Green 5/8 0.62
4 Brandon Marshall 7/16 0.44 4 Mike Wallace 4/6 0.67
5 Percy Harvin 3/6 0.5 5 Reggie Wayne 3/4 0.75
6 Roddy White 3/6 0.5 6 DeSean Jackson 16/21 0.76
7 DeSean Jackson 15/28 0.54 7 Eric Decker 14/18 0.78
8 Michael Crabtree 11/19 0.58 8 Demaryius Thomas 4/5 0.8
9 Brandon Lloyd 5/8 0.62 9 Pierre Garcon 10/12 0.83
10 Chris Givens 5/8 0.62        
11 Jeremy Kerley 8/12 0.67        
12 Brian Hartline 8/12 0.67        
13 Sidney Rice 18/25 0.72        
14 Julio Jones 9/12 0.75        
15 Jordy Nelson 4/5 0.8        
16 James Jones 9/10 0.9        
  Average 121/209 0.58   Average 61/84 0.73

Furthermore, when Peterson was asked to follow these star receivers around the field, he was also often asked to do it without any help.Haden's success percentage is still significantly better, but he also faced seven less receivers of this caliber and had 125 fewer snaps in these situations. Peterson only played 113 more snaps in pass coverage, so this is not simply a result of Haden's time missed through injury or suspension. Horton simply asked Peterson to follow more star receivers around the field than Dick Jauron did with Haden in Cleveland.

Philosophical Alterations

Peterson was put in single coverage without any help from linebackers or safeties on at least 38 percent of his plays. Under the same criteria, Haden was without help on at least 22 percent of his plays. Horton wasn't hiding Peterson when he put him in single coverage. The defensive back faced a murderer's row of assignments that included Sidney Rice, Brandon Lloyd, DeSean Jackson, Brian Hartline, Danny Amendola, Steve Johnson, Percy Harvin, Michael Crabtree, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. In comparison, Haden only faced DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Eric Decker at least twice out of the better receivers in the league.

In single coverage, Peterson was beaten just 43 percent of the time, while Haden was beaten 58 percent of the time. Considering the volume and respective talent of the opposition, that is a very worrying sign for Haden if he is to fit into the same role on Horton's defense.

Haden's biggest issues do appear to be fixable through coaching, but it's still a large task to expect Horton, a former defensive backs coach, to do that in one off-season while he is installing the rest of his defense. The Browns have a lot of new pieces that need integrating around Haden, that will be very time consuming. In spite of that, Horton has set high expectations for his young star, "What I want him to be is one of the elite corners in the league. I want people to say, ‘Wow, Joe Haden is one of the top corners in the league. That’s what I want from him and I’m challenging him not to just be this great athlete, but to be this great player."

Presumably, by challenging Haden Horton is referring to putting him in tougher situations. As evidenced above, Haden doesn't project well to Peterson's role as a shutdown cornerback. Peterson himself didn't play to an elite level in that role last year, but he did have one aspect of his game that allowed the defense to prosper. An aspect that Haden doesn't appear to share.

Fifty-One of Peterson's single coverage plays were against deep routes. He successfully covered 35 of those and only gave up three receptions with two pass interference penalties on 14 targets. Those 14 targets resulted in zero touchdowns, 105 yards and an interception. In similar situations, Haden covered only six of 15 deep routes, giving up two receptions for 82 yards on seven targets. Peterson is very much a big-play preventor. His athleticism and size allows him to run with receivers down the field and beat them in any jump-ball situations. Haden doesn't have those aspects to his game, which makes him less composed when moving downfield.

It's no surprise that the Cardinals acquired Javier Arenas and Tyrann Mathieu to cover slot receivers this off-seaosn, because Peterson's flaws all come underneath. On intermediate routes, he covered 28 of 52 routes run, giving up 10 receptions on 16 targets for 145 yards and a touchdown. Haden finished the season covering 10 of 23 intermediate routes, giving up seven receptions on 11 targets for 87 yards and a touchdown.

While Haden should be moving into Peterson's old role, the Arizona Cardinals' defensive back should be moving into an easier role this year. Not only will the additions of Arenas and Mathieu help him find better matchups, new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles should play a less aggressive scheme that affords him more safety help.

His safety support may not be as talented as it was last season, or at least nowhere near as polished, but what's more important is the improvements in the front seven. The Cardinals are switching to a 4-3 front that should get the most out of Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, while Kevin Minter and Karlos Dansby will help to upgrade the linebacking corps. Crucially, John Abraham was signed to a contract this week, giving the defensive line a pair of respectable pass rushing ends in he and Sam Acho.

The Cardinals have less celebrated talent than other teams, but they have proven veterans littered through the unit. The opposite is the case in Cleveland. The Browns will be desperate for pressure to keep Haden out of situations where he is susceptible to double moves. That shifts the spotlight onto Horton's individual pass-rushers and his ability to time and design blitzes. In Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, Phil Taylor, Desmond Bryant and Jabaal Sheard, the Browns have an awful lot of individual talent but less proven players.

As a unit, they may take time to gel together also. Time that Haden doesn't have.

Haden double move 1

Haden double move 2

Haden double move 3

Haden can't play the same physical coverage style as Peterson on a consistent basis. When he tries to, he often is too slow coming out of his breaks to stick with the better receivers in the league. This pushes him off receivers from the snap and puts him in positions where he can't rely on his athleticism as much.

Haden

In these situations, Haden needs to be educated better on how to read the offense and react to the receiver. He gives up too many plays that no elite player at the cornerback position should ever be giving up.

Verdict

Outside of Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman, there aren't any known defensive backs that fantasy fans will avoid with their elite receivers. Even against Revis and Sherman, you will often need a very favorable matchup elsewhere to put a star on the bench. Against Haden, benching elite receivers shouldn't ever be considered. As a still developing cornerback adjusting to a new, very difficult role, Haden is a defensive back that fantasy owners should be targeting early in the season even with their lesser receivers.

By the Week 3 game against the Minnesota Vikings, we should be able to have a clear idea of how Haden will project into the Browns' new defense. At this point, there is no reason to fear him and no reason to believe in his ability as a top tier defender.

On the other hand, Peterson is a player who should be popular for his IDP owners and someone to avoid when he is covering receivers. Peterson will still be able to move around the formation like he did last season, but it's very unlikely that he has to do as much with so little help. Playing with more defenders in coverage and a better base blitzing unit should allow Peterson to avoid being burned underneath consistently while giving him more opportunities to go for turnovers on intermediate/deep routes.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf


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Pushing the Pocket - Geno Smith is Being Overlooked - September 1
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