Pass defense in the NFL is a bit like the comical definition of a helicopter, which is: "10,000 totally unrelated moving parts, bent on self destruction, flying in relatively close formation." 10,000 is an exaggerated number of variables for 11 players and 5 coaches involved in a football game, but not by much. There are many things that have to go right and any one of them going wrong can result in a big play for the opposition. When everything works, it's beautiful and fun to watch. When things goes wrong it looks more like a high-speed accident and coaches and players get fired.
The Bears defense over the previous two seasons can be generously described as a high-speed accident. Many people said there was nowhere to go but up after Chicago cleaned house following last season and brought in respected defensive coaches Vic Fangio (Defensive Coordinator) and Ed Donatell (Defensive Backs coach). Luckily for Bears fans, they were right. If you based predictions of the Bears pass defense for this year on the amount of attention the defensive secondary got in the offseason (specifically the cornerback position) you would have wagered they'd be nothing more than a bottom-third-of-the-league unit. After all, the Bears did not draft a corner and signed only veteran castoffs Tracy Porter and Alan Ball later in free agency. None of those moves exactly screams, "We are going to shut down the passing game!". When viewed in that context, the Bears middle of the pack ranking against the pass seems downright surprising.
According to Pro Football Focus, Chicago is dead center in the league (17th overall) as a team in pass coverage this year. Given that the CB roster consists of one high-round draft choice (Kyle Fuller), two veterans with spotty injury histories (Porter and Ball), a career special-teamer (Sherrick McManis) and two rookies (Bryce Callahan and Jacoby Glenn); that ranking is welcome and somewhat unexpected. Based on the lack of premiere players, the swap to a totally new scheme and set of coaches, saying that the unit has overachieved is a gross understatement. Two things are clear at this point: Chicago's pass defense is greater than the sum of its individual parts and Fangio and Donatell have made chicken salad out of chicken feathers.
Despite all of that wizardry, it won't last. If the Bears want to improve their rating and move forward as a defense, they will need more quality young cornerbacks. The college game features more passing than ever and the silver lining of that shift is that CB's are coming into the NFL with more experience defending the pass than ever before.
Vernon Hargreaves III, Cornerback, University of Florida
Florida plays in one of the premier conferences in the country (SEC) and certainly knows a thing or two about disrupting pro-style passing games. Their corners are historically smaller in stature, very fast and aggressive in nature. Lito Sheppard, Keiwan Ratliff and Joe Haden are all former Gators CBs who have found varying levels of success in the NFL. Vernon Hargreaves certainly fits those traditional stereotypes, and has a great chance to add to Florida's legacy of quality defensive backs in the NFL.
If the Gator's put out a wanted ad on Craigslist for CB's it would read something like this: "Wanted: excellent athletes. Must be 5'8" to 5'11" tall and 180-something pounds. Top speed is a must and track times will be tested. Are you feisty? You'll need to be. Thriving under pressure required. Must be able to work outdoors on Saturdays in hot, humid and noisy conditions. Ability to lift 200 pound running backs with a full head of steam a plus, but not a must. Apply in person at Gainesville athletic department." Hargreaves checks all of those boxes and then some.
Vernon is 5' 11" tall and a very compactly built 192 pounds. His movement skills are some of the best you'll see in the college game today; good feet, quick hips and speed enough to run with almost anyone. His vertical leap is solid enough to vault him over taller WRs and he has the hands to make the catch once he gets there. He's not afraid to put his almost-200 pounds to good use tackling a ballcarrier and uses pretty solid wrap-up form to do so. His athletic numbers are not in question, nor are they the issue. In fact, they might be part of the problem.
What if I told you that Vernon (who is generally regarded as one of the top CBs in the nation) might not even be playing at his best position in college? Impossible? It's not. Hargreaves plays special teams as a returner and he is a good one. His excellent hands, impressive agility and acceleration give him the ability to break a return at almost any time. But he doesn't stop there: he moonlights as a receiver on offense too. With his athletic gifts he might be better in that spot than he is at CB, if he focused solely on that position.
Vernon is one of those players who shows up in college football in Florida with some regularity: amazing athletes who are still finding their way as football players. Two other prime examples are Percy Harvin and Devin Hester. Both played football collegiately in Florida and both had to find their positions once they hit the NFL. I'm not saying Hargreaves will follow that path, but he could.
Hargreaves is already far more skilled as a cornerback than Devin Hester ever was. Vernon lead the Gators with 13 interceptions last year and has 4 more this season. To this point in his playing career, Hargreaves success against the pass has been due to his outstanding athleticism much more so than his technique. Once he hits the pro game his physical skills won't be enough. He'll have to improve his mental game and especially his technique to stop NFL receivers on a regular basis.
I have listed most of his considerable strengths as a corner above, but he also has weaknesses that show up on tape:
- Does not like to jam at the line, which is strange given how physical he is on other occasions
- Lack of good jam at the line means he struggles against a basic and productive route (the slant) over and over again
- Gives a massive cushion in zone coverage - saw him give a 16-yard cushion(!) on a 1st & 10 play vs. Kentucky
- Will bite on the double move
- Fails to track the run sometimes, allowing long gains to his side after he's run himself out of position following his WR
- Late reaction to the run on some plays leads to bad angles and subsequent missed tackles
- Anticipation and instincts are very good at times but many other times seem non-existent - a very tough thing to judge off film without knowing the assignments
- Fails to get his head around to track the deep ball when he is in "trail" technique (note: this is notoriously one of the most difficult skills for young CB's to master)
- Can be a little grabby or "handsy" with WR's in their routes - not terrible by any means, but he will draw a few flags
Vic Fangio has a pattern for selecting corners that does not line up perfectly with the fictional University of Florida want ad I posted above. Fangio tends to like his corners a little taller, more physical on the jam in man coverage and aware enough to be a contributing part of an entire 11-man scheme on every play. In short, he likes his corners to play within the system, not outside of it or "on an island". Does that mean that he would nix taking on a talent like Hargreaves? I doubt it. While a player with Hargreave's style might not be his first choice, Vic is a good enough coach to realize that Vernon is extremely talented. As long as he's coachable and willing to put in the hard work of honing his technique, I am very confident Hargreaves could be a real asset to the defense that Fangio and Donatell are developing in Chicago.
Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are thriving in the pro game)
Jeremy Langford (RB, Bears) - Langford has played pretty well in limited snaps throughout his rookie season, but your first professional start is another level and Jeremy was ready; big time. One of the best things about Langford is his versatility as a runner and a receiver. Both skill-sets paid handsome dividends for the Bears offense in the team's most complete outing yet under the new coaching staff.
Mario Edwards Jr. (DE, Raiders) - Edwards was less heralded than his defensive linemate (current Bear NT Eddie Goldman) coming out of Florida State last season, but his game is rounding into shape nicely out in Oakland. He had his best week of the season last Sunday posting 11 tackles, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble.
Failure to Launch (slow starters on the NFL stage)
Eric Rowe (CB, Eagles) - Rowe was a "fast riser" during last year's draft process. He combines very good size with positional versatility (he can play CB or S). His situation in Philly bears watching because it resembles a puzzle with some missing pieces. Rowe got on the field early in the season for 3 games (weeks 3, 4 and 5) and played well. He racked up 11 tackles, an interception and 3 passes defended. Those are really good numbers for young DB in his first 3 professional starts. Since then, Rowe hasn't really touched the field or logged a stat despite being healthy. The press is calling for his reinsertion back into the lineup but so far Chip Kelly and his staff have not budged. Like I said, it's worth following to see what is really going on and how it all plays out.
Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)
Pattern recognition: if you see a player either winning or losing over and over again in the same situation, make a note of it and dig a little deeper. Go back to previous tapes to see if the struggle was a one-game thing or not. Often times things you see in later tape viewings can really help to highlight (or confirm) things you may have seen in early tapes, but did not pay a ton of attention to.