After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
07 Dec 2013
by Matt Waldman
Depending whom you ask, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby is one of the top three to five cornerbacks in the 2014 NFL Draft. Draftniks love the 5-foot-11, 193-pound Roby’s speed. CBS projects Roby as a second-round pick who could go higher depending on how close the Buckeye junior's 40-yard dash time is to the range of 4.35-4.4 seconds.
Although I don’t create rankings until I’ve studied all the skill players I’m going to watch, I wouldn’t be surprised if Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis is among the top-15 receivers on my list. CBS projects Abbrederis to be drafted in the second or third-round. Considering that between 2006 and 2013 an average of 32 receivers were taken in the draft – 14 in the first three rounds – that projection has some basis of logic.
However, when Abbrederis, a former walk-on, got the better of Roby this year, I think the resulting analysis from CBS’ draftnik team of Roby had a minor, but important disconnect in logic. Before I go any further, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Rob Rang and Dane Brugler. They cover a ton of players and do a fantastic job.
My disagreement with one of Rang’s views concerns Roby’s work against Abbrederis this year. Rang attributes the corner’s performance against the receiver to rust:
After sitting out the season opener due to a suspension, the Buckeyes junior showed some rust early in 2013 and struggled mightily against Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, but there is a lot to love about Roby's game. That includes his speed and fighting attitude, but he needs to stay alert for all four quarters to convince NFL teams he's worthy of a high first-round grade.
Roby missed one game. Rust shouldn’t be a problem. Rang and his team have Abbrederis ranked 11th on their list of receivers and believe he’s a second or third-round pick. They have Roby as a second-round pick.
If two players with second-round grades square off and one gets the better of the other do you presume that the other lost due to rust? I don’t. I’d only believe rust was a factor if I think the losing player is a much better prospect.
Even if Rang personally has Roby as a high first-round pick and Abbrederis as a third-round pick, is there really that much of a difference that Roby should have shut down the Wisconsin receiver? Only if the phrase “walk-on” still hangs in your subconscious when thinking about Abbrederis.
I have long maintained that there isn’t much of a difference between many first-round talents and undrafted free agents. The perception of players generates a far greater gap among them than reality – especially when the public reads thousands of articles that reinforce a faulty perception like Russell Wilson is too small to become an NFL starter, much less a good one.
While many will expect that Roby will only get better with his technique and this warrants him a higher grade –myself included – is this really a good expectation?
At the same time, many will also believe Abbrederis’ upside is capped due to athleticism that is perceived as only meeting the basic expectations of an NFL performer. Abbrederis’ last 40-time was 4.52.
Jordy Nelson – one of the best receivers in the NFL – ran a 4.51. Nelson has more than enough athleticism to compete, but what makes him special is his technical polish. There’s also James Jones (4.59), Eric Decker (4.54), and Larry Fitzgerald (4.63) – all fine NFL receivers lacking that extra “blink” of speed who win against 4.3-40 corners every week.
When I watched the Roby-Abbrederis match-up, I didn’t see a rusty cornerback; I saw a receiver with more technical polish than what Roby is accustomed to facing. I also saw a corner working in tighter man-to-man situations than Ohio State often asked him to perform. The result is a clinic on the value of technique over elite athleticism.
Roby plays a lot of off-man technique at Ohio State and he thrives in this role. Draft Breakdown’s video of Roby’s performance against Nebraska last year is indicative of what I saw from Roby in the other six games I have seen of the Buckeyes’ cornerback.
In pass coverage, Roby does a fine job of reading the quarterback, remaining patient with holding his position, and then taking the correct angle while also demonstrating explosive and decisive movement to win the play.
Versus the run, Roby maintains gap discipline. If he’s responsible for the outside on a run, he’ll do the dirty work of shooting the gap, taking out the lead blocker, and forcing the runner inside where Roby’s teammates can end the play. Roby rarely overreacts to play action or counter movement plays that bait defenders in the wrong direction.
Combine this ability to read, hit hard, and play team defense, and it’s no surprise that Roby is also a solid contributor on special teams. Overall, Roby is a quality football player.
However, I’m not going to excuse Roby’s performance against Abbrederis. The Wisconsin receiver beat the Ohio State corner straight up. The reason is that Abbrederis has more skill in tight man coverage than Roby at this stage of their careers. It doesn’t make Roby a bad prospect; it makes Abbrederis an underrated one.
The contest between these two prospects begins with a win for Roby. This is a slant on third down where Abbrederis is the outside twin receiver three yards behind the line of scrimmage and Roby is playing tight to the line.
Roby displays his typical patience not to overreact to any initial movement at the start of the play and then the quickness to come over the top, reach into the receiver’s midsection, and rip the ball loose. However, Roby’s defense of this pass should have never happened and the reason is the lack of refined technique that Abbrederis displays on this play early in the game.
Watch the replay a few times and you’ll see two things that Abbrederis does not execute well. The easiest to see is that Abbrederis does not square his pads to face the quarterback as the ball arrives. If the Wisconsin receiver makes this one adjustment, Roby could not have reached the ball.
The more difficult point to see is Abbrederis’ break. Start at the 14-second mark and then watch Abbrederis’ turn to the inside of the field between the 16 and 17-second mark of this video. The burst from the break lacks control.
The eighth step in Abbrederis’ route is the receiver’s second step with his inside leg after his break. It’s this step where he veers too far to the outside while driving on the break of this slant.
A more balanced step at this point wouldn’t have forced the receiver to compensate with a wider step down field on the ninth step with his outside leg. It’s these two steps that force the receiver off balance and give the cornerback a chance to make a play on the ball.
If Abbrederis does a better job of leaning inside throughout his break, he would have had an easier time squaring his pads and shielding the ball from Roby. It’s a difficult pair of techniques to execute at this high of a level against a terrific athlete at corner, but Roby will find out soon enough that starting NFL receivers can.
Here’s a play where technique gets the best of high-end athleticism. Roby is playing off coverage on Abbrederis and the Wisconsin receiver sells the inside break before turning to the sideline to catch the ball.
The play begins with Abbrederis release straight up the field and Roby in a back pedal with his pads angled slightly to the inside so he can use the sideline as his helper and also read the quarterback. The receiver’s job is to force Roby to react more to him than his teammate in the pocket. Watch the stem and the break of this route – especially the replay – and Abbrederis does well.
The initial release is a straight line. The receiver could have done a better job keeping his pads low to create an impression that he’s taking a more vertical path, but he’s not revealing anything about his route.
As he approaches the top of his stem, note how much Abbrederis commits to the notion he’s breaking inside. Every significant angle of his body – feet, knees, hips, shoulders, and head – is pointing in this direction. And it’s not just where the receiver’s body is pointing, but the suddenness and violence of the movement that forces Roby to break inside.
To sell a route inside with this level of thoroughness requires a lot of refinement on a practice field. Also check out the bend in Abbrederis’ hips as he makes the break outside. It’s a tight turn that enhances the initial separation. Freeze the video at the 0:03-mark, and the 4.52-second receiver has generate five yards of separation on the 4.35-4.4-second cornerback.
Abbrederis finishes the play with his pads square to the pass, catching it with his arms extended from his body, and punching both feet inbounds. Roby never gets within two steps of the receiver.
This out-and-up in the first half is another example of thorough, committed route technique, beats speed. Roby plays seven yards off Abbrederis at the line of scrimmage and the receiver still earns separation on this vertical route that should have been an even bigger play if not for an underthrown football.
Once again, Abbrederis’ technique is consistent and thorough. He begins with a nice drive off the line of scrimmage with his pads over his knees. Against a lot of college cornerbacks, Abbrederis’ release would have forced the defender to turn his hips and run. Not Roby, whose recovery speed and quickness is well established as among the best in the country.
Abbrederis raises his pads enough just before his speed cut to the right that Roby reads the “out”. What sells this first break best is Abbrederis turning his head and shoulder to the quarterback at the 0:02 mark of the video.
The receiver maintains the position of his head and pads towards the quarterback for most of three steps before he changes direction from the “out” to the “up”. A lot of college receivers I watch who have more speed than Abbrederis run this route with far sloppier technique and fail to sell it to the defender. One of the reasons is they can’t wait to get into the “up” phase of the route and they don’t sell the “out” with enough steps.
Roby has to break outside based on what Abbrederis is showing him and the receiver turns up the flat with the same suddenness and violence as he does with most routes. It’s this turn that prevents Roby from getting a grip on the receiver – although he tries.
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is the slowest of the productive receiving tight ends in the league, but there isn’t a player who snaps his turns on his routes any quicker. It’s why he’s still so difficult to cover with one man in the middle of the field.
By the time Abbrederis reaches the 20, he has more than three yards of separation on one of the fastest big-time prospects at cornerback in college football. If the quarterback throws this ball on a line and with greater velocity, Abbrederis catches the ball in stride and scores.
Instead the Wisconsin receiver has to stop running at the 15, turn back to the ball, allow Roby into the play, and high-point the pass. The Ohio State corner does a good job of cutting Abbrederis’ legs, but once again technique prevails.
The reason is Abbrederis's technique as a pass catcher. This too is a form of separation on the defender. The receiver snatches the ball with his hands away from his body and the disruption to his equilibrium doesn’t force the ball to rattle around. Abbrederis maintains possession throughout the act of the catch and Wisconsin has a first down at the Buckeyes 11.
The last two plays featured off coverage, but Abbrederis’ sound technique also succeeds against Roby in press. Here’s a touchdown where Roby is plastered to the receiver and still loses the play. It’s one of three routes against Roby’s press technique where Abbrederis earns an advantage.
This one is a lot like an exchange between two excellent boxers – a great battle that appears as if it could have gone either way, but it’s the winner’s ability to think steps ahead of his opponent at the speed of fluid action that’s the difference.
It’s also another example of how the small details make a big difference. Roby begins the play jamming Abbrederis at the line. The corner gets his outside hand into the chest of the receiver and rides Abbrederis up the flat.
Yet none of this fazes the receiver. Each thing I’m about to describe of Abbrederis’ release may seem like separate techniques, but they only work if executed as part of an overall plan that flows from one step to the next.
The first notable thing Abbrederis does is turn his pads towards the sideline and gets his outside arm on Roby’s outside arm. His hand placement is on Roby’s wrist/lower forearm, which gives him a working angle to push the corner’s arm downward.
As Abbrederis establishes this contact, he’s also bringing his inside arm over Roby’s outside arm. This swim move not only gives the receiver a chance to chop downward on the corner’s grasp, but also gives him outside leverage on his release. After the swim, Roby’s outside shoulder is now against Abbrederis’ inside shoulder rather than in the middle of the receiver’s chest. This becomes more important as the route progresses downfield.
The best thing Abbrederis does at this point is drive off the line and through the contact with low pad level. When a receiver drops his pads with outside leverage, the cornerback’s arm will naturally rise up the opponent’s body to the neck area. If the defender doesn’t change his hand position within the next several steps, the result is defensive holding or pass interference.
At the same time as Abbrederis is driving through the contact, he tilts his inside shoulder away from the corner to work under the contact. Roby now has little choice to release the receiver or he’ll be called for placing a rear chin lock on his opponent. It’s a good move for professional wrestling, but not the gridiron.
The moment Roby releases his wrestling move, Abbrederis turns his pads back to the defender and begins to frame his separation. This is something I wrote about in a recent RSP post on Jordy Nelson beating press coverage. . It’s not so much a push because it lacks that kind of force. Instead it’s a setting of a physical boundary by extending the arm where there’s already space.
Now Abbrederis is hip-to-hip with Roby and in the NFL, if a receiver is even he’s leavin’. Roby, still in the throes of battle with Abbrederis during this physical exchange doesn’t turn to look for the ball.
One could blame Roby for not displaying this awareness, but I prefer to credit Abbrederis for understanding how to counter each move Roby made in such fluid fashion that it forced Roby to think rather than react and he didn’t turn back to the ball as it arrives at the outside shoulder inches from Roby’s arm.
In the NFL, reacting and thinking as seen here may literally be a gap of a inches, but it is the difference between rookies and veterans, great athletes and great football players, and often winning and losing. It’s why Abbrederis and Roby are both good prospects, but the receiver is better than people may realize and not the beneficiary of a rusty performance.
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