Film Room: Vontae Davis
by Cian Fahey
It hasn't been a good year for talkative NFL cornerbacks.
Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks isn't having a bad year, but hasn't been his usual dominant self either. Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns has been consistently beaten in coverage while also committing a significant number of penalties. Patrick Peterson's performances have not been as bad as Haden's, but they have been far from good, and he can no longer claim to be the only top tier defensive back who follows the opposition's best receiver on every snap.
It has been a while since Vontae Davis proclaimed himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL -- at least, it has been a while since anyone has taken notice if he did. Davis was in Miami as a starter across from Sean Smith before the Indianapolis Colts acquired him in a trade. In Indianapolis, Davis has seemingly elevated his play.
The problem with most cornerback analysis (as FO editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz explains in this article) is that very few people look at what cornerbacks do in coverage when they are not targeted. This means that cornerbacks are typically being judged on a tiny sample of their whole work, and that creates a large potential for more random results. In order to counter this problem, I developed the Pre-Snap Reads Cornerback Analysis method around two years ago.
Pre-Snap Reads Cornerback Analysis examines man coverage and man coverage situations that develop without zone concepts. There are a variety of stipulations that qualify and disqualify plays for this type of analysis, but what you essentially need to know is that qualifying plays look at one-on-one matchups that give the receiver enough time to come free.
For the season, Davis has successfully covered wide receivers on 54 of 89 qualifying snaps. For context, that is a 61 percent success rate that is significantly behind the numbers that Richard Sherman (78.2 percent in 2013 and 81 percent in 2012) and Darrelle Revis (81.9 percent in 2013) have posted in previous seasons.
Greater context is always needed past the numbers, because those numbers don't account for who each defender faced and how much space in which he was asked to play. That context doesn't make Davis' numbers look better.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: We accidentally omitted Steve Smith from the following table when this story was first published. He has since been added.)
Ever since he came out of college, Davis has been more of an athlete than a cornerback. As such, it's no surprise that he has been more comfortable covering the receivers who don't run good routes to this point of the season. Because of his size and speed, Davis is able to have more success against that type of receiver opposed to an Andre Caldwell, Emmanuel Sanders, or Nate Washington.
Initially in Week 1, it appeared that Davis' footwork had improved when he made an excellent transition on a double move with Demaryius Thomas.
Davis initially lines up in off coverage. He has outside positioning against Thomas in the slot. When Thomas runs down the field, Davis turns his hips to face him down the seam, but when Thomas breaks his route back outside, Davis shows off precise footwork and quickness to turn with him. He puts his arm on the receiver, but uses it for leverage rather than interfering the route. When Davis turns to run with Thomas, he is in perfect coverage. Only a perfect throw from Peyton Manning would have beaten this textbook coverage.
The only negative on this play wasn't really notable as Davis couldn't come up with an interception. Stopping the route was his primary goal.
This is the kind of play that inspires confidence in Davis' development. It's not the kind of play he could consistently make early in his career, and the absence of these kinds of plays is what was preventing him from becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Understandably, if you saw this play and then didn't look at him again throughout the game but checked his statistics, you would be fooled into thinking that his footwork issues had been resolved.
Instead, Davis repeatedly glided away from receivers through their breaks and slipped at the top of their routes.
The Denver game was atrocious. One of the worst, if not the worst, from any cornerback in an individual game that has been charted since this analysis method was created. Davis successfully covered eight of 21 routes and when he was beaten, he was often beaten badly. Much like has happened with Joe Haden over the past few seasons, Davis' struggles were masked because the Broncos primarily threw to receivers he wasn't covering.
Whether this was by design or not, it does not erase Davis' inability to cover receivers in a defense that isn't asking him to play on an island.
Furthermore, when the Broncos did throw at Davis, he was let off the hook by things over which he has no control.
On this play, Caldwell highlights how poor Davis' footwork is when receivers run quality routes against him. He is incapable of turning with receivers and reacting to their movements once he has committed to one movement. He is stuck in his spot as Caldwell works back infield. Manning finds him with a relatively accurate pass in space, but the receiver suffers a concentration drop as he allows the ball to fall through his hands.
The result of this play had nothing to do with Davis' coverage. Davis tried to get aggressive at the point of contact without showing disciplined feet and he was beaten because of that.
Davis shows no discipline at the start of this route. He completely overplays Caldwell's first move and slides inside of him because of it. To recover, he grabs the receiver. Davis was fortunate not to be penalized for defensive holding at this point, but it didn't matter because he could never recover on the route. Caldwell is wide-open down the sideline, but Manning overthrows him to the point that the ball lands out of bounds.
Once again, the result of this play had nothing to do with Davis' coverage. He was reliant on the offense to let him off the hook again.
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Since the Broncos game in Week 1, Davis has had much more success, but again, the context around that success is vitally important. Nate Washington is the only receiver whom he has faced on numerous snaps who would be considered even an average route runner. Washington had plenty of success against Davis and it was notable that the defensive back slipped to the ground twice when trying to follow the receiver through breaks in his routes.
Last week, Davis shut out Torrey Smith. Smith is a speedster receiver who is having a terrible year. He is completely reliant on his speed to create separation against defensive backs because he can't run deceptive or precise routes. Davis has plenty of speed to match him, so when the Ravens regularly gave him safety help over the top he was always set up for success.
Cooper and Hunter are the types of receivers that break this analysis method somewhat. Both players typically win at the catch point more than they do by creating separation. Because the ball isn't thrown to the receiver on every snap, it's impossible to judge how Davis would fare at the catch point against these receivers. Therefore, both of these receivers' numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
For Cooper, that grain of salt should be enough to suggest that he got the better of Davis.
On two occasions, once in the first quarter and once in the third quarter, Cooper got a step in behind Davis on sideline routes. The first time he was forced to wait for a slow arriving pass from Nick Foles that gave Davis a chance to recover so that he could play the receiver's body if not the ball. Cooper dropped a pass that he would expect to make. On the second occasion in the third quarter, Cooper never got a chance to play the ball in the air because Davis dragged him down at the goal line. Davis wasn't charged with a touchdown on either of these plays, but on the first he was beaten for one and on the second his penalty eventually led to one.
Shutdown cornerbacks aren't supposed to rely on poor play from their opponents to be effective. They also aren't supposed to feast on one specific type of receiver while being badly exposed by another type of receiver.
Routes and Responsibilities
Davis spends most of his time in press man coverage. Davis has lined up at the line of scrimmage on all but 13 of his 89 qualifying man coverage snaps to this point of the season. On those 13 snaps when he started the play lined up off the line of scrimmage, Davis was successful covering a receiver nine times.
For the majority of his plays to this point, Davis has lined up on the right side of the defense. He has had just two plays in the slot, one when he was beaten on an out route and one when he successfully covered a curl route. He had just one snap on the left side of the defense, when he was beaten on an out route.
(Number of Routes)
The above chart highlights Davis' success against specific routes for each of his qualifying man coverage snaps this season so far.
Out routes have been a major issue for Davis whenever he has faced them. Not once was he able to prevent his receiver from creating separation. Unsurprisingly, any route that involved a hard cut gave Davis problems.
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None of the better cornerbacks in the league have ever proven to have such significant weaknesses against specific routes. It's hard to be considered a shutdown cornerback if you have such an issue with trailing receivers through their breaks. In today's NFL, passing games will find ways to exploit your weaknesses with different approaches and different types of receivers.
While the Colts can attempt to hide Davis somewhat by keeping him matched up against receivers who have similar limitations moving laterally, their defense as a whole isn't strong enough around him to do that effectively on a regular basis.
Davis' strengths also aren't at the same level as the best cornerbacks in the league. In 2013, Sherman was successful against 97 percent of the sideline routes that he faced, while Revis was successful 98 percent of the time. Neither cornerback's success dropped below 55 percent against any given route.
While he may be enjoying a fortunate stretch when it comes to the traditional numbers he is giving up, further analysis on Davis suggests that he is still very much the cornerback that he has been throughout his career: a limited player who lacks consistency and the talent to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.