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Is the Jets’ best bet at cornerback starting Bless Austin?

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New York Jets v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A year ago the Jets selected Rutgers cornerback Bless Austin in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. Even by the standards of a sixth round pick, the choice raised eyebrows (including mine). Austin played a total five combined games over his final two college seasons because of multiple ACL tears.

Around halfway through the 2019 season Austin was activated from the Non-Football Injury list. Soon he was getting playing time due to injuries and ineffectiveness the Jets dealt with at the cornerback position. To be more specific, he got his first chance against the Giants as the Jets benched Nate Hairston who was having a miserable game.

Austin continued to get playing time through Week 16 when he was benched himself against the Steelers earning praise for his performance.

Free agent signing Pierre Desir is likely penciled in at one outside cornerback spot. Brian Poole will be the slot corner. As things stand right now, Austin is quite likely to hold the starting job.

The question is whether he is up to the task. With that in mind I took a look at Austin’s cover snaps from 2019 to try to answer the question. Today I will share what I found and what I believe it means for the future.

Simple Assignments

The NFL is now a zone defense league. As college spread offenses have infiltrated the league, zone has become a necessity. Few teams have three or four cornerbacks capable of covering man to man. At the risk of oversimplifying, it is easier to cover an area on the field than it is to cover a man all over the field.

Few teams in today’s NFL play more than half of their snaps in man coverage as a result. You hear about how some coach runs a “man scheme” or a “zone scheme” but in reality zone dominates. With a few exceptions, when I hear a coach runs a man scheme I don’t take it to mean his defense plays man to man a majority of the time. I think about the key downs that decide the game. These are the plays where you know the opponent is throwing to its best receiver, and you trust your top corner to lock him down. Even if you have a man scheme, your defense is playing zone a lot.

Zone defense is also a very broad term. Somebody can be given the “zone corner” label as an insult, but players who can cover effectively in zone are valuable.

With that said, all zone coverages are not equal. There are zones, and there are ZONES.

Many zone coverages require cornerbacks to cover expansive parts on the field.

One of the staples of NFL defensive playbooks is Cover 3. In this coverage the deep part of the field is divided into thirds. A middle safety and two outside cornerbacks are responsible.

However, the outside corners are generally responsible at the start of the play for dealing with outside receivers before dropping into the deep zone. If these receivers run deep, the corner has to cover them the entire distance. There just usually aren’t any other defensive players close enough to do the job. The receivers would otherwise be unaccounted for.

Cover 2 is a bit easier on the outside corners. The two deep safeties split the field in half, which allows the corners to have zones underneath. Still, the corners frequently maintain some responsibility on deep routes down the sideline since the safeties line up far away from it and might not be able to range that far.

The Jets ran easier coverages to execute for Austin. They frequently had a variation of coverage that had three people responsible for deep zones and Austin only asked to cover a constricted short zone. This makes the corner’s life much easier. Not only is there less space to cover, you can undercut any route. With three guys over the top, there are enough players to spread out deep that you will always have help if the route is vertical.

The Jets also gave Austin a bunch of coverages where he had only deep zone responsibilities, essentially playing the role of a safety.

While I can never definitively say for certain what a play call was without being in the huddle, my charting suggested that Austin had one of these constricted zones on 57% of his cover snaps last season. For the most part, the Jets made it a point to shelter him and not ask him to take on difficult assignments.

Zone

One thing I would say for Austin is that in general I thought he had a good feel for zone coverage. Whenever a team’s pass coverage struggles fans frequently call for the team to play more zone. But you need players who actually know how to play zone effectively.

This is a play where Austin has the short zone outside and help over the top.

Even though he has help on the way, he carries the receiver past his short zone because there’s no receiver to worry about. He ends up breaking up this pass and almost intercepting it.

Later in his debut against the Giants the same thing happens. Short zone assignment. Help over the top. No other receiver in his area so he carries the receiver up the field.

In contrast, here’s a play where he doesn’t carry a receiver deep, and it’s the right read.

The entire point of this play is to get Austin to run up the field with the outside receiver and run the slot receiver into the area he vacates.

However, because this time there is a guy running into his zone, this time he elects to use the deep safety help, release the outside receiver, and drive back into his zone. He delivers a big hit to break up the pass.

This play is an example of a more complex zone Gregg Williams likes to call. The responsibility changes based on the route combination the other team runs.

Probably the easiest way to think of this coverage is as a three on two game. Washington has two receivers on this side of the field, and the Jets have three defenders. If either receiver breaks in, Terrell Basham has him.

Marcus Maye has any receiver who runs deep.

Austin has anybody who runs a short sideline route. (The rules can change if a receiver runs across the field from the other side, but for the sake of simplicity, that isn’t important.)

The inside receiver breaks deep, which means he’s Maye’s man.

But so does the outside receiver near Austin. Austin sees that Maye has the inside receiver.

This makes it Austin’s responsibility to carry the outside receiver down the field, which he does.

To be clear, this stuff is more Zone Coverage 101 than it is a reel of superstar type plays, but there are plenty of corners who fail Zone Coverage 101. It requires being able to read the play in front of you and get to the right place. The fact Austin has this good of a feel for things without much game experience is a positive.

Other coverages

If you watch the above play at home you are probably pumped up. Bless Austin broke up a pass on a third down play to end a drive. You might come onto this website and leave a comment in the game thread like, “BLESS AUSTIN!” “BEAST” or “STEAL OF THE DRAFT!”

The coverage itself, however, left something to be desired.

You can see that on this coverage he gets totally turned around and completely spins in the wrong direction. It wasn’t a seasoned veteran route runner he was facing. This was a fellow rookie, Kelvin Harmon who was actually drafted after Austin in last year’s sixth round.

Austin was beaten here, and the only reason it wasn’t a completion is that Dwayne Haskins misread the defense.

Harmon has plenty of separation here, and against man coverage he should be able to continue across the field. A pass that leads him is likely a completion and a first down.

Instead he misreads the coverage as zone, and his throw forces Harmon to stop. This is the throw you’d make if your guy was looking for a hole in zone coverage, and it gives Austin time to recover and break up the pass.

This speaks to some of the struggles he faced in man coverage or more difficult zones. I counted no less than six times that he got completely got turned around like this. He was only in coverage for around 225 snaps, and most of them were in the constrained zones that would prevent this from happening.

While his feel for zone coverage should inspire some optimism, his understanding of leverages and positioning in man coverage is very much a work in progress. Although zone is the dominant coverage in the NFL, the ability to play man does add nice flexibility to a defense.

And after a couple of ACL tears, speed does have to become a question. Diontae Johnson isn’t exactly Tyreek Hill, but he runs right past Austin on this play.

By the numbers

One of the things that stuck out to me about Austin is the variation in his performance in two games, the December contests the Jets played against Miami and Pittsburgh.

In the five other games he played, I gave Austin responsibility for 134 yards allowed in coverage. In these games that equated to around 0.83 yards allowed per coverage snap. That is the type of average that typically puts a player around the top ten.

Austin was playing the constrained zone coverages I discussed above 65.8% of the time in those games. That must be taken into account. He had less ground to cover than most corners. The less ground you have to cover, the easier it is to do your job. The less field you cover, the less likely it also is that a quarterback will throw your way. And on that note, he was playing across from Arthur Maulet most of the time. There were games where Austin didn’t see much action simply because Maulet was an easy guy to attack.

Those disclaimers aside, I think you would have to conclude that Austin had success in those five games.

The games he did not have success were Miami and Pittsburgh. In those games I held him responsible for 139 yards in coverage. You might respond, “John, that’s only 69.5 yards per game. It doesn’t sound like that much.”

Consider that a receiver only needs to average 62.5 yards per game to have a 1,000 yard season. Also consider that Austin was benched at halftime of the Steelers game so that total really represents a game and a half of action.

In those games Austin allowed 2.17 yards per coverage snap. That’s the type of total that leaves NFL cornerbacks looking for a new line of work.

What changed? In these games the Jets only put him into a constrained zone 35.9% of the time according to my calcuations. He was given much more man and more complex zone assignments.

At this point that would lead me to conclude that Austin can run limited coverages effectively. If that sounds like a big criticism, consider that the Jets’ opening day outside corners last year, Trumaine Johnson and Darryl Roberts, couldn’t run any coverages effectively. The ability to run limited coverages at least gives the coaches something to work with.

There are sacrifices to playing three guys over the top and keeping a cornerback focused on short zones. It is one less guy who can either rush the passer or cover underneath, leaving more opportunties for the offense to dink and dunk its way down the field. But it is an option at least.

Reasons for optimism

We have discussed some of the things we know, but much remains unknown about the Bless Austin story.

I think by any measure you would have to consider the fact he was even able to get onto the field last year a success. Coming off two straight ACL injuries I figured the season would be a lost cause. Heck, I was skeptical he would ever get onto the field.

With another year of healing, perhaps he can get some speed back. With a year in the NFL he might gain a greater comfort level with the scheme and his role and be able to take on more. For many players the biggest improvement comes between years one and two.

And with the feel for zone coverage he showed, it is possible that he might be able to play start receiving more difficult zone assignments.

It is also worth noting that at 6’2” 198 pounds with 32 inch arms Austin has the prototypical tools for a press corner. The Jets did not have him get physical much at the line of scrimmage, but there was the occasional rep that showed his potential using his size.

Reasons for pessimism

There are also some unknowns that should provide some degree of pause.

It’s possible that an extra year of healing will have a positive impact, but we just don’t know whether multiple serious injuries at such a young age will have a lasting impact.

I would also say that at this point we really don’t have much of an idea about how good Bless Austin really is. I still am having trouble figuring out how he made it onto a Draft board. There’s virtually no relevant college film. Nobody has any idea whether this was a player who would have even been a prospect had he stayed healthy. Players go from late round prospects to first round prospects within a few months every year. Austin was a guy who barely played for two years. What was his ceiling? What is it now? We don’t know.

I think we also must acknowledge the circumstances from a year ago. Having so much help, such minor assignments, and such a weak corner inviting targets across the field might have hidden flaws that we aren’t aware exist. I’m not saying this is definitely the case or even that this is the most likely scenario, but I think it must be pointed out at least as a possibility especially considering the struggles when the assignments advanced.

Playing three rookie quarterbacks in seven games also might have helped the numbers look better than they would have been against better opposition.

Gaining trust

Like any rookie, Austin will need to earn the trust of the coaching staff. When last we saw him, he had been benched by Gregg Williams at halftime of the Pittsburgh game after allowing the touchdown to Johnson above.

I also noticed during the second half of the Washington game the Jets allowed a completion on one of the rare plays Austin seemed to his zone assignment. Two plays later Maurice Canady replaced Austin. Austin did not reappear in the game. I couldn’t find any suggestion of an injury, and he did not appear on the injury report for the next week’s game against Oakland so it is possible he was actually benched twice during the season.

I want to reiterate that many young players struggle to earn the trust of their coaches early but eventually get it. This is simply part of the learning curve.

So should the Jets give Bless Austin a starting job?

I don’t think the answer to this question is simple.

In a perfect world where there were unlimited options, my answer would be a pretty definitive no. While there were some positives last year, I see some pretty glaring red flags.

We don’t live in a perfect world, though, and for where the Jets currently are starting Austin might be their best option.

The NFL Draft is likely the team’s last realistic chance to upgrade the roster, and there has to be some degree of prioritization. The offensive line and wide receiver groups are both in really bad shape for the team. The line has zero combined Pro Bowls or All Pro selections and a single projected starter under 27 years old. Meanwhile you could argue the second best wide receiver on the team has had a single good month in the NFL.

And while I don’t think the Jets will build the team with this in mind, I think the coaches on the defensive side of the ball are more able to work around a lack of talent and adjust their scheme, even if it isn’t exactly what they would run in an ideal world. The offensive coaches seem more inclined to run what they want to do no matter what, even if the pieces aren’t in place.

Having done so much research on articles recently I can’t help but think about the Cincinnati game. The Jets trailed 17-6 at halftime with neither side of the ball playing well. Gregg Williams essentially scrapped his gameplan at halftime and ran completely different coverages in the second half. The defense allowed 3 points in the second half. The offense didn’t change much at all. That unit didn’t just go scoreless. It gave the Bengals 2 points on a safety.

If a corner prospect falls to the Jets and is a great value when they pick, I don’t think Bless Austin would be a good enough reason to pass on that player. However, I think the priority should be the offense.

Playing Austin in constricted zones definitely would take things off the table for the defense schematically. There would have to be less heavy blitzes and a general bend but don’t break philosophy, but there is something to be said for having concepts players can execute. Austin has shown an ability to succeed in these limited assignments.

For their part, the Jets might just have the ideal personnel for that type of defense. They signed another corner, Desir, who is best used almost exclusively in zone. And if you want to limit the amount of ground your cornerbacks have to cover, it is essential to have safeties and linebackers who can pick up the slack and roam large portions of the field. Those roles would fall to Jamal Adams, Marcus Maye, and C.J. Mosley.

Perhaps it would be just enough to succeed.