After Rocky Start, ‘Arrow Is Up’ For DBs
Cory Undlin threw down the gauntlet the moment he arrived in town.
“We’re looking for non-impostors,” he said, “meaning guys that get up and line up in press, and then the ball gets snapped, and then they open the gate, and then they just let the guy run down the field. We don’t want that. So my job is to get them to believe in themselves and believe in the technique. If they get lined up on any guy, I don’t care what guy it is, the starter or their fourth wideout, that they’re gonna play with the technique we’re trying to demand out of them.”
His new pupils raved about the improvements in their game right from the jump this spring. Malcolm Jenkins called Undlin the most important pickup of the offseason. Declared in early June the defensive backfield was already better than it had been at any point last season. Led by Byron Maxwell, the revamped secondary looked poised to take a big stride forward.
Then came the opener against Atlanta. The technique that had been drilled all offseason frequently didn’t show up, allowing Julio Jones, Roddy White and the Falcons passing attack to run wild.
“We know they’re not tough at the line of scrimmage,” White said of the Eagles defensive backs after the game. “They’re not put-your-hands-on-you guys. They just kind of want to shadow you and run with you.”
Impostors, in other words.
Those comments caught the attention of Maxwell, who was at times guilty of the charges that White laid forward.
“Oh, I saw the comments,” he said. “I mean, I let him off. That’s alright, though. I’ll see him again.
“Honestly, I think we just needed it. We were just running through people in the preseason. It was easy. That was the first hard one, first game obviously. We needed to just get punched in the mouth. It’s cool, it’s fine, we’re back. We know who we are. We’ve got our identity.”
That desired identity is of a physically-imposing group that is disruptive at the line of scrimmage and technically sound throughout the play — the exact opposite character traits from the ones White tried to attach to them after Week 1. They’re not all the way there, but the last two weeks — and Sunday’s game against the Jets in particular — suggest that Undlin’s men are now headed in the right direction.
Technique taking root
The play was almost symbolic.
The Jets were facing a 3rd-and-5 on their first possession of the game. Maxwell was lined up across from Brandon Marshall, yielding about five yards of cushion. As receiver Jeremy Kerley came in motion towards them, Maxwell raced up to the line and got nose-to-nose with the 6-4, 230-pound Marshall and initiated contact once the ball was snapped. With Maxwell riding Marshall the whole way, Ryan Fitzpatrick checked down to Kerley, who ended up short of the sticks.
The aggressive play at the point of attack continued in large part throughout the game, including on this sequence early in the third quarter where Nolan Carroll‘s strong coverage helped Brandon Bair pick up one of his three pass deflections on the day.
“You watch the tape, we’re getting more snaps of playing with the proper technique, and it’s becoming more challenging for receivers to get in their routes,” said Jenkins. “They’re getting badgered and disrupted at the line of scrimmage and that’s helping us. It’s making the quarterback hold the ball. You’re getting a lot more pressure from our front four. It all ties together when you talk about sacks, interceptions, tipped throws, all that is attached to the pass rush and how we’re doing at the line of scrimmage.”
Carroll was credited with two passes defensed against the Jets and enjoyed a very strong game overall. One of his best plays came with just under 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter, as he blanketed Marshall for 40 yards downfield and came up with a key pass break-up.
His other PBU came against speedster Devin Smith down the left sideline. We asked Undlin to break down the techniques Carroll successfully used on this play. (Vines courtesy of Fran Duffy, who wrote a great post on the defense.)
“We made him wide (at the line of scrimmage), so we got him off the spot,” said Undlin.
"And then when you throw a deep ball down the sideline we talk about 'in phase' or 'out of phase', and if you're 'in-phase' -- you saw him turn back and look for the ball -- if you're in-phase then you can do that, meaning your hips and shoulders are in front of his hips and shoulders.
"And then when you look back, the hardest things for the DBs -- our guys have gotten really good at it -- is when you look back you have to 'look and lean' because when you look back, if you don't lean on the guy then you're going to end up drifting back inside and then the ball is going to go over your head and he's going to end up catching it right on the sideline. If you watch that play, as he looks back he actually leans into the guy, which put him in a spot where he could knock it down."
"It's the same thing that Eric Rowe did when he got one on the sideline."
Rowe made a pair of plays on that left sideline, including this pivotal second-half interception. While applauding his natural ability to rebound and finish, Jenkins pointed out that the coaches and veterans continue to hammer home the importance of using better press technique at the beginning of the play to make things easier.
"On both of the plays he made down the field, we would like to clean up his press, make him get a little more on the receiver at the line of scrimmage," said Jenkins. "But his knack for making plays at the finish of the down is something we can't coach, and that's why he's here, that's why we drafted him, and we're excited to have him on the team."
Undlin, too, wants to see more despite the two quality plays out of the rookie.
"I think the best examples in the game were Eric Rowe's playing the sideline, one he picked and the other he knocked down, and then Nolan Carroll had a perfect snap over there when they tried to throw that deep ball, too. Those are the ones that obviously show up," he said. "Now, Rowe at the same point gave up a curl route earlier on that drive and he was no good and it would have gone for 14 yards on that curl. So two good plays over there and then he had one bad play on the other side. We're trying to get rid of those: good, good, not so good."
While they might be falling short of perfection, there was one area that was flawless against New York. Per Undlin, the Jets threw deep five times, and the secondary went five-for-five in stopping them.
"If one of those balls gets caught -- Eric's interception, that's a touchdown if he's not good; the big post on Nolan, that's a touchdown; one of those changes the whole game," said Undlin.
Limiting the x-plays was a top priority this offseason. Last year, they led the league in plays of 20-plus yards allowed (72). They currently rank tied for 17th through three games this season with nine.
On a wall in the defensive backs room there is a board that tells the whole story.
Undlin has created a system that rewards good plays and penalizes letdowns. Points are awarded for pass break-ups, turnovers, shots on the ball, and "extra efforts", for example. Loafs (unsatisfactory effort), x-plays allowed, missed tackles, etc. all result in a deduction.
The numbers are posted right there for everyone to see when they report to work.
Postgame, the players are handed a breakdown of everyone's individual performances as well.
"It does keep everyone accountable. It creates competition as well," said Walter Thurmond. "It's a point system to where you can see where everyone is ranked in the room as far as production. It's just another way to bring out the competitive nature within the group."
So who's leading the competition?
"It's usually between me and Malcolm right now," said Thurmond.
For what it's worth, PFF has Thurmond as the third-highest rated safety in the league through three weeks, while Jenkins is 11th. It's been a while since safety has been a strength of this team. So far this season, that's been the case.
"I have been pleased really with both Walter and Malcolm," said Chip Kelly. "Malcolm's versatility to be able to come down and play nickel at times in certain looks or to cover slot receivers has been really good for us, but Walt has that ability, also. They are interchangeable. It's kind of what we've always wanted to get, but I think both those guys are playing really well right now."
Add that with the improved play out of the cornerbacks, and you have a secondary that appears to be rounding into form after a rocky start.
"As an entire group, the arrow is up right now," said Undlin. "We're not even close to where we need to be. As we keep going down this road, I'm very encouraged, the room is very encouraged. It's showing up every week: it's closer, it's closer. And that's the goal, obviously, is to keep getting better every single week."