Devin McCourty allows you to do a lot. McCourty isn’t Earl Thomas but he’s probably the closest thing the NFL has to him. When Bill Belichick wants to play aggressive man coverage with only one safety deep, he knows McCourty can handle it. When Belichick wants to feature a Cover-3 heavy gameplan to matchup to his opponents in a specific way, he knows McCourty can handle it. If the defense needs someone to disguise a blitz by covering the most ground from alignment to assignment, McCourty can handle it.
When Austin Hooper caught the Falcons’ second touchdown in the Super Bowl, McCourty was nowhere to be seen. Hooper ran down the seam, beating Patrick Chung in single coverage, while McCourty followed Julio Jones infield. McCourty and Eric Rowe shared the responsibility of covering Jones. Matt Ryan knew they were going to double Jones before the ball was snapped, he knew when he motioned Taylor Gabriel from one side of the field to the other and McCourty didn’t react by dropping deeper or moving wider.
It’s rare that teams will double team a receiver. The Patriots do it more than all other teams combined. When people talk about one receiver being better because he’s always double teamed it’s a quick way to spot who hasn’t actually watched what they claim to have watched.
Still, the indirect benefits of playing with a great receiver do exist. By creating mismatches the best receivers in the league break schemes and gameplans. When Odell Beckham is alone on the narrow side of the field and his three teammates are on the other side, you can’t just leave him in single coverage and focus on the wider side of the field.
Isn’t that right, John Harbaugh?
When you have a talent like Beckham you typically have to tip your coverage towards him rather than away from him. In the above play, the Ravens drop a safety down to cover the tight end so they can move their linebackers to the wider side of the field. Had they not dropped a safety down they would have been forced to keep one linebacker on the tight end, creating space over the middle of the field for the slot receivers to run into. If the defense did everything it did above but the safety stayed in the middle of the field or on Beckham’s side, Eli Manning would have had huge space to throw to vertical routes against one-on-one coverage to that side of the field.
Beckham is a nightmare because he runs every route you need him to, he can make adjustments to deep balls downfield and he can catch short routes before taking them to the endzone from 60 yards away.
The direct benefits a quarterback has throwing to Beckham are greater than any other quarterback in the league right now. The indirect benefits a quarterback has throwing to him are right up there too, but he’s not the best in that area. No, that mantle belongs to DeSean Jackson.
It’s not a coincidence that Jackson was part of the offenses that bloated Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins’ statistical output. He dramatically alters the offenses he plays in because of his quality.
Jackson isn’t just a speed receiver. He’s not just a guy who runs 40 yards downfield in a straight line on every play. He is a more nuanced route runner than given credit for and he can make tougher receptions in tight coverage. His presence on the field didn’t limit Jay Gruden’s play calling in any way. It did limit the opponents’ play calling.
Only eight quarterbacks in the league threw a higher percent of their passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage than Kirk Cousins last year. 53.15 percent of his passes went to that range, six percent higher than the league average. The Washington offense is a quick throw one. It spreads the field with receivers so the quarterback can diagnose the play before the snap and get rid of the ball immediately after the snap. Against that kind of offense you want to squash the field. You want to be aggressive outside and take away the quick throws, force the quarterback to hold the ball when he doesn’t want to hold the ball.
A few teams did this successfully last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers most notably. They did it by only rushing three players after the quarterback and flooding the field with an eight-man zone.
The Steelers couldn’t be aggressive against the Washington offense because of Jackson. If they tried to play press across the field to stop the quick slants and YAC-specific route combinations, Jackson would have had an opportunity to create a free release and burn them downfield. If they dropped one safety into the box and kept one deep, the quarterback would know that Jackson was getting a free release and could be hit in a coverage that was easier to anticipate.
According to Football Outsiders, Washington ranked 27th in the league in terms of how many stacked boxes they faced. This means that teams were constantly keeping two safeties deep against them, freeing up the space over the middle of the field and stressing the linebackers more in coverage on underneath routes. Jackson’s presence is a big reason for that. It’s the only way to prevent him from running wide open deep downfield every week.
When the defense is forced to keep multiple safeties back it does a couple of things. It means there are fewer coverages that the quarterback has to be concerned about but it also means the defense can’t be creative with its blitzing. Against Washington you can’t show single coverage to Jackson before having a defender come from a different area of the field to drop deeper than him, he’ll beat your defender to the spot and be gone by the time you do it. You also can’t just sit one defensive back 10 yards off the ball from the beginning of the play, he’ll beat them with his route running or even still with his straight-line speed.
All-out blitzes are completely off the table.
Take this play against the Chicago Bears in Week 16. The Bears attempt to disguise their all-out blitz with a corner coming off the edge and both safeties moving forward. The blitz pickup is excellent, giving Cousins time to see Jackson enter his break in his route. Jackson stayed disciplined with his stem, pushing towards the cornerback sitting off of him before breaking back infield. This prevented the cornerback from jumping his route.
Jackson’s speed is such that he can reach back for the ball and stop immediately as he catches it without the defender ever getting near him. From there he runs downfield for a 57-yard gain.
Even when you keep two safeties back, Jackson will still get open.
This play against the Eagles is a perfect example of the direct benefit that comes from playing with Jackson. He uniquely elevates quarterbacks when they’re trying to push the ball downfield. Cousins completely misses this throw but Jackson has beaten the cornerback so badly that he has time to slow down and locate the ball. He should have been continuing down the middle of the field to track the ball there. Instead he is forced to turn towards the opposite sideline as the ball flutters over his head.
Jackson’s ball skills to locate and catch the ball, especially without going to the ground, are spectacular but he never gets that opportunity if he doesn’t beat the cornerback as badly as he does. The cornerback is too focused on trying to recover the ground he has lost to look for the ball or disrupt Jackson at the catch point.
He emphasizes his quality by staying on his feet against contact before trotting into the endzone.
Although he eclipsed 1,000 yards last season in an offense that spread the ball around to different receivers, Jackson was still significantly held back by his quarterback. Cousins was accurate on 41.67 percent of his deep throws last year, 16th in the league. He was accurate on 45.16 percent of his throws to Jackson and Jackson caught three inaccurate deep passes such as the one shown above. He was accurate on only 39.02 percent of his deep throws that didn’t target Jackson.
Washington had a very talented offense last year and Gruden’s philosophy maximized Jackson’s impact by stretching the defense in every possible way. With Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed complementing Jackson, they had four receivers who could get open deep, get open underneath, create yards after the catch and adjust to inaccurate passes at the catch point.
In Tampa Bay, it’s much less likely that Jackson’s impact will be as significant.
Jameis Winston was accurate on 30.51 percent of his deep passes last year, only five quarterbacks were worse than him. Furthermore, remember Cousins’ percentage of passes thrown to five yards? 53.15 percent, ninth in the league if you don’t remember. Winston threw 33.84 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, only Cam Newton threw fewer passes to that level of the field. Peculiarly, Winston’s percent of deep throws wasn’t that high either. He threw 11.22 percent of his passes further than 20 yards downfield, 14th in the league, instead focusing most of his passes into the 11-20 range, where he ranked first in the league with 33.06 percent of his passes going there.
The four vert offense that Dirk Koetter relies on means Winston is pushing the ball downfield all the time. He’s asked to hit intermediate routes that are harder to hit and in turn harder to create yards after the catch from. 34.89 percent of Winston’s yards came after the catch, only Matt Barkley had a lower number.
Jackson opening up the field for his teammates isn’t going to matter if his teammates aren’t capable of or set up to take advantage of that space. Opposing defenses won’t face the same quandary that they faced when Jackson was in Washington.
That doesn’t mean Jackson can’t help Winston, it just means that Winston will be more reliant on the direct benefits rather than the indirect benefits that come with having Jackson in your offense. If that is to happen he will need to refine his accuracy and stop missing wildly on deep throws so Jackson at least has a chance to adjust to the ball in the air.