The Detroit Lions Looming Crisis at Left Cornerback
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OK, here’s what I want you to do. No slackers! I want you to get up and stand on one leg for a few seconds. I’ll wait…
Alright, take your seats and we’ll get back to this in a few minutes. Just remember which leg you stood on.
We are—mostly—either right- or left-handed. In fact, only one out of 100 people are naturally ambidextrous. We also have a dominant eye and I won’t bore you with determining which of your eyes is dominant.
But did you know that you also have a dominant leg? It’s true. Now, I want you to imagine that you are running the 40 yard dash at the NFL combine. You will get into a three-, or four-point stance at the start line.
My, you do look great in your Under Armour!
The leg that you stood on earlier will be the same leg that you use for that first, explosive step. Your dominant leg.
Now, stand up again and see how long you can stand on your non-dominant leg. I am 99 percent certain that you have better strength and balance in your dominant leg.
OK, I hummed a couple of bars from the theme song from the game show Jeopardy while waiting for you to return.
Why is this germane to this discussion? Because ambidexterity in the lower appendages is equally as rare as it is in the upper appendages.
Still don’t get it? Let me explain. I learned about this rather serendipitously when Lions head coach Jim Schwartz first mentioned that his defense would utilize left and right cornerbacks as opposed to a No. 1 and No. 2 CB scheme. This event coincided with my taking an analyst’s position where I would have to become an authority on DB technique.
I learned at the knee of an NFL scout. Gene spent hours explaining the nuances of proper technique. I was given hundreds of hours of film to grade and felt pretty confident in my ability to see greatness in a player away from the ball.
But I’d never contemplated the LCB/RCB concept that Schwartz mentioned. Every draft prospect that I watched was either a No. 1, or a No. 2 CB in his college program. Those No. 1 CBs always matched up against the opponent’s biggest threat regardless of scheme, or where they lined up.
Over 90 percent of cornerbacks drafted by NFL teams were No. 1 CBs in school. So I wondered what’s the big deal? A CB is a CB, right?
No, grasshopper, it isn’t the same. Gene explained it this way (I paraphrase):
The kids we draft at CB are tremendous athletes first, and foremost. They took on the toughest assignments on both sides of the formation. When they get to the NFL there’s a wake-up call awaiting them as savvy receivers detect and exploit their weaknesses. The most exploited weakness occurs when they determine which of the rookie’s legs is dominant.
I had never heard of such a thing and was intrigued. Gene put me through the same drills that I gave you earlier. Hmm, I’m right-handed but I have a dominant left leg. I told Gene so.
“Mikey, the truth is that most NFL teams play the LCB/RCB scheme. The few teams that play the No. 1 and No. 2 scheme depend heavily upon the ambidexterity of the personnel. Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson and now, Patrick Peterson are among the rare CBs who play at a high level of performance on either side of the formation.”
I let this sink in and told Gene that I’d like to review my film study from this fresh perspective. Gene told me what to watch for in technique that would be a dead giveaway as to whether a player was best suited as an LCB, or an RCB.
In it’s simplest terms, a CB gets into his back peddle and must “break down” into coverage by executing a 180 degree turn in one fluid step. To accomplish this a CB will throw his arm (nearest to the receiver) straight back violently. This causes the head, shoulders, torso and hips to turn. His next step should bring him stride-for-stride with the receiver.
That is, if his dominant leg is the pivot point.
Now, I see a CB breaking down but taking a barely perceptible extra step because his non-dominate leg was used for the technique. This gives a receiver a tremendous half-step advantage. A CB’s recovery skills are stressed to the limit.
Now, let’s apply what we know to the Lions cornerbacks.
Houston is a natural LCB who struggles on the right side. His dominant left leg is the culprit at RCB, but putting himself between the left sideline (from the defense’s point of view) and the receiver allows Houston to keep up with all but the speediest receivers.
Receivers taking an “out” route find Houston—who cheats towards the outside has that extra step to recover.
Bentley’s early reps in camp (and I suspect OTAs) at LCB was mostly an inconvenience for receivers. Moving him to the right side assured that he’d not only win a roster spot, but could actually win the starting RCB job.
Lacey has a dominant right leg and performs better at RCB. After suffering through his last eight Colts game films (I took one for the team here) Lacey was far better as an RCB. When he started four games at LCB the results were catastrophic.
When Houston missed a couple of camp sessions the coaches moved Lacey to LCB, where he had trouble aplenty against that murderer’s row of Lions receivers.
When Lacey was moved inside to nickel he was effective and comfortable.
Smith is the closest thing to an ambidextrous CB on the roster. His “smurf-ish” stature and his propensity for going “off reservation” has garnered the wrath of defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.
This year, Smith seems to get it. He’s playing within the scheme and covering his zone responsibilities much better.
Smith, when matched up against big receivers has a real problem though. Here, he will have to gamble big or take a seat.
Green is an intriguing specimen at 6’0”. He looks extremely raw in position drills and is consistently beaten on the right side. At LCB, Green looks much better, but breaks down too slowly—even off his dominate left leg.
Green is a project worth pursuing though. When DB coach Tim Walton told him “Keep your hands open during contact!” Green didn’t repeat an error that will draw a penalty.
Chris Greenwood has missed camp with an abdominal injury. Free agents Drew Coleman and Justin Miller have been inconsistent on both sides of the formation.
Rookie Dontrell Johnson has failed to impress the coaches enough to get a meaningful share of snaps.
A Final Word on Aaron Berry
The Lions had Berry penciled in as the heir apparent to Eric Wright’s RCB position. This was a head-scratcher for me since Berry is a natural LCB. His loss has exacerbated an already delicate situation.
Ambidexterity is a trait that can be coached over time. Time is a commodity that is in short supply as the Lions coaching staff works tirelessly to improve the depth at LCB.
A Looming Crisis
As of this writing, the depth behind LCB Chris Houston is all but non-existent. The failure of any player on the roster to step up and push Houston makes the LCB position the most vulnerable position on the team.
Coach Walton is working the CBs with a sense of desperation that I’ve seldom seen from a coach at camp. Even receiver’s coach Shaun Jefferson has taken the veterans aside for some mentoring. It’s all hands on deck.
With the exception of QB Matt Stafford, Chris Houston is the player that the Lions can least afford to lose. A very real crisis in the making if ever I saw one.
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