[Author's note: This article was inspired as a rebuttal to this piece by B/R scribe Daniel Shanks.]
Some guys are just really good at their jobs.
"Rashean the Machine" is equal parts catchy tee-shirt slogan and truth: Mathis consistently frustrates opposing quarterbacks in their attempts to throw on him. Blanketing the left side of the field has been his weekly task for the better part of the past six years. Jacksonville tried Mathis at safety as a rookie before making him a permanent fixture at corner in 2004, and he's only missed six games in his career.
Mathis gained league-wide recognition after his 2006 season: Eight interceptions and 12 passes defensed earned him Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors that year. Over the next two seasons, though, he snagged only seven picks, falling short of his impressive one-season statistical output.
Mathis returned three of those for scores, including one that keyed the Jaguars' 2007 wild card win at Pittsburgh, but the drop in his numbers has prompted whispers that he might not be playing up to his 2006 standard.
Production in the secondary is deceptive; ask the Oakland Raiders, for instance, if they got their money's worth from DeAngelo Hall last year. Hall had five picks and 16 passes defensed for Atlanta in 2007, but the Raiders found out the hard way that he'd gotten those numbers by gambling (badly) in coverage.
Even the bad quarterbacks—the guys that opportunistic corners like Hall feast on—know who to avoid. Nnamdi Asomugha, Hall's teammate in Oakland, had only one interception last year, yet the Raiders saw fit to make him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history this off-season.
But good quarterbacks burn bad corners. Denver rookie Eddie Royal's nine catch, 146-yard torching of Hall was the first to punish a corner with a Pro Bowl reputation for the same risks that created his gaudy 2007 numbers. The Raiders ditched Hall after eight games, preferring to be on the hook for $8 million of his salary rather than leave him in to be beaten.
The Jaguars had a similar revelation with Drayton Florence last year, relegating their $36 million acquisition to nickel packages for seven games in the middle of the season and cutting him in February.
That's the flip side of some guys being good at their jobs: some just aren't.
Sometimes it's the job. Hall struggled with increased man-coverage responsibilities in Oakland, straying from his mark too often to freelance and getting burned. Florence, too, had trouble with his assignments in Jacksonville after playing more zone coverage for the Chargers.
In the Jaguars' cover-two scheme, Mathis has thrived in his job as an agile man-cover corner who stays close and bumps just hard enough to disrupt a route's timing. Within the defensive scheme, he relies on deep help from Jacksonville's safeties.
If Mathis can trust Reggie Nelson and Sean Considine or Brian Williams to have him covered up top when someone slips through, he can play more aggressively, making the measured gambles that have resulted in three pick-sixes over the past two years despite decreased attention from opposing quarterbacks.
Nelson has been inconsistent in that role. Most memorably, he was responsible for the two deep touchdown passes that sank the Jaguars in a 24-14 loss to Tennessee this past season. Jacksonville's 2007 first round pick will need to temper his aggressive style of coverage a bit this season. He has the athleticism to make plays on deep throws, but needs to keep from getting caught underneath them.
An effective pass rush would also help the Jaguars' secondary. Second-year ends Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, for whom Jacksonville paid dearly in draft picks, face heavy expectations as they step into increased roles this year. If they can get sacks and create pressure, opposing quarterbacks won't be able to hang out in the pocket and check down to their open third option.
The more pressure and up-top help Mathis gets from his teammates, the more opposing quarterbacks will be tempted to lean on their primary targets—who, incidentally, Mathis will be covering. If this defense clicks, expect a spike in his numbers reminiscent of that 2006 season.
A less likely—but more beneficial—improvement would be the emergence of a steady corner opposite Mathis. Either Williams or rookie third-rounder Derek Cox figures to get that starting job, and neither is enough of a threat to deter opposing passers from targeting their side.
Williams plays physical, but is less agile than Mathis and would be more susceptible to getting beat if the Jaguars' line doesn't create pressure, and NFL quarterbacks test rookie corners like Cox early and often on principle.
Jacksonville's secondary has several trouble spots to worry about in the upcoming season, but Mathis certainly isn't one. After six solid seasons, the Jaguars know they can count on him to do his job.