The dire cornerback situation for the New York Jets may reveal a massive hole in the secondary, but it also provides a channel for head coach Rex Ryan to flex his defensive creativity. His latest "mad scientist" experiment involves converting safety Antonio Allen to cornerback, a move few had ever envisioned happening.
What makes Allen's position switch even more head-scratching on the surface is how different he was as a player in college compared to in the pros. Listed as a strong safety at South Carolina, Allen was a glorified linebacker that spent as much time making tackles in the box as he did handling responsibilities in the secondary.
In his third season in the NFL, Allen has evolved into a man-coverage specialist. He turned heads by how he was able to cover the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, becoming the antidote to opposing tight ends the Jets had been looking for.
As good as those players are, covering slower-moving tight ends is a much different animal than taking on the likes of A.J. Green—but that is exactly what Allen did in his debut on the perimeter of the secondary.
Hey, Antonio Allen: When was the first time you thought, "Hey, I could play CB in the NFL?" ... (Laughing) "Yesterday, probably." #Jets— Dennis Waszak Jr. (@DWAZ73) August 12, 2014
Because of the light preseason workload, judging Allen based on simple numbers is inconclusive. According to Pro Football Focus, he was thrown at twice and allowed one catch—a long 35-yard gain to A.J. Green—to result in a 95.8 quarterback rating against him.
At this stage, it is much more important to look for specific traits in Allen's game that suggest he can (or cannot) survive in his new position for anything more than spot duty. In other words, Allen should be treated as a college prospect as opposed to an established veteran.
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In order to function as a cornerback in Ryan's defense, the ability to play bump-and-run at the line of scrimmage is an absolute necessity. As a safety, Allen was never afraid to get physical and in the face of opposing tight ends—a quality that has translated well in his new position.
Plenty of cornerbacks would be rather intimidated by the proposition of covering the likes of Green out of the gate, but Allen was unafraid of his "baptism by fire." He spent plenty of time in the grills of opposing receivers. If Allen was going to strike out, he was going to go down swinging.
Impressively, Allen really only whiffed on one play against Green. Here, he steps up in the press to take Green on at the line of scrimmage:
It is difficult to tell exactly how Green was able to shake Allen, but Allen was ultimately beat by several yards and was turned around—the death knell for any press-man corner. Green has plenty of separation, allowing for an easy pitch-and-catch between he and Andy Dalton.
This was the only reception Allen would allow for the rest of the game. In several other instances, Allen was able to win at the line of scrimmage, alter the receiver's route and shut down his coverage responsibility.
Working against Mohamed Sanu, Allen gets his hands on him right at the release off the line of scrimmage. His feet are square, controlling the receiver and re-directing his route toward the sideline.
There is a completion made to Green, but Allen does his job of shutting Sanu down. What is most impressive (and promising) is how Allen is able to flip his hips, pinning Sanu to the sideline with his head turned to the ball.
Allen's play was not reflected on the stat sheet, but it reveals plenty about his potential as a cornerback. Already he is exuding advanced press-coverage skills on faster, more explosive wide receivers.
We know Allen plays as physically as any corner on the team, but how he handles playing in off-man coverage is a much bigger question mark.
Smartly, Allen did not expose himself in this situation often during the game, though he was rather successful when he did. Here, he is lined up in off-man coverage, playing inside technique to force the outside throw—much different than lining up in press-man coverage.
The camera does not show exactly how Allen looked in coverage, but quarterback Matt Scott looked directly in Allen's direction for several seconds without pulling the trigger—under quality pass protection.
In other words, Allen forced a coverage sack.
Perhaps a more threatening play call or a more talented quarterback would have challenged Allen, but this is still an encouraging sign for a player that has a relatively small amount of experience playing in this position.
What has been the biggest vice in Allen's game continues to be zone coverage. As much as Allen has developed in his man coverage abilities, he continues to operate in zone coverage like a fish out of water.
Is is safe to assume that the Jets are in a Cover 2 on this play, based on where the gap is between the Allen and the safety (Calvin Pryor). Pryor is able to make a tremendous hit to cause the interception and the throw is placed well between the two players, but Allen is simply too far away from the play.
Instead of following and "passing off" the receiver, Allen looks lost and gives a five-yard cushion for the receiver to run to. Had it not have been for Pryor's hit, this would have been an easy completion for Scott.
Allen makes good initial contact, but he cannot maintain his balance long enough to turn and run with the receiver. Physicality has never been an issue for Allen, but learning how to "pass" receivers between zones may end up being an issue for him in the long term if he stays over at cornerback.
At safety, Allen certainly has to play in zone coverage, but he is not asked to pass receivers off to players behind him. This is a learnable skill, but there could be some growing pains in the future.
One half of preseason football is not nearly enough to make a full evaluation of a player, but considering how little experience he had at cornerback prior to this game and the caliber of competition he went against, the prognosis for Allen's future looks positive.
Allen's specialization as a physical, press-man cover specialist has translated from his days covering tight ends, as Ryan likely anticipated. Most promising of all is how he is already picking up some of the nuances of playing on the perimeter, such as flipping his hips and pinning his receiver to the sideline.
Zone coverage continues to be an expected hiccup in Allen's game. While a learnable skill, the intuition of when to "pass" receivers off to players behind him will only come with experience.
As long as the Jets are willing to live with a few hiccups now and then, Allen has a realistic chance to make a living as an NFL cornerback. As bleak as the Jets' cornerback situation looks now, getting a young, up-and-coming solution at the position unexpectedly would be a welcome byproduct of these otherwise lean times.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).