Earlier this week at a meeting with reporters, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan made headlines by saying that rookie safety Calvin Pryor "hasn't had the impact necessarily that all of us had expected."
Ryan acknowledged the fact that "our defense has been played a little differently than maybe we anticipated," but that doesn't necessarily excuse the fact that the rookie is being used in a way that limits his playmaking ability and has stunted his growth in the NFL.
Pryor, nicknamed the "Louisville Slugger" in college, is at his best playing the strong safety role in a defense. He has the speed and quickness to handle the coverage assignments of a strong safety, but most importantly he has the strength and closing speed to be an asset playing near the line of scrimmage against the run.
The image below shows Pryor lining up essentially as an extra linebacker in a 3rd-and-5 situation against Cincinnati last season. Ultimately, Pryor would drop back into zone coverage in the flat, but by playing him in the strong safety role, Louisville was able to use him as a threat at the line of scrimmage. This put Pryor in the position to make plays and helped the defense disguise blitzes.
Due the Jets' lack of faith in their cornerbacks, Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman have primarily been using Pryor as the deep free safety.
Here is a play from early in the Patriots game, which shows the typical positioning of Pryor before the snap:
On this particular play, Pryor is 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. From this position, Pryor's responsibility is to protect the defense from getting beaten over the top. And while he's done an adequate job in this assignment, the positioning completely removes him from the majority of the plays and opens things up over the middle for opponents who can consistently protect their quarterback.
Later in the game, on a 3rd-and-7 situation (image below), Pryor is playing his free safety position. By dropping back 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, Pryor (circled in red) helps take away the potential deep pass to the receivers on the bottom of the screen. However, his deep positioning also leaves cornerback Darrin Walls (circled in yellow) alone in coverage on Rob Gronkowski.
As Gronkowski comes across the middle against man coverage from the 6'0", 190-pound Walls, it's a simple read for Tom Brady, and the Patriots pick up the first down with ease.
The Jets' decision to play Pryor as the deep safety puts him in a difficult position. They're essentially preparing for the worst-case scenario by protecting against the deep ball on almost every play.
Most teams challenge down the field on, at most, 20 percent of their pass attempts, which means Pryor is simply floating back there in the secondary and watching the shorter plays develop in front of him.
With limited opportunities per game, Pryor has struggled to quickly pick up the nuances of the position, which requires an elite ability to read the quarterback in order to succeed.
By taking a young player and asking him to line up out of position, the Jets have taken away Pryor's strengths and highlighted his weaknesses in coverage. It has been a tough year for Pryor, but it's unrealistic to expect much more given the position the coaching staff continues to put him in on a weekly basis.