Arguably the most hotly contested training camp/preseason battle of 2014 for the New Orleans Saints will be the for the number two corner back position. In a league where the passing game is king, shutting down the passing game can be a phenomenal ace in the hole. The Saints have at least three average to really good safeties in Rafael Bush, Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd. Add in Pierre Warren making plays in camp, and they seem all but set there. Keenan Lewis obviously has the number one corner spot locked up, having had a breakout game against the Eagles in last year’s playoff appearance.
Robinson, a 2010 first round pick, has not lived up to his status. Despite being quick and generally athletic, he is yet to display the physicality that is sought after in the NFL. This is also a big part of the reason for his atrocious 2012 numbers (although, to be fair, those awful 2012 numbers were certainly a team effort). Then defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo attempted to run a 4-3 physical defense with a team that, to be frank, didn’t have the personnel to do so. Robinson stopped 25 of 66 passes thrown his way in 2012, a rate of 38%. He defended 9 of those passes. Worth noting is that in Gregg Willliams’s blitz heavy scheme in 2011, Robinson played a bit better (though the sample size is slightly smaller), breaking up 25 of 53 balls (47%) and defending 13 of them.
In Rob Ryan’s scheme, Robinson saw less than two games before injuring his patella tendon against Tampa Bay. He would miss the remainder of the 2013 season. Robinson garnered 4 interceptions in 2011 and 3 more in 2012, so he can make plays. The real key is putting himself in positions to make these plays. Robinson has played under three different defensive coordinators in New Orleans, all within three years of each other. Experiencing that much turnover at the coaching level with less turnover throughout the rest of the team can place a real strain on the learning curve for a young cornerback. At least in a new uniform, there are players that can help to ease the transition. But when the entire defense is going through the same indoctrination, it’s very difficult to adjust as an individual, let alone as a unit.
2011, of course, marked the last year of the Gregg Williams era. It also marked Robinson’s first time getting significant roles in the Saints defense, after spending much of 2010 as a nickel package type player, almost exclusively situational. Williams was infamously known for getting pressure on quarterbacks and making it so that the secondary, while not having a lot of help at the next level, wasn’t forced to hold their coverage for very long. Robinson was either lining up frequently in the nickel or, on occasion, spelling Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer as needed.
This film is from 2011, so please excuse the quality, I’m highlighting what matters the best that I can. The Saints stack 8 guys in the box and have their free safety lined up about 20 yards off of the line of scrimmage. What this means for the outside corners is that they’re going to be matched up 1v1 with their man at the snap. In this case, Robinson matches up against Steve Smith at the top of the still.
The Saints bring pressure on Cam Newton on this play. Right at the snap, Smith shifts his hips inside. Robinson, however, keeps his hips squared to the receiver. This is incredible technique on Robinson’s part, and why that is will be apparent in a moment.
This play is, in essence, a zig-wheel route. Notice how Robinson has now opened his hips so that he remains inside of Smith on the play. Smith isn’t the most incredible athlete, he’s just an extremely physical player, thus making him significantly more difficult to cover. Robinson is at least on par with Smith athletically, so beating him on a wheel is extremely difficult.
This is at the moment of release. Robinson doesn’t even need to use his closing speed on this play. The black pixel is within two yards of the white pixel when the ball is thrown. This play is a one-read for Newton, and he overthrows Smith for a harmless incompletion.
What this play accentuates is how the Gregg Williams defense helped Robinson. Robinson isn’t physical and he hasn’t overwhelmingly strong. He is, however, athletic and very capable of staying on receivers. Hey may need to get bigger, but getting faster has never really been an issue. For this reason, asking him to stay on agile receivers for short periods of time really helped Robinson. He can be trusted for 2-4 second plays, such as this one. However, when forced into zone or extended man to man, Robinson’s limitations become far more apparent. He isn’t big and he isn’t the best read corner, hence his issues in the zone. Williams really did have a scheme made for a guy with Robinson’s skillset.
Robinson deserves some benefit of the doubt for this nightmare of a season, but not a whole lot. He was bad in the Spagnuolo defense, who somehow designed a scheme that generated minimal pressure yet still managed to leave corners on islands. This defense was historically bad, and the passing defense was a huge reason for it. Greer, Robinson, Harper and Jenkins all struggled mightily throughout the season, in addition to whomever was spelling them at the time.
Once again, Robinson faces off against a basic wheel route being run by Hakeem Nicks. Once again, he is in man to man coverage on the outside. This time, however, we see his lack of physicality hurt his chances of making a play.
At the snap, Robinson generates very little contact and fails to open his hips as Nicks breaks outside. Robinson instead shuffles laterally, giving Nicks a free release to the outside. For the rest of the play, Robinson finds himself playing catchup.
Once again, pardon my pixels. Robinson at the time of throw is only a step back of Nicks, but he has not yet turned his head towards the ball. Robinson instead elects to put his hands out and takes Nicks’s jersey, which draws a flag. The pass, however, is still completed.
At the moment of completion, Robinson has another flag thrown his way for faceguarding Nicks. At no point did he ever turn his head to make a play on the ball, thus giving the officials an easy call. While there is no excuse for Harper or Isa Abdul-Quddus to not be involved in this play, this is a foolish mistake on the part of Robinson as well, and an easily preventable one at that.
The way that this formation is set up really shows where the Saints thinks Robinson’s strength is. They line Greer up a good 5 yards off the receiver, whereas Robinson is in bump & run against Jordy Nelson, another physical player. The Saints tried to disrupt Nelson throughout this game, to varying degrees of success.
This is where guys like Robinson get in trouble. At the snap, Nelson comes up off the line without any disruption. Robinson not only immediately backsteps, he hops with his hips still closed, thus limiting any lateral movement. The Saints are running a zone on this play, presumably a Cover 2 with Tampa 2 elements. This is the weakest part of Robinson’s game. He becomes so focused on his area, he forgets about players within his area.
At the peak of the play, Robinson now has his eyes completely downfield. Aaron Rodgers sees this, and begins a rollout. Nelson goes to the next step in his route tree, knowing that Rodgers has time and Robinson is, in essence, out of the play.
Using his speed, Robinson recovers on the initial route, but he overruns the curl. Rodgers hits Nelson on the back shoulder (a specialty of his), and completes the pass for 16 yards.
However, you can’t talk about the bad without addressing the good. Coming out of this play, Green Bay runs a hurry up offense in order to exploit the New Orleans package.
Robinson is at the top of the screen, again in zone as evidenced by the fact he’s giving Nelson the outside. Greer is playing off of his receiver again.
This time around, despite not initiating contact Robinson keeps his hip square and bounces laterally, rather than backwards, thus giving him more body control against Nelson.
Despite minimal space this is, generally speaking, more than enough room for a quarterback of Rodgers’s caliber to fit a throw in. Robinson is in recovery mode on the play after losing engagement with Nelson.
This play showcases the recovery speed and vertical ability that Robinson has. He catches up to Nelson and, on a minutely underthrown ball, elevates to snatch the throw away and give the Saints a turnover, a rare sight for the 2012 season.
Robinson wasn’t really targeted in 2013 before his injury, so there isn’t a lot to go off of. Ryan’s zone heavy defense don’t seem to be in his wheelhouse, which is worrisome, but if Ryan proved one thing in his first year coaching the New Orleans defense it’s that he was adaptable. Seeing Robinson in two very polarizing schemes, it would have been interesting to see how he adjusted to Ryan’s complex looks and shades. Perhaps the year off has helped him hone his IQ as a corner, but this may be a bit optimistic.
Robinson is certainly in the running to be the #2, but with so little evidence of how he performed in the pertinent scheme, it’s hard to determine. He has a long way to climb, but this may be Robinson’s last chance to prove that he wasn’t a waste of a first round pick.