Wow. Many surprises in Wk 1. @SBNation: on your team, who is now facing the pressure to perform? ... http://t.co/fez0V7D33a— Marshall Faulk (@marshallfaulk) September 10, 2014
The Saints have Super Bowl aspirations this season, and after a Week 1 loss in which their defense was absolutely ravaged by Matt Ryan and the Falcons to the tune of 448 yards through the air, there is a lot of pressure resting on their defense's shoulders. In particular, Patrick Robinson has got to step his game, lest he lose his starting job on the outside.
Sean Payton has shown a lot of faith in Robinson in the past, but at no point has Robinson lived up to his first round hype. He is rapidly approaching Jason David levels of discontent among the New Orleans Saints fanbase, and it is becoming harder and harder to defend him week in and week out. The Falcons threw the ball at will all game, but the fact that Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan (who I almost wrote this article on, but decided to make the parameters players that are actually on the field) feels the need to scheme his entire defense around one weak link is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
Now, I'm not going to pretend that being isolated 1v1 with Julio Jones is an easy task for anyone. The worrisome thing about this play is just how thoroughly burned Robinson was on this play. It's nothing but a simple post route into the middle of the field, on straight up man to man coverage. One thing that Robinson is always lauded for is his atheticism and his closing speed which, unfortunately, people have a good sample size of seeing.
Which might explain the 8 yard cushion that Robinson gives Jones pre-snap. It's entirely possible that this was the Saints' secondary's mentality coming into this game, due to the misguided belief that the Falcons wouldn't be able to attack their soft downfield zones, but there's no reason that Robinson should be giving Jones an 8 yard cushion coming into this play. It's been well documented that Robinson doesn't keep up in zones well, but when you're asking him to play pure man to man, you're relying on him to be athletic enough to make a play.
When Jones is 8 yards downfield to Robinson's starting point, Robinson has backpedaled 8 yards himself in an attempt to keep the play in front of him. In other words, Jones is running his route entirely unhindered, with 0 safety help over the top due the effective use of the spread from the Falcons. In fact, as Robinson is backpedaling, Ryan is looking towards the right side of the field, forcing Rafael Bush and Jairus Byrd to attack the strong side of the formation.
This is where it gets really bad. Once Jones breaks inside, Robinson is literally turned around by the play. He is now facing the back of his own end-zone, whereas Jones is turning upfield in an area with absolutely no safety support whatsoever.
Here's a better angle of the play. Robinson is forced to adjust his entire body from a backpedal on the fly, and this forces him to turn upfield. At this point, he is no longer a corner, but rather a safety doing everything he can to prevent 6 (which he does, for what it's worth). As a corner, one of the first things that you learn is that unless your receiver is behind you, you don't turn your back to the quarterback. Ever. There is no point of reference, and Robinson finds himself left in no-man's-land in an already dangerous situation.
Every pass to Robinson's man in this game was completed but one. That's 8 for 9. The question now becomes: How much of this falls on scheme, and how much falls on the individual? Keenan Lewis didn't look amazing. The entire gameplan was actually a bizarre thing, because it involved cushions like the one above, isolating Lewis on Roddy White and putting Robinson on Jones with extra safety help, a part of the strategy that was mitigated due to a great deal of targets to Jones coming on screens.
In each of the four stills above, the common denominator is Jones lining up on the left side of the formation, while Robinson plays 8 yards off of him pre-snap. Four of Jones's seven targets came on routes under 5 yards, and three of those were screen plays (all of which he got more than 10 yards one, barring one, in which he was being covered by Corey White).
There is a key difference between respecting your opponent and disrespecting your own personnel, and Ryan wined and dined that line all day on Sunday. Consistently lining a corner as athletic as Robinson 8 yards off of Jones, then asking him to drop back into a deep zone instinctively at snap, completely negates the point of having that corner in the first place. If you trust your corner that little, then he shouldn't be on the field. The Saints' secondary played well last year due to discipline and confidence, two things that they displayed exactly 0 of on Sunday, whether it came from the players on the field or the coach in how he used them.
Next week, Ryan cannot get so cute with his gameplan. He needs to trust his players more than he trusted them on Sunday, and in that context, Robinson has to step it up. The second cornerback position is a serious point of concern for the Saints right now, because it literally brought the entire secondary down. Lewis was less than impressive, largely because the Saints cleared out the right side of the field for him all game. The Falcons receiving corps is entirely too talented to be beaten the way that the Saints tried to beat them on Sunday.
Calling for Robinson's head now, at this very moment, is harsh. It's his first game back from a serious injury in a very complicated scheme, and I understand that. But this isn't new. Robinson has never thrived in zone coverage, and the fact that the entire playbook has to cater to a weak link on the defense is a problem. Robinson will have to prove that he can step up and make some plays on his own (hopefully against legitimate number two receivers and not Julio Jones of all people), and it has to start in this upcoming week against Cleveland, a game in which he will likely be pitted against either Miles Austin or Andrew Hawkins (likely the latter). If he doesn't show any sign of improving, it would be entirely justified to at least explore alternative options.
Worth noting is that White actually had quite a good game from the nickel corner position. I doubt a lot of people have forgotten his atrocious performance against Darius Johnson of the Falcons last season, but he worked well in the slot on Sunday. Perhaps his skill set is more suited to the slot, but if Robinson's poor play continues the Saints may need to go down that road one more time.
This play is a rare example of a Saints corner being physical and in a Falcon receiver's face. Harry Douglas is going to run a simple zag route out of the slot. White is about 3 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap.
Douglas takes two bold hop steps off the line, but White stands his ground. This is incredibly important. If he backpedals, then Douglas gets a clean break into his route. However, White is exactly where he was when the play started, so he is now able to effectively react to Douglas, who is now directly in his face.
Douglas goes into his break, and White is now in simple man to man trail coverage, in which he allows the underneath throw, but trails Douglas all the way along the route, ensuring that he isn't able to turn upfield.
White can now react to the ball instead of the receiver. He is eyeing Ryan in the backfield just as Douglas breaks into his out, and he doesn't allow Douglas to get upfield. This play would end up going for only 3 yards, due to an excellent job of reading & reacting to receiver cues on the part of White.
White didn't play a great game, by any means, no one in the secondary did. He was, however, more aggressive than he's been in the past, particularly from the slot position. As I've said previously, it's possible that this doesn't mean anything except that he is better suited to cover slot receivers, and that's fine. Chris Harris Jr. and Earl Boykin literally make a living off of doing so. However, the Saints have a major issue at CB2 that has to be addressed, because there is too much talent at the safety position to waste covering only one side of the field.
Robinson has to perform on Sunday and onward, plain and simple. This is his last year under his rookie contract as a Saint, and he has come nowhere near expectations. Every year there is an excuse. In 2010 & 2011 he was raw. In 2012 Spagnuolo happened. In 2013 he, of course, missed the entire season due to injury (okay, that one is valid). However, it's 2014, and the Saints are a year removed from being the 2nd ranked pass defense in the league at 194 YPG. Whether or not that number is a bit inflated (or maybe deflated?), it doesn't just happen. Something has to give. Right now, they're dead last in total defense and passing yards allowed (surprising no one).
It's frustrating, because the talent is definitely there. The game on Sunday is hard to pin on any one player, but the worrisome thing is how bad Robinson's technique looked at times. Ryan had a bad scheme and did not adapt well to game action at all. However, at the end of the day, he has to trust his personnel, and his personnel has to earn his trust. Robinson may not have done so yet. He'll need to have a solid game on Sunday to work his way upward. Robinson is going to have to go one week at a time, but the P-Rob experiment could be over awfully quick if the Browns have a big game through the air, and the Saints may go with someone that they don't feel the need to give so much help to.
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