Easily the most intriguing storyline heading into Saturday’s preseason game against the Bengals is the Jets’ proposed usage of third-year safety Antonio Allen at the cornerback position. Injuries have forced the Jets to work with some different combinations over the last few weeks with Allen and veteran Ellis Lankster starting at cornerback with the first unit over the past three days of practice.
In an article with the Star Ledger earlier this week, Allen’s college position coach praised his versatility and man-coverage skills, but was dubious about his chances of developing into a full-time cornerback. Even Allen himself seemed skeptical. However, it does look like he’ll get his chance to get some reps at the position Saturday night.
After the jump, some theories as to what the Jets might be thinking here and what this could mean for the defense once Dee Milliner and Dimitri Patterson can return from injury.
As a rookie, Allen didn’t play much, with one of his appearances being a rough game in New England where Tom Brady picked on him three straight times on the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter. However, last year he won a starting job in camp and really won Jets fans over with his performance against the Patriots in October. Allen matched up with Rob Gronkowski several times in man coverage, breaking up two passes and returning an interception for a crucial touchdown. While Gronkowski got the better of him a few times, he held him to five catches on 13 targets overall, a more than credible effort and a tantalizing glimpse into his potential.
Over the course of the season, Allen had his ups and downs, but most of his best moments came when employed in man-coverage. That fits in with the comments of his position coach in the article linked above. All told, Allen was lined up opposite a receiver in the slot on 170 snaps, including over 40% of the time on pass plays.
So, Allen has in fact essentially had some experience in a cornerback role already. However, using him on the outside is something new. Allen did line up on the outside 16 times last year, but most of these would have been following a back or tight end who motioned out there.
Come in number 39
Entering the 2012 draft, one of the reasons Allen slid all the way to the 7th round was that nobody was too sure what his NFL position would be. He played a role called the “Spur” at South Carolina, which is best described as a hybrid linebacker/safety role. Rex Ryan noted last week that Allen’s pro day was really poor as he sought to make the transition to defensive back. Surely Allen is too big and slow to play the cornerback position?
It’s a copy-cat league and the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks may be pioneering an evolution in NFL secondary play with the size and versatility of their defensive backfield. I’ve already written about how the Jets have taken many of the same traits as the Seahawks on board, perhaps influenced by the fact that General Manager John Idzik came from there. Could this – whether “this” is using Allen situationally or full-time as a corner – be another example of trying to incorporate some of the things that have made the Seahawks successful into the Jets organization?
While he missed out on the Seahawks playoff success due to a suspension, there was one player on their roster whose measurables compare pretty closely to Allen, perhaps signifying that converting him into a cornerback of similar repute is not totally out of the question. Brandon Browner is a pro bowler who just happens to wear the same number 39 that Allen does. Let’s compare combine measurements:
Height: Allen 6’1½” … Browner 6’3½”
Weight: Allen 210 … Browner 221
40 yard dash: Allen 4.58 … Browner 4.63
20 yard split: Allen 2.56 … Browner 2.70
10 yard split: Allen 1.61 … Browner 1.67
Bench press reps: Allen 17 … Browner 13
Vertical jump: Allen 34 … Browner 36½
Broad jump: Allen 118 … Browner 123
Short shuttle: Allen 4.25 … Browner 4.24
Three cone drill: Allen 7.02 … Browner 7.20
So, in terms of their athletic profile, Allen and Browner are not too far apart. In addition, Allen’s first two seasons in the league have seen him gain experience as a starting safety and lining up in the slot, whereas Browner’s career started with a broken arm that sidelined him for his entire rookie year and then having to cut his teeth in Canada when he was released in July the following season.
Browner does have the advantage of having played cornerback in college, but that still factored into him going undrafted despite being a projected third round pick because teams were dubious whether he fit at cornerback or safety at the NFL level, a similar dilemma to that which Allen faced. There’s also the question of how much of Browner’s development to an NFL-ready cornerback can be attributed to performance enhancing drugs, for which he has been punished by the league.
Scheming around the weaknesses
Adding further intrigue to the Browner-Allen comparison is the fact that Browner signed with New England in the offseason. Based on last week’s game, they’re employing Browner (who will miss the first four games of the season while he serves his suspension) as a conventional cornerback. However, when I was scouting Ras-I Dowling, I noticed something which might factor into their gameplanning now that they have Darrelle Revis on the team.
Last season, I was surprised at how often the Patriots employed their cornerbacks in press coverage. Aqib Talib in particular was left on an island, but you’d often find three Patriots corners all up at the line in passing situations. Obviously we can anticipate that Revis will be employed in cover-0 situations, enabling the Patriots to roll safety support over to their other cornerbacks. Their deep safety is, of course, a converted cornerback (Devin McCourty) who has the coverage skills to latch onto a receiver downfield. What I noticed with regard to Dowling in particular was that there were several occasions where he played up on the receiver and then if the receiver ran down the seam, he passed him off to the deep safety and transitioned to covering the underneath zone. That would allow him to be physical at the line, keep the short intermediates in front of him and potentially jump a route if the quarterback is fooled by the switch. That’s how I could see the Patriots employing Browner at times next year.
So, applying this to the Jets, maybe that’s something the Jets could do with someone like Allen at times. It might be one way to fix the issue of teams being able to get rid of the ball quickly but without making yourselves as susceptible to the long ball. It also takes away the pressure from a guy like Allen in having to run stride-for-stride with a speedy receiver. Of course, the key to this might be Calvin Pryor, who has the range to make such an approach work in theory, but will need to develop and learn his role really fast.
The immediate future
Since the Jets stuck with the Allen and Lankster pairing since they first experimented with it, I would expect those two to start on the outside Saturday night. While Rex Ryan was asked how he thought Allen might handle the assignment if he drew AJ Green, I would imagine that Lankster will initially draw this assignment or they’ll just play a side each and let that dictate who they cover. You might think the 5’9″ Lankster would be overmatched against the 6’4″ Green, but the Jets did put Lankster on Tony Gonzalez last season, so perhaps they are confident that he is physical enough to overcome that. As Rex said “if [you] can cover that kid, [you] can cover them all.” Lankster is a player who loves cover-0 and the challenge of matching up with top receivers, but it remains to be seen if that’s how they’ll employ him Saturday. Darrin Walls will probably see action on the outside too.
The Bengals are a team that doesn’t use a base offense very often, so the Jets will probably be in the nickel or dime most of the time anyway. As an example, during their playoff game against the Chargers last year, the Bengals had three or more receivers on 61 of 81 plays. Although one of those receivers was often tight end Jermaine Gresham lining up out wide or in the slot, they still had 30 plays with four or five receivers.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the Jets go into the nickel. Ordinarily, Kyle Wilson would enter the game to come in and play the slot. However, could this be dictated by matchups? If the speedster Marvin Jones goes out wide and the possession receiver Mohamed Sanu drops into the slot, perhaps Wilson would go to the outside. And what if Gresham is in the game? Does Allen match up with him? I’d have thought that would be the ideal match-up for him.
It’s not unheard of for one of the starting corners to come out of the game when the team goes into nickel packages either. One such team that does this? New England.
The team is being creative in terms of looking for solutions to the problems which blighted the secondary last season. In many respects, Saturday’s game is a good test, but by the time the season starts we can probably expect to see a more traditional alignment. That doesn’t mean Allen can’t continue to be employed in man-to-man coverage situations to make use of his skills in that area.
Even if Saturday’s experiment is an abject failure, that’s not the end of the world for the Jets defense, who know they have Walls and Wilson – two players who have held their own when used as starters on the outside in the past – waiting in the wings. With any luck, projected starters Milliner and Patterson will be available by opening day too.
As Rex noted, Allen is still ascending, adding “especially at the safety position” which is still where his future probably lies. However, within that role they can employ him in man coverage as they already did last season and, in that regard, Saturday’s experience will hopefully stand him in good stead.
I’m looking forward to this aspect of Saturday’s game and if this makeshift secondary can hold its own better than the starters did in the blowout loss to the Bengals last season, that might add a couple more viable options for the Jets to lean on once they have a full complement of defensive backs available again.