It’s easy to be disappointed in Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback Morris Claiborne. And I get it. The Cowboys spent (essentially) a high first and second round pick on him and he has failed to live up to expectations. In two seasons, he has only two interceptions and has missed seven games due to multiple injuries. And when he has played, he hasn’t looked like the 6th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. It is easy for fans to call him a bust when they see what other players in the same draft have produced at the NFL level.
But I re-watched Claiborne this week and I actually came away very encouraged. I saw a lot of progress from him. It seems that he was starting to “get it”. Claiborne struggled with the transition from a 3-4 attacking defense under Rob Ryan to a Monte Kiffin 4-3. And the hardest thing for Morris Claiborne was hand technique in space. Below is a play from week one in which Claiborne played sloppy technique against Hakeem Nicks. I apologize for the far away camera view, but you can’t get a true feel at how good or bad a corner is playing unless you watch the All-22 camera angle and see what his responsibilities are. Let’s take a look:
Claiborne was suppose to force Nicks to the middle by playing “outside” technique. This is something we saw often in 2013 under Kiffin. The linebackers and safeties are asked to fill the middle throwing lanes, while the corners protect the numbers.
But Claiborne gave Nicks a free release off the line of scrimmage and never challenged the receiver or the catch. And that was his biggest mistake. Claiborne doesn’t need to stop Nicks in his tracks, but he needs to slow him down and disrupt his timing with the quarterback.
Now this is an extreme example, but take a look at how Richard Sherman is able to slow down Steve Smith with press-bail technique:
Remember back in the offseason when Monte Kiffin talked about how he wants his defense to resemble the Seattle Seahawks defense? We didn’t see much of that in 2013, except for a few things that did change late in the year. When Claiborne came back from his injury, I saw a technique that the Seattle defensive backs have perfected. Take a look:
This is essentially the same route that Hakeem Nicks ran in the first play I outlined, except for the fact that Riley Cooper in this picture lines up closer to the line of scrimmage. But it is the same concept. Claiborne needs to force Cooper to the middle of the field and again, he will have to cover Cooper by himself because the play action sucked the linebackers in.
But take notice of how Morris Claiborne is using his hands. He is pushing and pulling the receiver during the whole route. Yet, his hands are never outside the framework of his body and is actually challenging the referees to call defensive holding. Because Claiborne is as close to the defender as possible, Foles decides to look elsewhere. Referees typically won’t throw a flag on this if the ball isn’t thrown Claiborne’s way. And this mindset is what helped Seattle all year. A few defensive holdings a game won’t kill them. But a 50 yard catch and run might. They would take those penalties all day long to ensure that no big plays are happening against them.
A Tampa-Two defense is a tough transition for corners and especially so for corners who are only used to playing man-to-man coverage. But Claiborne surprised me at the end of the year. I really liked what I saw in his last few games of the season. He has the size, speed and ball skills to thrive in this system, despite never playing in it before. With another offseason in the program and hopefully a fully healed shoulder, I expect Morris Claiborne to shut up a lot of his doubters.