For anyone who read Bucky Brooks’ piece on the potential of the Rams defense under new coordinator Gregg Williams, you’ll recall that he addresses his excitement for safety T.J. McDonald to emerge as a force in the St. Louis secondary (If you haven’t yet read it, give it a look over at NFL.com).
The analysis is thorough and overwhelmingly positive, and as refreshing as it was to read, Brooks left out how Williams’ hiring will affect the team’s incumbent young starters at cornerback, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson.
The easy answer is that – even with a switch in schemes and a potential upswing of defensive aggression – they’re bound to continue their progression under the tutelage of a mind as widely respected as Williams. It can be argued that the soft coverage employed by former defensive coordinator Tim Walton limited the impact that either player could make on the game, in regards to the receptions and yards it allows opposing receivers to rack up underneath. Neither player was spectacular in 2013, so any improvements made in the upcoming season will rely on a few key areas being shored up. The most major area is also the most fundamental: tackling.
For whatever reason, Johnson was one of the most run-against corners in the league last season in relation to the amount of time he was on the field. According to Pro Football Focus, stopping the run was his responsibility 3.2 percent of the time last season, which was good for 3rd most among corners who played 60 percent of their team’s snaps against the run. As a result, his 18 tackles were good for fifth among all cornerbacks, but his five missed tackles were also among the leaders in the category. If nothing else, combining the experience Johnson gained against the run combined with some added insight and creativity from Williams should translate into an improved performance.
Jenkins played 90 more snaps against the run than Johnson, but the play was only his to make on 1.7 percent of those occasions. He accounted for 14 tackles of his own. Neither player was incredibly efficient in their tackling, however, either against the run or the pass. To borrow another metric from PFF, the tackling efficiency of both players were near the very bottom of the league. The tackling efficiency metric results in the amount of attempted tackles made per every tackle missed. Of the 69 corners that played at least 60 percent of their teams’ snaps, Jenkins and Johnson ranked 52 and 59 respectively. Jenkins registered 6.8 tackles per every one miss, and Johnson came in at 5.7. For some context, the league leader in the category was New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis, who produced a 26.0. Johnson’s 15 missed tackles really hurt him here. If Williams is going to dial up the aggression and gamble a bit more than Walton did in 2013, more of those plays will have to be made, or big plays may ensue.
Obviously coverage skills will be a major emphasis as well as the team begins OTAs, but I won’t use last season’s metrics to try to predict either player’s 2014 performance in this area. For what it’s worth, Jenkins gave up a miserable 115.3 rating to opposing quarterbacks last season as well as seven touchdowns, but Williams brings an entirely different scheme to the table and will hopefully be more adept than Walton at keeping both Jenkins and Johnson out of bad situations. The tackling aspect, however, is something that has to be strong no matter the system.
With all that said, Jenkins and Johnson should be among the main benefactors of what will very likely be a ferocious pass rush in 2014. The addition of Aaron Donald in the draft’s first round combined with the edge speed of Robert Quinn and tactical acumen of Chris Long should force opposing quarterbacks into more than a few hasty decisions and poorly placed throws. If they can simply improve on making the plays that come their way, I see no reason why Jenkins and Johnson can’t enjoy fine 2014 seasons.