I would be lying if I said that I had paid that much attention to South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger – or anyone besides linebackers and defensive ends for that matter – during the pre-draft process. I knew who he was and that he was very, very talented, but most of my impressions on his play came from seeing him flash all over the field while studying (teammate and fellow draft prospect) DeVonte Holloman for my linebacker binder. I never really got to sit down and dissect every delicious detail of all his games, but after Swearinger officially became a Houston Texan I felt compelled to check out one of the newest Bulls on Parade in action.
The most immediate thing you notice when putting on tape of D.J. Swearinger is just how much he loves absolutely obliterating ball carriers. Whether it is a running back cutting up field or a receiver coming across the middle, there is a toll to pay if you want to come into this man’s territory. I, of course, wish more of Swearinger’s highlight reel hits were form tackles rather than shoulder shots (and I should say that the vast majority of his tackles were textbook wrap-ups), but his devastating collisions were so entertaining that it was tough not to smile while watching them. I am sure new teammate DeAndre Hopkins vividly remembers his front row seat to what happens when you try to hit the second level in D.J.’s house.
And of course who could forget this gem.
Swearinger is more than just a "destroy people from a 20-yard dead sprint" kind of hitter though, as he showed superb understanding of gap concepts and play recognition from a traditional box safety position. Playing between 200-210 pounds, this former Gamecock is not exactly about to break the laws of physics by stacking and shedding on guards, but he showed excellent quickness and spatial awareness to avoid blockers and float through traffic to the ball carrier. I dare say his ability to diagnose and react to the run game is even superior to former standout safety Glover Quin, who despite being famous for his big hits had a propensity to get swallowed up against the run game at times when asked to play near the line of scrimmage.
That is not all, though. As an enforcer through and through, Swearinger brings the kind of every-down physicality that you love to see in a strong safety, especially when setting the edge against the run and forcing plays back inside.
Swearinger’s incredibly high football IQ and leadership showed in his ability to call coverages and direct his teammates on the field. Whether it was making quick, calculated checks against motioned receivers or setting an example for fellow defensive backs in the weight room with his insatiable work ethic, Jungle Boi was the heart and soul of a South Carolina secondary that allowed less than 200 passing yards per game. As a four-year starter, Swearinger played all over the field from game to game, or even snap to snap. South Carolina lined him up as a single high safety, a box defender, and even as a slot corner in certain looks. That kind of functional versatility, even in a conference that prides itself on versatile defensive talent, is incredibly rare.
All of that being said, there is a lot of work to be done before D.J. Swearinger can reach his full potential. For starters, defensive backs coach Vance Joseph needs to drill the hell out of him to replace his shuffle technique with a back pedal when in man-to-man coverage. He could also stand to get some longer spikes while he's at it.
There is a growing epidemic in college football, largely attributed to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, where corners in off-man coverage are not asked to back pedal, but rather to play what is called the "three-step shuffle" technique. Saban did not invent the technique, per se, but he taught it during his days in Cleveland to great success and brought it down to the college level where he could use it to help slower cornerbacks become much better defenders of the deep ball. As Saban had more and more success (and produced higher draft picks), more and more college teams started implementing the shuffle technique with their "slower" corners (or as they are called in the NFL, safeties) to mask their deficiencies and improve their overall pass defense. In the NFL, where even the worst DBs are great college players, the shuffle technique is not only useless, but almost a liability.
That uselessness is the main reason why I find it kind of funny that Alabama corners are considered so "pro-ready" despite being taught a technique that not a lot of NFL teams use that much, if ever. Case in point: Kareem Jackson, whose early struggles were in large part due to having to learn an entirely new way to play the cornerback position because he was not used to playing the deep ball without the shuffle technique. I would wager a big portion of those 50-60 yard bombs that Ice Kareem gave up early in his career were in large part because he was asked to pedal and flip against NFL receivers right out of the gate without having a single clue what the hell he was doing. Given the circumstances, I cannot really blame him for struggling as much as he did. Jackson’s improvement over the last three years is heavily tied to finally getting the backpedal ingrained into his muscle memory enough for him to concentrate on the rest of his game, and a lot of credit for that muscle memory rewiring should go to Vance Joseph. Without him, I am not sure Jackson would have ever been able to get out of the hole that Nick Saban’s coaching dug for him.
Now, with that out of the way, what exactly is the shuffle technique? Well, to put it simply, the shuffle technique is when the cornerback opens his hips 90 degrees in one direction (parallel to the line of scrimmage) and shuffles "sideways" three times down field rather than backpedaling downfield. With the DB's hips opened up already halfway, turning and running with the deep route is much quicker, and slower defenders won’t get burned as quickly or as often by speedy receivers that get a free release. If the corner’s hips are opened towards the inside of the field, the defender will also be in a great position, while shuffling, to read the quarterback’s drop to gauge the distance of the throw and to read his run keys in the back field. After the corner shuffles three times, and if he sees the quarterback dropping back further than three steps, the DB turns and checks on the receiver that is eating up the cushion. If the receiver is continuing to run a deep route, the corner is already in a good position to immediately turn and go. If the receiver breaks inside, outside, or back upfield, the corner plants his foot and breaks on the route.
You can see Swearinger (the first yellow circle) using the shuffle technique to open himself up to run with a deep route in the GIF below.
In the shuffle technique, the corner will either be a yard inside or a yard outside of the receiver’s center mass, depending on the coverage that is called. Typically inside alignment is a tip-off for man coverage while outside alignment is a tip-off for zone, though many zone defenses have the corners line up in a press alignment and "bail" out of it (known as press bail) off the snap to disguise their coverages. From the man alignment inside, the DB shuffles, reads his run/pass keys, and then basically does whatever he can to stop the deep ball. In theory this all sounds fine and dandy, but in the NFL there are several major flaws.
For starters, NFL offenses have so many option routes built into their systems that any man coverage that is not up in the receiver’s grill is eaten alive. Press bail is used in zone concepts for sure, but giving a receiver a free release from the line of scrimmage from a tight alignment is a death sentence for all but the best defensive backs.
Secondly, if a defensive back if shuffling from an inside position (with his hips opened to the inside) to track the quarterback and his run keys, how is he supposed to watch the receiver’s route behind him? With no jam on the line and no eyes on the path of the receiver, NFL-caliber wideouts would go to town on any corner caught trying to use this technique. Heck, even if the cornerback opened his hips to the outside to watch the receiver while shuffling, that still doesn't solve the problem of double moves back inside and that corner being completely oblivious to run keys with his back turned towards the play.
Thirdly, if the DB adjusted to an outside technique, while still in man coverage, so he could keep an eye on his man in his peripheral vision, that violates the number one rule of man coverage – keep inside leverage at all times. Receivers would simply break inside of his position on every single snap and take free yards over the middle. The only time the shuffle technique should really be used at the NFL level is in zone coverage, where everything gets funneled to the middle anyway, but that is about it. Considering that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips likes to man up on receivers across the board the majority of the time, I can think of zero reasons why any Texans defensive back should ever be using this technique.
Swearinger is lined up one yard inside of Reed, which is a tip-off that the middle of the field is his primary domain. Any NFL quarterback worth his salt would immediately read that positioning as a built-in coverage against the typical hot-route (quick slant) and an interior blitz, which South Carolina did indeed call, and start making checks against it. Off the snap, Swearinger is checking his run/pass keys on the line while dropping his outside foot and beginning his shuffle deep. Knowing that Swearinger is taught the slide shuffle technique from an off-man position through basic film study, an NFL offense would immediately throw either a double move to get him to bite deep before cutting back inside into the void or run a speed out that, while in the direction of his open hips, would still be far too fast for anyone positioned that far off to full on plant, t-step, and close on the route in time without some form of telepathy or superhuman speed. Fortunately for Swearinger, Florida is not an NFL offense and let Reed run another deep route, which Swearinger was well set up to cover from the get go. On the surface of this play everything looks fine and dandy, but there is a lot of work to be done between now and September to get ready for the real Aaron Hernandez that will not hesitate to break on any option route he is given for free.
Lucky for Vance Joseph, South Carolina is not Alabama and D.J. Swearinger frequently used both the shuffle technique and the traditional backpedal during his college days. Generally, when lined up near the line of scrimmage in off-coverage as a quasi-corner, Swearinger would use the shuffle technique to off-set his speed disadvantage against wide receivers, but while playing free safety in single-high looks Swearinger usually pedaled to get deep so as not to turn his back on any receivers on either side of the field. Again, his versatility is proving more and more useful. Swearinger will still obviously have work to do to get used to pedaling in man coverage at the line of scrimmage, but the fact that the basic mechanics are already there should make the transition much, much easier on Swearinger than it was on Jackson. I cannot promise all the kinks will get worked out by the time the season opener rolls around, but I do not think Texans fans are in store for any sort of traumatic growing pains like we are so used to seeing from our young DBs. At worst we have to endure a couple big completions on corner-posts from a tight end, and at best it never becomes an issue and we forget all about it. I guess we will see what happens.
Random note: I did see Swearinger using the shuffle technique in man coverage in one of the Rookie Mini-Camp highlight videos. I suppose they haven’t gotten around to the drastic changes yet.
Another area that Swearinger could use a bit more refinement is press-man coverage. He won’t have to line up that close to a receiver very often, but, when offenses are down in the red zone and receivers have to be clamped down on hard at the line of scrimmage, it pays to have a safety that can jam a tight end off the snap and disrupt would-be touchdowns off of timing routes. The following GIF is against Arkansas with Swearinger lined up in a press look a few yards away from the end zone.
Obviously Swearinger’s man beat him cleanly, but let’s examine why he beat him cleanly. For starters, Swearinger didn’t actually get a hand on his receiver despite lining up in a press look. Down in the red zone this is a huge no-no. Considering some of the most successful red zone pass routes inside the five-yard line are timing routes like slants and fades, there is no reason why Swearinger should not be absolutely mauling that receiver off the snap to screw up the schedule of the play. If nothing else he could at least delay the throw long enough to force a pump or an extra look off from the quarterback and give the pass rush that extra half second to get the sack. It is one thing to play the "catch" technique from three or four yards off and try to match the receiver’s footwork, but when you are on the line of scrimmage with your back up against the end zone there is only one option – punch that receiver in his freakin’ face.
Beyond not playing press, Swearinger also bit too hard on the outside jab step and had poor footwork to recover. If you pay close attention you can see Swearinger’s inside foot reset to an even plane with his outside foot after he realizes the receiver’s outside jab step was a fake. From there he tries to mirror the inside release by pivoting on that same inside foot while simultaneously trying to use it to generate power when changing direction, which is not only incredibly difficult from a physiological standpoint (as evidenced by his stumble) but is also a huge inertia killer when trying to maintain momentum in a different direction.
The proper technique here would have been to sink that inside foot another 12-18 inches backwards, effectively forcing his hips to unlock towards the receiver’s inside release and allowing him to pivot at a better angle. Dropping his pivot point further back would also then allow him to swing his right leg over with greater force, thus limiting the need to try to use that left leg to both turn and push off at the same time. With a smoother pivot and less wasted inertia, Swearinger probably could have maintained tighter coverage and shut down that option on the outside. When you hear the term "tight hips" for a defensive back, often it is referring to problems displayed right here where flexibility limits footwork, which then limits the overall potential of a prospect. Loose hips and precise feet are sometimes the difference between winning and losing, and Swearinger was very, very lucky that Tyler Wilson did not call his number on this particular play. Now, that is not to say that I believe Swearinger has "tight hips," as he displayed excellent flexibility and footwork in other areas of his tape, but consistency in these fundamentals is definitely a concern of mine. I look forward to seeing what Vance Joseph does with his new project.
If there were one guy that could step into the jack-of-all-trades role of Glover Quin, it would be D.J. Swearinger. He is extremely well-versed in the game of football, has all the athleticism you look for, has a relentless work ethic, and dishes out beatings to offensive skill players week in and week out. When you throw in his experience at multiple positions in the secondary, leadership, and a pretty sick mixtape to boot, I would say Rick Smith might have just struck gold…again.