Somewhere between the Texans getting blown out in Week One of the preseason and Josh Johnson completing 82 percent of his passes as the starter in the fourth tune-up game, the Houston secondary became an alarmingly large concern going into 2014. Brandon Harris was an easy target, Johnathan Joseph was coming back from an injury, the safety position was far from solved, and Kareem Jackson was about to take over slot cornerback duty for the first time in his career.
Four regular season games later, Brandon Harris is no longer on the team, Joseph is finally healthy-ish, D.J. Swearinger is forcing fumbles like it’s going out of style, Kendrick Lewis has performed well enough to not be noticeable, and Kareem Jackson is asserting himself as the Texans’ best defensive back. Even the team’s nickel cornerback, A.J. Bouye, has been worthy of being excited about. However, with all of the unanticipated success of Romeo Crennel’s secondary through the few weeks of the season, perhaps the best surprise came from the replacement for the aforementioned Brandon Harris – both in position and jersey number – Darryl Morris.
Before Week Three’s bout with the New York Giants, I had never heard of Morris. Even during the game, I simply knew him as "the guy wearing #26 who wasn’t completely awful". After a dazzling performance against the Bills one week later, Darryl Morris made me learn his name. With Morris being an ex-San Francisco 49er, I asked David Fucillo of Niners Nation to give me a little background on what the Texans may have in their newest cornerback.
Morris was the fastest guy on the 49ers in 2013.
The team signed him as a UDFA and seemed to hide him for the most part in his rookie training camp. The 49ers signed Morris and Marcus Cooper as UDFAs. Both were cut at the end of 2013 training camp. Cooper was claimed by the Kansas City Chiefs, while Morris got through waivers. The 49ers signed him to their practice squad, but then activated him fairly early in the season to play special teams. He stood out as a gunner during that time. He got few cornerback opportunities, so, while he looked good at times in the preseason, the 49ers apparently did not see enough to justify a roster spot.
Apparently the Texans did see enough to justify a roster spot for the man who once took Nnamdi Asomugha’s job and claimed him off waivers immediately after the Niners cut him. As Fooch mentioned, speed is something that Morris has in abundance. At his 2013 pro day, Morris was reportedly clocked in the 4.2s to low 4.3s, which would put him among the top tier of sprinters not only in football, but in the entire world. That speed showed up time and time again versus the Bills. Combined with his quick feet and fluid hips, Morris showed exciting "click and close" ability to read, react, and impact receivers before they could do any damage.
Not only could Morris get to ball carries quickly, but he flashed great open field tackling ability when he got there. Whether he was taking down C.J. Spiller in the open field or shutting down a wide receiver screen, Morris’ form tackles on defense hinted at why he was so good on special teams for the 49ers. When he hits you, you feel it. For those doing the math at home, this is a skillset that lends itself very, very well to a Cover Two defense that utilizes mostly zone coverage. If you can play in space, read a quarterback’s eyes, close on ball carriers quickly, and tackle well, you can help this defense. Morris can do all of the above.
Where Morris did get into trouble last week, however, was when he was doing anything but playing in space. At times he was asked to play in either a "catch" technique a few yards off of his receiver or even line up in press, and he looked far less polished on those snaps. The dichotomy of Morris’ good traits and Morris’ bad traits was certainly noticeable on his first target of the game. E.J. Manuel read a single high safety and saw Morris isolated with Mike Williams outside. With no safety help and a one on one matchup, Manuel decided where to throw it before the ball was even snapped.
Morris kept up with Williams decently well during the release, but he made several critical errors during the route by (1) flipping his hips a hair too early, (2) not having his hand on Williams’ back to feel for a break in the route, and (3) not squeezing Williams towards the sideline to eliminate space for a fade. Morris showed plenty of speed to keep up with Williams stride for stride and eventually break up the pass, but on a better thrown ball – or literally any other route – this would have been a routine first down.
That was not the only time Morris looked less-than-stellar during catch or press coverage. Whether he was being ragdolled by Sammy Watkins, not squeezing the sideline on a fade once again, or being just plain boxed out on a slant for a touchdown, Morris showed that his 5’10", 188 pound frame is much more adept at closing from a distance rather than trying to outmuscle receivers face to face. Hell, one could argue that Morris plays the position more like a safety than a cornerback: read, react, close, take the ball. That is the exact mentality that lead to Morris’ game-winning interception late in the fourth quarter.
On first and ten with a little over a minute to go, Romeo Crennel is dialing up a six man rush (yellow box) with man coverage across the board on the back end. Morris is circled in red.
Morris begins with a nice, low, smooth pedal while he reads his run/pass keys and the receiver’s route. Once his man crosses the first down marker, Morris starts what is called a "zone turn". A zone turn, which takes its name from the zone defenses in which it is used, is when a defensive back or linebacker turns towards the quarterback so he can read his eyes and make a break on the ball. A man turn, however, is when a defender turns away from the quarterback towards his receiver in order to play…well…his man. With his receiver already crossing the first down marker without a break, Morris accurately assumes that he is running a deeper route. The deeper the route, the longer the pass; the longer the pass, the more time there is to track it after a zone turn.
Manuel lets it fly to an Ice Kareem-covered Robert Woods, which is obviously a horrible decision. Because Morris is reading the ball the entire time after a zone turn, he can track the pass from start to finish. In just two seconds, Morris locks in on the trajectory of the ball, peels off his receiver, and seals the win for the Texans.
The new #26 may not become a good press corner any time soon, but he does possess the skillset necessary to become an impact player for this team. Whether or not A.J. Bouye will regain his nickel cornerback role upon his return is anyone’s guess, but Morris has earned the right to compete for the job. If one thing is certain in this pass-happy modern NFL, it is that you can never, ever have enough good cornerbacks.
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