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The Film Room: Aaron Colvin & The Forest

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We take a look at Aaron Colvin’s past play and see where he could fit in with the Texans going forward.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, I spent four months with my head buried in a computer screen, furiously attempting to coax some form of coherency into the idea I had for my undergraduate dissertation. During those four months, I would research and write myself into an enthusiastic but stressed stupor. I loved what I was doing, submerging myself into levels of minutiae any reasonable person would consider unnecessary, but I saw it as a must in order to satisfy my own desire to know everything about a particular subject.

Whilst I was on this noble quest to discover how Ronald Reagan liked his eggs done or something equally silly, I had a supervisor I would meet with on a monthly basis to discuss my work from the previous month. He would sit and listen as I rambled incoherently about my ideas. He would read whatever deranged scribblings I could conjure up from four straight hours of panic writing the day before our meeting. Crucial to all of this was the fact that he:

A: Didn’t go insane from having to listen to me.

B: Actually tried to assist me in anyway he could.

He realized that while I loved delving deep into my subject matter, I was rather prone to just getting lost in a world of facts and anecdotes, never actually getting around to putting together a string of cogent thoughts on a subject. My supervisor noticed this and imparted a piece of well known wisdom, which I still hold dear to this day.

‘‘Make sure you don’t miss the forest for the trees.’’

In the past when I’ve approached writing about a player or a team, I’ve done so in a vacuum, taking a player or a match-up at face value and looking solely at it, not at anything else around it. I was walking from tree to tree with a tape measure, seeing how tall they were or how thick their trunk was. While there is a value in esoteric studies like 3,000 words on why Breshaud Perriman is soon to be a breakout star, it can often ignore some more important questions.

Aaron Colvin is a tree to be measured. His signing alone can mean a variety of things for the Texans’ defense as a whole and the future of other members of the Texans. Before that, let’s break out the tape measure and try to answer this question: Is Aaron Colvin a good football player?

Colvin doesn’t exactly set the world alight when you watch him. There are a couple of reasons for this. He has faults, like every player does, but they weren’t exploited since the Jaguars didn’t really give him high pressure assignments. He wasn’t put on a island on the outside against the other teams’ best or second best receivers because he’s not better than Jalen Ramsey or A.J. Bouye. If you have ever watched either of those two play, that shouldn’t be surprising.

What the Jags did ask Colvin to do within their system was to not be a liability and play towards the strengths of the defensive system as a whole. Ironically enough, Gus Bradley spent his entire coaching tenure with Jacksonville trying to recreate the Cover Three behemoth he had previously marshaled in Seattle. Bradley was fired before he ever got to see this defense turn into another Cover Three monster. Bouye and Ramsey are freaks of nature who have the athleticism and skill to take large areas of the field out of play. What’s leftover is given to two uber-athletic linebackers in Telvin Smith, and Myles Jack; they patrol the middle of the field.

Here’s just one iteration that the Jags used this past season. Bouye is at the bottom of the screen, playing what looks like man coverage. Ramsey is at the top of the screen, playing what looks like either off-man coverage or zone coverage. This was a fixture of the Jags’ defense in 2017. One side would press and the other would play off-man or zone. This didn’t always mean one side was playing man and the other was playing zone; it’s just what the Jags wanted you to think. The way this play evolves would leave anyone guessing as to what the actual cal. That’s the point.

This Jags’ defense flexed into a bunch of different looks. Even weeks afterwards, one would still be unsure what they were doing. This looks like Cover Three with Bouye playing man coverage against Jeremy Maclin on the outside. This is how it’s drawn up.*

*Working with Microsoft Paint is the best part of this job.

Poorly proportioned semi-circles aside, the basic idea behind Jacksonville’s defense is seen here. Jack and Smith cover the middle of the field. Barry Church covers the short side zone where Bouye is matched up with Jeremy Maclin in man coverage. Free safety Tashaun Gipson covers the deep middle zone while Ramsey covers the deep left zone. Meanwhile, Colvin is aligned over the top of the slot receiver, but bails into the short left zone that’s vacated once Ramsey begins his backpedal. The Jags are isolating the outside receivers and forcing everything into the middle of the field towards Jack and Telvin.

How this affects Colvin is twofold. His hips have flipped completely inwards towards the middle of the field. If the slot receiver runs an out route, like he’s just about to do, he has to go directly through Colvin to reach the sideline. The receiver is running into Colvin’s zone, with Colvin facing him. Colvin can read the ball the entire time and doesn’t have to worry about the receiver.

Colvin is also slightly bracketing the outside receiver running into Jalen Ramsey’s zone simply because he’s in Joe Flacco’s throwing lane. Flacco has to throw it over Colvin with enough velocity so that the ball not only gets past Colvin, but doesn’t hang in the air long enough for Ramsey to be able to break on it and make a play. This is a horrible scenario to put any quarterback in, let alone one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL last season.

For a second, let’s imagine a team sees this and wants to exploit it. Colvin’s selling out in order to protect the sideline and help Ramsey in his zone. Instead of running into Colvin, what if we have a receiver run a slant across the middle away from Colvin? This is exactly what the Jags want.

Look at #44. That’s Myles Jack.

Jack has flipped his hips and is facing towards the space where a hypothetical slant route might be. Colvin and the Jaguars are baiting a team to throw the slant, knowing full well that Jack is twitchy as all hell and will be able to undercut that route every single time. This is the horror of the Jags’ defense. You can do the natural thing to counter the look they give you, and you can still do the wrong thing.

After the 2016 season, Ramsey did an interview with ESPN in which he criticized then head coach Gus Bradley for not varying the approach of the defense throughout the season. Last year, the Jags’ defense was unleashed and sprouted from a newfound creativity in how they played defense. Here’s a Cover Four look that they ran against the Jets last year:

It’s a very basic Cover Four with three zones underneath and four deep zones. Colvin is occupying the nearest zone. Jack and Smith taking the other two short zones. Ramsey and Bouye sink into the deeper zones alongside the two safeties. In practice, it should look like this:

Cover Four has been discussed here before because it’s what the Texans played almost exclusively last season. Good Cover Four is built on cohesion. If one part fails, the whole rotten ship comes down, but if it comes together, it can be suffocating. This play ends in a completion, but watch how Colvin, Ramsey, and the safety are shading to their side of the field. Watch how they handle the two go-routes that the slot and outside receiver run.

Colvin perfectly slides into his zone between the two routes. Myles Jack is on the inside. If the receiver cuts inward, Jack takes him. Otherwise Colvin has to maintain the right amount of distance between the two in order to help on either receiver at a given moment. More than that, he’s got to be aware of any potential cutback or out route from the outside receiver. He’s got to maintain his depth in order to constantly impede the throwing lanes. Even if he can’t get to the receiver, Colvin can attempt to discourage the quarterback from attempting the throw.

This was Colvin’s load for large chunks of the season. He was the outside zone corner in Cover Four, carrying receivers from zone to zone, ensuring that a large amount of space wasn’t available for quarterbacks to make an easy throw to the open receiver. Colvin’s best asset is that he’s even keeled in zone coverage. He’s not jumping on receivers or routes, but rather playing his role on the defense mistake-free, trusting the system will do what it’s supposed to do.

Colvin could have been slotted into the Texans Cover Four scheme from last year and probably not missed a step. He may have even made Houston’s defense better. The thing that will decide n whether or not he’s just a piece in a larger machine and a potentially good corner is whether or not he can play man coverage in Houston well.

Showing how Colvin works in zone and within a scheme is all well and good. It doesn’t really answer a lot of the questions that typically spring to mind when evaluating a cornerback. These questions usually revolve around whether or not a player can lock down an opposing team’s best receiver in man coverage.

Good man coverage corners usually have one trait or ability they can distinguish themselves with. For Bouye, it’s his fantastic footwork. It allows him to change direction instantly. For Ramsey, it’s his overwhelming physical ability. It allows him to either control a receiver at the line of scrimmage with his hands or run with him stride for stride downfield. Colvin isn’t blessed or talented enough to have that one outstanding trait, but his hand usage is getting there.

Here Colvin is lined up in the slot. He’s in man coverage.

Colvin uses his hands to disrupt the release of the receiver and keeps him within arms length for the duration of the route.

Colvin flips his hips to mirror the receiver’s release. As he does this, he puts his hands on the front and back of the receiver. This gives Colvin an excellent understanding of how the route is going to progress. He can feel what route the receiver is running. If he’s staying lower, he maybe fixing to cut his route. If he straightens his back, he may begin a full sprint and finish a go-route.

The contact also alters the receiver’s path slightly to the outside, forcing him further into areas of the field where there’s less space. This allows Colvin to tail the receiver down the sideline, stay close enough to contest the pass, and eventually break it up.

Colvin uses contact and his hands as a guideline to navigate the twist and turns of a route rather adeptly. He also never looks back to locate the ball throughout the entire route and still makes the pass break-up. He’s a natural Texan.

Same deal, different receiver. Colvin works the same magic against Danny Amendola.

This should look familiar. It’s exactly what Colvin did earlier. One hand in front and one behind, get a feel for the route, and react accordingly. Even after Colvin flips his hips fully to run with Amendola, he still has his hand on Amendola’s back. He’s feeling for the potential break in the route.

This allows him to sit on top of Amendola’s route all the way and run with him when he breaks outside.

By these snaps alone, you would say this Colvin lad might have some potential at this man-to-man coverage lark. However, for every one of those snaps where Colvin uses his hands to control routes, there are others where he shows a degree of indecisiveness in whether or not he should engage at the line of scrimmage. His hand usage became more of a staple of his game as the 2017 season progressed. During the start of the season, he was timid at times and didn’t realize the advantage engaging the receiver early on would grant him.

Here’s a quick example where Colvin needs to engage quicker rather than playing passive:

Colvin is lined up opposite the slot receiver, and unlike the two examples above, he doesn’t engage the receiver off the snap. Instead he allows a clean release. Colvin needs to be aggressive and get on top of routes because he can’t overpower players or just outrun them like his former colleague Ramsey can. As the season progressed, instances of this became less frequent in Colvin’s man-to-man play. But over the course of the entire season, it was an issue.

If Colvin is going to make the move to the outside, and be in more of a man coverage dominant role in Houston, he’s going to face fundamentally different receivers then he faced working in the slot for Jacksonville last season.

One of the blessings of working in the slot against typically smaller and less physical receivers is that Colvin can play the hand game and not worry about getting outmuscled or shrugged off. Against Houston, someone showed Colvin that not everyone will take his gentle caressing without fighting back. Enter Braxton Miller.

If you ever watched Braxton Miller play football, you might be forgiven for forgetting that he’s 6’2” and 215 lbs. It’s true! I look at it every day and mutter, ‘‘This can’t be right.” Colvin rarely faced receivers who displayed this kind of physicality in the slot, but more physical receivers are the standard on the outside.

Deja Vu, I’ve just seen this snap before, Colvin reads and adjusts to the receiver’s first step, flips his hips, and gets a hand on his front and his back. Miller feels Colvin’s contact, and in a move which would make DeAndre Hopkins proud, he leans into Colvin, putting his weight against his, forcing Colvin to push back against him. Miller uses this and snaps off back to the inside with the help of his right arm. Miller is open. But the ball goes the other way.

This snap is an outlier, but it highlights an issue that can occur if Colvin ends up playing the majority of his snaps out on the perimeter.

Another potential concern is that Colvin sometimes bites on a receiver’s dummy step and get his feet locked in place. Take this snap against Rishard Matthews as an example. Once the ball is snapped, Matthews is going to throw a quick shoulder fake and plant his left foot in the ground. Colvin mirrors this, shifts to the right, and follows Matthews’ movement. He doesn’t see that Matthews is setting him up.

Focus on Colvin’s back foot here. It’s still planted in the dirt, adjusting to Matthews, whilst Matthews is freely releasing up the field. It’s that split second hesitation and not having the lightning quick footwork and speed to recover that means this route is over.

These are the kinds of things that are going to dictate what kind of ceiling Colvin will have with the Texans. For him to make an impact in Houston, he will need to play man coverage, and there are quite a few things he does well in that setting. It’s just that there isn’t enough evidence of him doing it against higher quality receivers to be able to say that he’s going to be a good man corner. He’s got kinks, but there’s definitely something here to work with.

Colvin’s signing wasn’t a panic move. The Texans’ front office got a terrifying look at what their defense is without a fully operational front seven. Kareem Jackson continues to regress, and I wonder just how much he would have played last year had injuries not plagued the secondary. Johnathan Joseph blew all of his money on Bitcoin and now can’t afford those trips to the fountain of youth. Perhaps most terrifying of all, Kevin Johnson had a season where he regressed while also being one of the youngest members of the Texans’ secondary. The Texans needed Johnson to step up and vacate the hole that Bouye left last offseason. He didn’t. The Texans were left standing around looking like a confused John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.”

Added to this was the rather ambitious gambit of playing Corey Moore 70% of the defensive snaps at safety backfiring. Marcus Gilchrist and Eddie Pleasant didn’t help the situation either. The Texans were looking at potentially replacing four players in their nickel package. This is to say nothing of the defensive game plan last season, which seemed to actively impede the Texans’ defensive backs from playing defense at times. Houston’s secondary badly needed a jolt of talent.

Colvin is well versed in Cover Four (a Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel favorite), and Cover Three. Colvin could be plugged into the Cover Four outside zone here and do an admiral job. At the very least, Crennel can ask him to do something he’s had success with before.

The other side of that coin is Cover Three. Knowing Crennel’s love of having his corners play off the line of scrimmage and the fact that the Texans have just signed a safety who does quite well playing at or near the line of scrimmage, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider the Texans shifting to a Cover Three defense with Andre Hal as the single high safety and Aaron Colvin as one of the outside corners, a role in which he also had experience with in Jacksonville. Even if Crennel decides to get frisky and play Cover One, Colvin has experience with that as well. That’s what the Jags flexed into from their Cover Three looks quite often.

Colvin’s addition is an attempt to reestablish some sense of stability within the Texans’ secondary that the team can rebuild around. Even if Colvin isn’t a dramatic improvement, he’s at least a player who’s well versed in playing a role within the schemes the Texans have favored in the past. Colvin is going to be asked to do more than he was asked to do in any previous role with the Jaguars. It’s a sink or swim situation, and the Texans very much need him to swim.

Success is not a guarantee. Colvin’s strength with his hands comes from him being able to press and get at the receiver at the line of scrimmage. He hasn’t shown this skill against larger receivers that you’d typically find on the outside often enough, and based on the Texans’ current secondary, it’s expected he’ll be playing out there often.

We’ve been looking at trees for awhile thinking how rad or bad they are, but if we take a step back and look at the whole forest, we can see that there’s a great deal of change happening with Houston’s defense. Aaron Colvin is just the start of it.