Every year, we talk about the Broncos' issues with covering tight ends. Who’s strong enough, long enough, motivated enough?
We talk about it because the era of the tight end is back. Sid Gillman, who said that with two good TEs you can control the middle of the field, has again been proven right.
But the reality is that you don’t need to be tall or long to cover a TE. Strength helps, especially when the TE is firing off the line. You need a guy who can redirect him or change his timing. It’s the moment when the TE is most vulnerable. Most will be bigger than the coverage player. With good leverage and a nasty attitude, the defender can use the five-yard window to make the TE change his route.
During Denver's Week 6 win against the Jets, rookie corner Bradley Roby (29) had a sack, three tackles (one for loss), and a quarterback hit. Since he’s a defensive back, he threw in two passes defensed.
Roby’s supposed ‘off field issues’ that ‘led teams to question his maturity’ are things of the past. He’s faster than a first-timer on prom night, is physical enough to press many receivers off their timing, and loves to hit. He’s prone to covering in the receiver’s hip pocket. He likes to fight for the ball. He’s demonstrating why the Broncos were so happy that he fell to them at pick #31.
A smaller player can cover a tight end. Physicality helps. Size can be helpful. But the key to it all is to have leverage on the receiver and maintain it through the play. It should put the defender close enough to the path of the ball to be able to knock it away.
Roby mentioned last week that he wanted to spend some time as a slot corner. It’s an opportunity he'd never had before, and he looked at that as a challenge. A lot of corners can play the boundary, but wilt in the middle. When Roby got his chance, he made the most of it.
This play comes from the third quarter of the Jets contest. Jace Amaro, the Jets’ #2 TE, is in the slot. Roby draws him in coverage.
Roby plays Amaro (88), who’s in the right slot or ‘Y’ position as a receiver. Bradley gives him a small pad, keeping him close. Amaro starts two yards behind the LOS with his back foot on the 15. The ball is at the 12, with the Jets facing a 3rd-and-5 and a 24-7 deficit.
At the snap, Amaro does a little juke, hoping for a commitment from Roby on where he’ll defend. Roby isn’t buying, and just gets lower in his stance. That’s impressive - most rookies would bite on Amaro’s move. When Amaro crosses the line of scrimmage, Roby is waiting to lock up on him. He has five yards to bedevil Amaro.
Roby presses Amaro for the allowed five yards. Notice that even though they’re locked up, Roby has the outside position. After that, he goes into the outside ‘trail’ position on Amaro, which forces the TE inside. That means Roby is going to be able to get between Amaro and the ball, no matter what Amaro does. The exception would be if the QB threw a perfect basket catch over them. That won’t happen with Geno Smith at QB.
Roby has a powerful leap, and he uses it here. Corey Nelson (52) is around the ball, which was common. He throws up his arms, but the ball is already past him. Amaro thinks he has the catch, so his hand is already out. But Roby has been waiting for this pass and dives in from the left. That’s his hand on top of the ball.
Roby finishes by deflecting the pass. This play is right out of the textbook on how to cover a stronger player. You can’t outmuscle them, so you have to outthink them. Setting up your deflection is a good way to achieve that.
The following two screengrabs show just how close the play was. In the first shot, it looks like Amaro is in the clear. In the second shot, Roby has just deflected the ball. The actual leap and deflection have taken mere milliseconds.
Then it isn’t...
That kind of athleticism and timing is rare, even in the NFL. Roby looks like he’ll outplay his rookie contract. At that point, I’ll be interested to see how good he’s gotten. Cornerbacks don’t come cheap, but Roby’s early work suggests that he was a stellar draft pick.
Last week Roby said he wanted to try moving into the middle and handling the slot. A lot of cornerbacks can’t play the middle - they’re strictly edge defenders. Roby was happy on the edges, but he saw the confusion and physicality of the slot corner as one more challenge to take on. The coaches let him try it. If he handles other TEs like he did Amaro, there’s no reason why he can’t move to the middle whenever needed.
No team has too many versatile cornerbacks. Finding talent so good that he wants to be challenged more is the mark of a talented front office.
Against the Jets, Roby was targeted four times and allowed a single catch (seven yards). He seems to be improving each week. He achieved a sack and a hurry against the Jets, too. Roby’s physical nature and fondness for a challenge makes him perfect for a pass-rushing defensive back. Jack Del Rio likes to throw those in, just to keep the opponent off balance.
The 49ers are next, followed by the Chargers.
It’s a tough pair of games, but coverage like this can go a long way towards winning them.