If I told you a rookie was the most versatile player on the field last Sunday, would you believe me?
No? Let me make you a believer.
It's no secret that the Kansas City Chiefs secondary has been thin for the past couple weeks. Add to that the apparent demotion of Week 1 starter Marcus Cooper, and it's a wonder the Chiefs are in the top half of the league in pass defense, let alone ranked No. 1. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has dialed up lots of different looks with many different players, and it's paid major dividends thus far. None more so than the performance that he got out of Phillip Gaines this past Sunday against the New York Jets.
When PG-23 (c'mon, get on board) was drafted in the third round this offseason, many draft experts called it a coup for the Chiefs. A long, quick corner that could eventually inherit a slot corner role, he started the season mostly as a gunner on Special Teams. He definitely wowed the fans and coaches alike with his speed and awareness, making several key tackles, and also several spectacular downed punts. When Cooper was unceremoniously benched and starting nickel corner Chris Owens went out with an injury, Gaines finally saw more time running with the first team defense. This week, with Jamell Fleming injured (seriously, DEPTH), it was PG-23's time to shine...and boy did he ever.
It's no secret that Sutton likes versatile players, and he's not afraid to ask a young or inexperienced player to step out and fill multiple roles on a given gameday. This past Sunday was quite the story, though. In Gaines' time on the field on Sunday, he played nickel/slot CB 65% of the time and outside LCB/RCB 28 percent of the time. Some of you quick math wizards out there might have figured out that's not quite 100%. That's because the other 7 percent of the time, my boy PG-23 was playing safety.
Oh yes, that IS a Cover Two look with Parker in the box and Berry/Gaines splitting the deep part of the field. But that's not all...
...he also played as an in the box safety, matched up against a tight end. And that wasn't the only time he covered a tight end this week. He was responsible for man coverage against a tight end for six of the 39 passing plays attempted by the Jets, as well as another two against the Jets running backs.
This isn't an earth shattering achievement for a secondary player, as players play multiple roles often. However, the way he performed as a rookie and first time starter was above and beyond what many could have hoped. Percy Harvin had quite a day for the Jets, catching 11 passes for 129 yards, making for 11.7 YPC on the day. He also saw quite a bit of PG-23 Sunday, yet the rookie CB was targeted 7 times for NINE YARDS. That is an inconceivable 1.29 yards per target, meaning Harvin wasn't able to get his yardage when Gaines was lined up across from him. For example, this play from the first quarter on Sunday:
It's 1st and 10 for the Jets, and they break the huddle with Harvin in the slot across from Gaines. The offense has called a play action wide receiver screen to Harvin. The left tackle for the Jets is going to allow Tamba to have the outside edge, then block down on Harvin. Harvin is going to sell a deeper route, forcing Gaines to backpedal, allowing time for the tackle to get to the corner.
The play action goes off well for the offense. Both of the Chiefs inside linebackers bite on the play fake and follow away from the actual direction of the play. The outside receiver on top gets out in a "go" route, and Sean Smith runs with him. Safety Ron Parker is playing very deep, and Tamba Hali is not going to get to the pass to bat it down in time. This play falls solely at the feet of the rookie corner to avoid the block, square up, and make a great tackle, or it's going for BIG yardage.
Not only does Gaines avoid the block, he hits Harvin with good technique and brings him down immediately for a 2-yard loss. Great closing speed and sound form tackling save what could have been a monster play against the Kansas City Chiefs defense.
Gaines wasn't perfect on Sunday. He allowed a touchdown pass to Eric Decker on a pick play, and he clearly missed the switch, not realizing the man in front of him was now his responsibility, and Vick missed a wide open receiver in the center of the field when Gaines and Justin Houston ended up both covering the tight end in the flat. He can get better at consistent form tackling and getting off of blocks from wide receivers, but there are few corners in the league that really excel at all of those facets of the game.
It will be interesting to see how he's utilized with the secondary getting healthier in the future. Eric Berry typically played the deep safety role when the nickel package was implemented last Sunday, and that typically moved Ron Parker forward to play cornerback, with Gaines moving inside to the slot. However, in the base defense this week, Gaines was the first choice starter as an outside cornerback. With Fleming and Owens coming back soon, and Berry getting back to 100 percent with more snaps, Gaines may once again find himself in spot duty with the first team defense. That said, if he can rattle off a couple more performances like Sunday against the Jets, Sutton's not going to have much of a choice but to keep him on the field and move him all over the place. That's pretty remarkable for a third round rookie.
Keep it up, PG-23!