So for most of this season, Marcus Peters has been undeniably avoided by quarterbacks. This makes sense after a red-hot start in which Peters displayed his utterly uncanny knack for picking off passes (despite having a bad habit of getting beat deep occasionally).
Basically, the analysis is simple: even if you manage to get a few completions (or even big plays) against Peters, you’re MUCH more likely to have the pass intercepted (or, you know, just ripped out of your WR’s hands) by throwing his way than anywhere else on the field.
And so the rest of Kansas City’s corners have faced an increased workload game in and game out, seeing more targets as quarterbacks flee from Peters Peninsula. And the results, for the Chiefs, have been... mixed.
Steven Nelson is having a fine second year and plays very physical, aggressive coverage. Beyond him though, it’s been a mixed bag for Chiefs corners. And unfortunately, in today’s NFL you need to be at least three deep at CB if you don’t want one guy to get mercilessly picked on.
Phillip Gaines was supposed to step in once Sean Smith left in free agency, and I for one had high hopes for him. However, this season Gaines (for whatever reason, injury or no) hasn’t been as sticky in coverage as he was in previous years. This culminated in a really, really rough game against Denver, where Gaines gave up approximately 45 catches for a thousand yards.
Enter Terrance Mitchell.
Mitchell played the game-winning pass breakup so well. Ran w/ WR, got his head turned around and hips flipped immediately, contested ball. pic.twitter.com/FoFIQLaUjx— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 12, 2016
Mitchell has burst unto the scene the last several weeks, getting roughly half the defensive snaps against Atlanta, then seeing very nearly every snap against the Raiders on Thursday Night Football.
It’s rare to see a player come out of nowhere, but that’s exactly what Mitchell has done after being promoted from the practice squad. Mitchell was drafted in the seventh round of the 2014 draft and has bounced around the league (with the Cowboys twice, the Bears and the Texans) before the Chiefs picked him up in September of this year (and released him on November 8th, then picked him back up on November 25th).
Mitchell played a solid game against the Falcons in his first real action back, then proceeded to have what appeared (on the surface) to be an exceptional game against Derek Carr and the Raiders, including the above GIF in which Mitchell knocked down a pass to ice the game.
I probably received more requests to review Mitchell’s film than I’ve ever received about any player. I think that’s in part because he really did just appear out of seemingly thin air at a position of desperate need. But what does his tape look like? Well, let’s take a look at his work against the Raiders (if you want to know how I gauge corners, click here, I watch every snap in coverage and grade it as a win or loss. Neutral plays or zone plays I exclude) and see what we can see.
A fair warning: gauging ANY player, particularly at cornerback, based on a single game is not a smart move. Context matters a great deal, and until you see a player perform over the course of multiple games you’re not going to have a good idea about who he really is. Frankly, Phillip Gaines should remind everyone of the danger in small sample sizes (Gaines had multiple games at corner where he looked exceptional in coverage, but we never saw more then 3-4 games at a time from him prior to this year. The results have been disappointing so far). So I write this not to say “this is who we know Mitchell is.” I write this to say “this is what Mitchell demonstrated against the Raiders.” Everything else is pure conjecture at this point.
That said, let’s go to the numbers then talk about the film
Successful Coverage: 23
Failed Coverage: 9
Success Rate: 71.9 percent
Fail Rate: 28.1 percent
Passes Defensed: 4
Catches Allowed: 4
Yards Allowed: 24 (six yards per catch, or 2.7 yards per target)
Mitchell, as you were able to observe during the course of the game, did a really nice job against the Raiders.
They went after Mitchell quite a bit. I like how he competed, played physical, and at times ran the WR's routes better than they did. pic.twitter.com/SVUX4PX2Ud— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 12, 2016
Late in the second half Cris Collinsworth went on a bit of a diatribe that the Raiders had found a weakness in Mitchell to pick on. This was right after a pass interference was called against Mitchell (one that was a horrible call, but I digress) to set the Raiders up on the goal line.
Collinsworth proved to lack the gift of prophecy as the game moved along, however, and the Raiders were consistently unable to get much going against Mitchell despite everything working against him (second game really playing with the defense, going up against solid receivers, etc). Mitchell knocked down as many passes as he allowed to be caught, and of the catches he DID allow, two of them were generally positive plays for the defense, one of them a three yard gain and the other being this play.
These semi-pick type plays have hurt the Chiefs all year. Good to see Mitchell's awareness, mirroring, closing and finishing. pic.twitter.com/ZBTMjfp9Ve— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 12, 2016
This play is a great example why tracking catches vs. targets is a very incomplete way to gauge a corner. Sometimes it’s a good thing for the defense when a corner allows a catch, then immediately closes and tackles for a short gain. Here, Mitchell doesn’t allow the “pick” action from the other Oakland receiver to bother him, mirrors Cooper’s movement sideways beautifully, then makes the hit to prevent any YAC. It’s a really solid play by the young corner, on the type of route that’s given our defense trouble at times this season.
I avoided reading any of Mitchell’s college scouting reports to avoid having preconceived notions when watching his film. What I saw was a player with a number of positive qualities. First and foremost, I really like Mitchell’s footwork mirroring routes.
When I see a CB handle WR fakes like this I think of non-Bombay coach in D3: The Mighty Ducks yelling "make him make the first move Conway!" pic.twitter.com/BDk3jR7kLO— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 12, 2016
Mitchell generally didn’t bite on fakes by receivers and instead just matched their movements with his own without over-committing to one direction or the other. He also avoided flipping his hips to either side until a receiver had actually began to get into the route. This is a positive sign, and one to watch going forward.
Another thing Mitchell does pretty well is aggressive, physical coverage. He has a good punch and did everything he could to hassle receivers while on their routes, especially if they were spending time using head fakes in front of him. I love that method of dealing with jukes: don’t just sit there and wait to get faked out, punch them in the mouth and use their lack of forward momentum against them to screw with their timing.
Mitchell’s physicality doesn’t stop once the ball is in the air, either. As Chiefs fans saw on the last play of the game (and several plays before that), Mitchell is willing to fight for position and makes receivers earn every inch against him. Now, that may make him vulnerable to pass interference calls, but I definitely prefer that to a guy who just lets the receiver comes down with it. Mitchell is helped in this area by (at least against Oakland) his habit of getting his head around and locating the ball. This is a HUGE trait to find in a young corner (again, assuming he continues to do so moving forward), and one that can create opportunities to knock passes down or pick them off (it’s one of Marcus Peters’ best traits).
Now, Mitchell isn’t perfect, even if we’re gauging him on a game where he played very well. While his short-burst quickness appears very solid, I’m not too sure about his deep speed. There was one play in particular where Crabtree was able to beat him deep that made me question his ability to recover if he doesn’t win in the first five yards off the line of scrimmage. The problem with this is that if he loses at the line, he could be vulnerable to giving up big plays. This wasn’t an issue against Oakland because he did a good job maintaining his hips as well as creating some contact within five yards of the line of scrimmage, but he was also facing a relatively slow(-ish) receiver group. Throw him out there against a burner and I’d be concerned.
Mitchell also looks a bit grabby in coverage as receivers are going through their route, including well past the allowed area. He’s going to rack up penalties with the wrong officiating crew if he’s not careful. This may be a compensation for his (apparent) lack of speed, and it’s something to watch for.
Right now, though, Mitchell is the toast of the town and deservedly so. He played an exceptional game against the Raiders on a snap-by-snap basis (not just the routes he was targeted, but consistently throughout) and demonstrated some skills that may be tailor-made for Bob Sutton’s defensive scheme.
We’ll have to wait and see what the next few weeks hold, but for right now Mitchell looks like a potentially promising, physical young corner who might fit well with what the Chiefs are doing (he doesn’t appear afraid to hit either, which I really did want to mention before finishing this piece). Let’s see what happens against Marcus Mariota and the Titans, but there’s a small possibility one of the Chiefs’ weak spots on defense has received some unexpected reinforcements.