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Chiefs’ Terrance Mitchell was better than you thought against the Patriots

As the dust settled on the Chiefs’ improbable (well, not in hindsight, but at the time) win over the Patriots last Thursday, fans began the inevitable discussion of what went WRONG against new England. The run defense, penalties, a few nit-picky things here and there (it was tough to find stuff to be bothered about in such a good win) ... once the euphoria of a win dies down, people start to worry about whether the things that didn’t go well could potentially affect future games.

One of those things, in the minds of many fans, was the play of Terrance Mitchell, the cornerback playing opposite Marcus Peters.

You all know who Mitchell is. He won a spot on the field midway through last season (seemingly coming out of nowhere against the Atlanta Falcons and never looking back) and quickly endeared himself to Chiefs fans by playing an exceptional game against the Raiders, including knocking down the game-deciding pass, as I wrote about here. His strong play continued down the stretch (detailed here), and as the new season approached many people, including myself, felt like the Chiefs had a sleeper at corner that most of the national media had missed on as they called for the Chiefs to draft a corner.

Mitchell spent all of preseason banged up with a hamstring issue, so we didn’t see him at all until last Thursday against the Patriots. And during the game, at least, the impression many Chiefs fans had wasn’t a positive one.

During the game, it felt like Mitchell had multiple penalties (he did, in fact, have four penalties, which is a lot) and got victimized more than a few times by Brandin Cooks. During the game, Matt Miller tweeted that NFL teams should take note and target Mitchell. During and after the game, I had multiple Chiefs fans tell me that they were worried about Mitchell’s poor performance - their words, not mine - and asked that I review him.

It’s an important issue. After all, Steven Nelson, who seemed primed for a good year, is out for another five weeks at least, and with teams now CLEARLY staying away from Marcus Peters, whoever is playing the opposite side of the field is going to get tested a great deal. If he’s a weak link, that’s big trouble for a defense that’s shaping up to be very good even with Eric Berry’s injury.

And so, naturally, to the film room we go. If you’re not familiar with how I grade corners, here’s a quick primer (since we’re at the beginning of a new season, I’m explaining my methodology. Because I’m just that nice)...

I re-watch every coverage snap on all-22. I then parse through snaps where Mitchell had an individual responsibility that I could clearly define (almost always man coverage, but occasionally a zone where it’s clear where he ought to be or who he ought to be defending), which is most snaps in the system the Chiefs use (plenty of man and simple zone where the defender ends up matched up with a receiver one on one). I then chart each snap as a successful coverage or a failed coverage.

I also chart penalties (which are naturally closer to a fail than a success, but are really a distinct category of their own and so get their own category) a defender collects, along with the yards surrendered by each penalty. For the record, if I think a penalty is crap and the coverage was good, I’ll chart it as a penalty AND a win, because I don’t want to let bad calls change my analysis.

I track targets (the times a receiver he was covering was targeted), catches allowed and yards surrendered. Finally, I track passes defensed. It should be noted that for me, a pass defensed isn’t just a pass knocked down directly. A pass where the defender caused an incompletion with a well-timed hit is a pass defensed in my charting as well.

By tracking each snap, we can get a better overall idea of how a corner played throughout the game, rather than only looking at what happened when the ball came his way. Logically, a CB is likely to be failing in coverage when targeted, or the QB wouldn’t be targeting him. So if we look ONLY at snaps when a CB was targeted, we’re likely to walk away with a negative view of the performance. Which is, unfortunately, how it often goes during broadcast viewings of a game.

All right, enough explanation. Let’s look at some numbers:

All right, there’s a lot to talk about here regarding numbers, but first things first: if you didn’t know this, the most important number for me is the success percentage. I want that over 70 percent. That’s the goal. If that seems low, well, YOU try chasing around some of the best athletes on earth when they know what direction the play calls for them to run and you don’t. It’s freaking HARD, man.

What’s interesting to me is that I, like everyone else, walked away under the impression that Mitchell had a game with a lot of ups and downs but that was overall inconsistent. However, after watching him on all-22, he WAS consistently quite solid. His success percentage is one that I’m happy with, and he really didn’t lose all that often in coverage. The penalties were obviously way too many, though one of them was a crap call in my opinion (and one where Mitchell was GLUED to his receiver).

One thing I noted is that Mitchell (when you include plays nullified by penalties) was targeted 11 times. That’s a really, really high number. That has to at least in part be a reflection of the Patriots avoiding Marcus Peters, and it made his life tough. Tom Brady was constantly looking his way, meaning if Mitchell slipped up at all Brady would see it.

However, despite being tested constantly by the greatest QB in history and despite consistently covering one of the fastest receivers in the NFL, Mitchell was consistently successful in coverage and had multiple passes defensed, some in critical moments.

While Mitchell gave up too many big plays to call his performance a great game, in my opinion it was actually a very good game when you factor in the competition and the fact that the offense was purposefully going away from the other side of the field. In fact, Mitchell demonstrated all of the traits that made me like him in the first place.

For starters, Mitchell is extremely, extremely physical.

People talk about Marcus Peters as a press corner, and he’s very good at it. However, he often lines up off the line of scrimmage. Mitchell, in the meantime, is consistently right at the line looking to deliver a punch. And he lands them much more often than not, showing the ability to knock receivers off their route and mess with the timing between the receivers and the quarterback.

Mitchell does a good job with this even under tough circumstances, like when he’s subject to an attempted pick play.

There’s an extremely high level of difficulty on this snap, as Mitchell has to recognize the pick, dance around it, close back in to the receiver and deliver an accurate and strong punch. He does it all very smoothly and his punch has a noticeable effect on the receiver.

Mitchells physicality isn’t just while routes are in their early stages, either. He’s absolutely wonderful at contesting any pass that’s even close to his reach.

When the ball is in the air, Mitchell has a knack for tracking it and timing his contact with the receiver (or the ball with his outstretched hand) right to the EXACT second. He’s excellent at making a catch as difficult as humanly possible for his opponent.

Take the play above as an example. Mitchell is in great position to contest the pass with very good coverage. Unfortunately, Tom Brady is who he is, so a perfect throw places it out of his reach. Rather than just attempting to deflect the pass initially, Mitchell hits Gronk and wraps him up, making gathering in the catch extremely tough. He also (and I love this) continues to use his right hand to try and swat the ball away as the two fall to the ground.

Coverage is all about forcing the offense to make an exceptional play to beat you. Here, Mitchell played this so well that nothing short of a fantastic throw/catch combination would do the trick. When you do that, usually either the QB or the receiver will fail. Here, it was the receiver.

Mitchll doesn’t quite on routes even when he’s got what looks like a loss, and his natural quickness and generally solid footwork allow him to make up for mistakes and still come back strong to contest the catch.

Mitchell was definitely outmatched by Cooks in terms of speed, but he was often able to recover from moments of separation with his own exceptional quickness.

Discussing Mitchell’s speed and quickness, I maintain that Mitchell is a very quick player. He’s got (as I said earlier) pretty good feet and doesn’t take a ton of false steps. What’s more, he seems to have the ability to change direction well and can accelerate decently out of breaks.

A lot of people are worried about Mitchell’s long speed (deep ball defense, basically), and to an extent I can understand why they’re worried. Watching Cooks beat Mitchell deep several times was definitely concerning. However, on review, I found it to be wildly exaggerated to act like Cooks was winning all of those routes.

I can say this without fear of exaggeration: the only receiver that gave Mitchell trouble in man coverage (without some kind of scheme issue) was Cooks, and even Cooks lost more to Mitchell than he won, such as in the route above.

I don’t think Mitchell will ever be considered a burner, but he looked plenty fast out there most snaps. The only times he got left behind was due to Cooks being, again, one of the very fastest receivers in the NFL. It’s going to happen a few times against that guy.

Overall, Mitchell played well on Thursday, demonstrating quickness, solid feet, physicality at the line of scrimmage, and that ball-contesting ability we all covet in our corners. Seriously, people want to talk about big plays Mitchell gave up, but for every bad play there were multiple good ones from him.

When asked to describe Terrance Mitchell’s game, what I’ve often said (and still believe) is that he is absolutely miserable to play against. He’s crazy physical, he’s quick enough to mirror routes pretty well (especially with a hand on you), he generally doesn’t make big mental errors, and he’ll just flat-out grab you if you manage to get him, leaving your fate (usually) in the hands of the refs.

Mitchell had at least three drives where he made a defensive stop that resulted in a punt for the Patriots, but none bigger than his last pass defensed.

That is one of the best pass breakups you’ll ever see from a corner, and it happened in the fourth quarter as the Pats were trying to think about eyeballing a comeback.

This snap demonstrates Mitchell’s closing speed which, as I’ve said, isn’t as slow as some people are making it out to be. Even though he’s trailing by more than he’d probably like, Mitchell never gives up on the play, closes as the ball approaches, and times his jump to deflect very well. You can see that he reads the receiver rather than turning to look for the ball until he absolutely has to look back.

The ball arrives seemingly too late for Mitchell to affect it, as he misses with his initial right hand swat (that was a well thrown ball). But Mitchell, undeterred, then reaches over with his LEFT hand to snuff out any prayer the Patriots had of a comeback.

Look, Mitchell was in arguably the worst position he’s going to be all season against the Patriots. He was playing the EXACT type of receiver he might have issues with (elite deep speed), was playing against arguably the best quarterback in history, AND said quarterback was watching him like a hawk for any mistakes because he was avoiding Marcus Peters.

In short, we saw some penalties and passes given up and assumed that Mitchell was having a rough game. However, what I saw on film wasn’t a CB losing more than many good CBs do, it was a CB who was getting targeted almost every single time he failed in coverage because of the unique circumstances he was facing. Tom Brady really is a great quarterback, and he seemed to find Cooks every time Mitchell faltered. Nearly any corner is going to give up catches or penalties in that situation, unfortunately.

But despite being in an awful position against a player whose strengths aligned with his weak spot, Mitchell gave as good as he got, had good coverage the majority of the time, and made multiple clutch plays down the stretch. All this coming in cold, without having played a single preseason snap.

I guess what I’m telling you is this: Mitchell played better than you probably thought he did, despite having everything working against him. Now the key will be for him to up his play to a level that coordinators and quarterbacks can’t view him as a legitimate option for 11 targets in a game. If he keeps knocking aside as many passes as he allows catches, that’s bound to happen eventually.

From what I saw, Mitchell looks ready to continue his strong play from last season, though he definitely had some hiccups in a tough first matchup. I can’t wait to see if he builds on how he closed out that game. Because one thing is for certain: with Peters on the other side of the field, Mitchell is going to be tested a ton this year until he forces offenses to go away from him. I think he’s going to be up for the challenge.

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