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A second look at Chiefs CB Phillip Gaines vs. the Patriots

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Sometimes I write one article, only to have many people tell me they would’ve rather read another article.

That happened to me yesterday, as an article reviewing Terrance Mitchell’s all-22 against the Patriots was released (you can find it here). A number of people had asked me to look at his film, so I obliged, discovering that he’d played a better game than I’d thought (by my metrics, at least).

After that article came out, a number of people on Twitter and a few in the AP comments asked that I take a look at CB Phillip Gaines, as they were more curious about how he did. And so, here we are.

If you want to know how I review corners, click on the Mitchell article link above. I base my deep stats (or whatever you want to call them) off review of every coverage snap where I can clearly identify the CB’s assignment. I then chart the coverage as a success or a failure. I also chart penalties, passes defensed, targets and catches allowed (along with yards).

Since this is a bit of an impromptu review, it’s going to be a bit shorter than normal (I gotta sleep sometime, guys). You’ll see how crunched for time I was by the absolutely ridiculous way I corrected a mistake in the picture of my excel spreadsheet where I charted these numbers (which of course I didn’t save, so when I made a mistake it was either spend five minutes re-doing the whole thing or, well, doing something else).

Here are Gaines’s numbers against the Patriots in coverage.

Yes, I know, I’m horribly lazy. I’m OK with it.

First things first ... that’s not a good day for a CB based on the standard I go by (looking for 70 percent or better success rate). Gaines had multiple snaps where he allowed separation, and really could’ve been picked on a lot by Tom Brady after the first drive. However, for some reason, they stopped looking his direction after a couple of successful passes thrown his way early. Why? I have no idea. But it was lucky for him, and I believe the narrative about Gaines (and maybe even the outcome of the game) might be a lot different today had Brady chose to target him rather than Mitchell.

The primary issue Gaines had, by my eyes, was a lack of feel as to how WRs were going to break in their routes.

This play ended harmlessly for the Chiefs (This was a third down Mitchell shoved Patriots WR Brandin Cooks out of bounds to force a punt), but there was real danger there.

Gaines does a nice job sticking with Patriots WR Chris Hogan as he runs down the seam. However, one of two things happens as they get to the WR’s break: he either is able to subtly push Gaines off him to get separation on a cut inside, or he simply cut too suddenly for Gaines to react and achieved separation that way.

Either of these are a reflection of Gaines, despite having contact with Hogan, not sensing or feeling Hogan about to break inside. The ability to read receivers and act as they act, rather than simply seeing a break and then REACTING, is a crucial one. NFL wide receivers are simply too quick and too good in their route running for a corner to simply wait for them to cut and then react. They have to read the receiver and be starting to cut even as the receiver is just getting into his OWN cut. It’s an incredibly difficult job, especially now that corners can’t just keep their hands on receivers all the way down the field to feel (and hinder) their movements.

Route anticipation was a bit of an issue for Gaines all evening.

Look, sometimes a guy just runs a good route. Amendola does so here, with a really nice fake inside. However, Gaines had help to the inside and shouldn’t have taken the bait. Instead, he needs to trust his speed/quickness (more on that in a bit) and just keep churning his feet without committing to a direction. Again, he’s gotta read the receiver better.

I would say Gaines’s reading accounted for almost all of his losses on the day, and it’s something I’d like to keep an eye on moving forward. To be clear, it wasn’t an issue every snap, and actually improved as the game went along.

Gaines was once fantastic at mirroring routes down the field, at least every time I reviewed him. Getting surprised by cuts has always been an issue, but one he was often able to compensate for with his natural gifts. I’m hopeful that he’ll tighten up his reads as the year goes on and he gets more and more removed from that ACL surgery, which I believe really affected his play last year (when you’re reliant on your speed and quickness, leg injuries are just killer, even when you’re technically healthy. Takes time to get trust back in the leg).

It wasn’t all bad news with Gaines, though. He looks to have regained his prior speed down the field.

When you’re running press coverage (which Gaines often was), it’s highly valuable to be able to run with receivers stride-for-stride once they get even with your hips and you’re both running down the field. It’s something Gaines did effortlessly prior to the ACL tear, and something that he seemed to lack in 2016. If the few snaps I saw him going down the field against the Patriots are any indication, that issue may be gone now.

And it’s not as though it were just against Hogan (who is a solid deep threat with decent speed) either.

Brandin Cooks actually manages to get a step on Gaines on this snap, and as we saw in the Mitchell review, that can be fatal against a receiver with his speed. However, Gaines recovered well and ran down the field stride for stride with Cooks. Highly encouraging.

Another trait that made Gaines able to compensate for some recognition issues in years past is that he was very quick for a lanky, fast corner (quite often quick and fast don’t go together). I’ve got good news on that front, too, again against Cooks.

I can’t tell you how nice it was to see Gaines stop and turn on a dime a few times against the Patriots because it’s not something we saw much of last year.

If Gaines really has finally returned to form physically, that should (in theory) help keep him from being a major weak link on the field. Of course he still was beaten a fair amount against the Patriots, so it’s tough to say at this point if he can return to the player he was prior to his ACL tear (he was a favorite of mine, and as recently as early 2015 I was calling him the Chiefs’ best cover corner on a snap-by-snap basis).

Another issue that didn’t present itself against the Patriots but could be a problem is how well Gaines plays the ball. In years past, this wasn’t an issue. But in preseason this year there were multiple snaps where Gaines had great coverage but just didn’t turn and find the ball, or turned too late and didn’t make a play on it (instead just opting to go for the tackle). Again, in years past Gaines has shown the ability to make plays on the ball, but the Patriots game didn’t really present any situations to demonstrate if that’s something he’s working his way back towards as well.

Overall, as bizarre as it sounds given their differing results on more basic statistics - catches allowed and penalties - I believe Mitchell outplayed Gaines on a snap-by-snap basis by a solid amount. Had Gaines been targeted on every loss the way Mitchell was, he would’ve had a very, very rough game. I couldn’t tell you why Brady went towards Mitchell instead, when Mitchell was able to give as good as he got (killing three drives at least despite some rough snaps too). But I’m glad he did, to be perfectly frank.

Gaines still needs to work on his feel to be able to keep from quick cuts (or any cuts, really) from leaving him 3-4 yards away from his receiver, and his game against the Patriots wasn’t good enough for me to hop back on the bandwagon.

However, Gaines did flash some physical traits that I haven’t seen since 2015, and he improved as the game went along, becoming a big part of the whole secondary frustrating Brady by providing zero windows in the fourth quarter. So it was enough to make me at least have some hope that Gaines can help hold things down as the Chiefs wait for Steven Nelson to return, and maybe even contribute some after that time as well.