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Charvarius Ward’s production has improved, but his process still needs work

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The Chiefs cornerback is improving — but how comfortable should the Chiefs be with him?

Minnesota Vikings v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Coming into the 2019 NFL season, the Kansas City Chiefs knew they were going to have to rely at least a little bit on cornerback Charvarius Ward — but when the season started, Ward struggled. The Jacksonville Jaguars were able to target him repeatedly. While the Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, and Detroit Lions didn’t have the same big days against Ward, they spot-targeted him on specific drives.

It was starting to look like Ward was a placeholder until Morris Claiborne returned from his suspension.

But since the Lions game, opponent’s passing production has decreased; teams have been attempting (and completing) fewer passes against the entire Chiefs secondary — Ward at an even lower rate than his teammates.

So the question had to be raised: “Is it that teams are not targeting Ward to exploit other weaknesses — or is Ward playing exceptionally well?”

But like many Chiefs fans, I have been burned by the quick flashes of young, promising corners (like Marcus Cooper and Phillip Gaines) before they leveled out to match their talent level. So while I have been slowly coming around to the idea that Ward has been playing better football, I have been hesitant to declare Ward is making the leap to become a star player. My singular hold-up has been the emphasis I place on the process that leads to production. Without a good process, consistent production at the NFL level simply isn’t possible.

So to really answer the question, I wanted to wait until the Chiefs matched up against a good wide receiver group. Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings — with Kirk Cousins throwing to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen — fit that bill. While Thielen had to leave the game early after tweaking the hamstring injury that had limited his practice time last week, the Vikings still had young wide receiver Olabisi Johnson — who has been playing well this year. Seeing how Ward did against this passing attack would tell us much about how he is playing now.

Let’s swing down to the AP Laboratory and work through Ward’s film against the Vikings.

Release at the line of scrimmage

This is where Ward is at his absolute best: up on the line of scrimmage in a wide receiver’s face and getting his hands on them. When he can do this, he is good at disrupting the timing of the release.

On this play, Ward does a good job sticking to the hip of the wide receiver, feeling their route and squeezing them in towards downfield help. When in press, Ward does a great job keeping his feet quiet; his only real movement is the step-kick popularized by the Seattle Seahawks. His hands then fire out to either make contact with the wideout — pressing his space or to keep his own chest clean — which allows him to just run on the hip of the receiver.

On this play, Ward abandons the step-kick — and initially gets beat off the line of scrimmage. Diggs’ stutter release freezes Ward — and gets him to tilt his tips outside to give Diggs the free inside release. Luckily, Daniel Sorensen is flashing into the flat, which alters Diggs’ initial path; the route is coming back outside by design. Ward does a nice job recovering into a solid position, making the window for the throw tighter.

Overall, Ward is pretty good when playing near the line of scrimmage and working on a receiver’s initial releases. When using the step-kick, he is patient and keeps his hips centered on target, making it hard for them to beat him. But shifty wideouts with good release plans can get his hips turned and steal a free release.

Route stems

The part of a route leading up to the final break — that is, the route stem — is where Ward seems to get himself in the most trouble. It... uh... stems from his stiffer hips and his ability to change direction.

This is a double move — something that sometimes gets even the best cornerbacks — but it’s important to pay attention to the process that leads to the open receiver.

Ward’s first step takes a hard inside leverage — trying to use the sideline as a help defender — but he isn’t working to gain depth or get hands on the receiver. This immediately puts him behind the play; he has to turn to run with a receiver who has momentum. When the wideout attacks Ward with a fake back inside, Ward has to widen his base to flip his hips around. Then the receiver works back to the outside — while Ward tries to grab him to slow him down — but his hands are knocked away and the wide receiver is clear to the end zone.

When working on linear route stems, Ward fares extremely well with his size and speed. But when players aggressively attack him — forcing him into lateral movement — the stiffness of his hips keeps him from maintaining his position until the route breaks.

Route breaks

If the stem of a route is the most significant area in which Ward needs improvement, it’s the route break that suffers the most.

On this play, even when being attacked vertically by a tight end, Ward is tilting his hips early — resulting in a slow break back toward the ball when the tight end snaps off the route. Ward is working from off coverage — which isn’t his strength — and his footwork on the step-replace is very forced and choppy. But if he were able to gain some depth, he would be better suited to drive downhill on the ball.

With Ward’s slower change of direction, his footwork has to be on point more than with someone who has better agility. One of the biggest sticking points with Ward is that these comebacks routes often seem like a free 10 yards (or more) for an offense — no matter what coverage he is is in.

On this play, as the receiver breaks, Ward drives on him exceptionally well — and even turns to make a play on the ball. For Ward, there is a higher comfort level at the line of scrimmage than in off coverage — but on this play, it helped him that he never had to never change directions.

Ward has the speed and acceleration to drive on plays all over the field. He just has to consistently be in position to do so. The difficulty for Ward is that cornerbacks are rarely in a position that they only have to move one direction; it’s at that change of direction point that Ward has his most trouble — and a lot of it starts with how receivers set him up before their breaks.

Man coverage

Ward is at his best in man coverage when he’s bodied up to a wide receiver — and it’s even better when he’s in the red zone where there is limited space; he doesn’t have to be as concerned with getting beat deep or having to run across the entire field.

Zone coverage

A concern the entire Nerd Squad has had with Ward in a Steve Spagnuolo defense has been how he would perform in a zone-heavy scheme. It’s safe to say he’s been better than we all thought he would be — but our concerns are still there.

As it pertains to Ward, this play is in two parts.

First: Ward has the first vertical threat out of the bunch, which is a wide receiver on a hitch route. Ward tops the route but then loses eye contact with the route; the receiver sits down for a hitch route while Ward is still opening up to run deep. As Ward labors to flip his hips back around to drive on a pass that never comes...

Second: The H-back runs a flat-wheel route. Initially, the linebacker has them in coverage. Normally in a four-read coverage like this, the linebacker runs with the wheel route up the sideline because they don’t know what the cornerback behind them is doing; they may be occupied with another vertical route. But the linebacker actually peels off — releasing the H-back vertically — when he sees another route in the flat. Ward — who is not occupied vertically — has to pick up the wheel route. He’s not only late to see it but is also still recovering from his first change of direction. Thankfully the ball is forced out early, but Ward is still coming toward the line of scrimmage as the wheel route is about to pass him downfield.

The combination of sloppy foot technique in off-man coverage, difficulty processing the quarterback and all route combinations — and finally, his limitations when changing directions — limit Ward’s overall effectiveness in zone coverage.

The bottom line

Midway through the season, what are the big-picture thoughts about Charvarius Ward? His production is looking very good as the year goes on. He’s not targeted often — and when he is, the results have been skewing more and more in the Chiefs’ favor. I was on the verge of labeling him as a solid-to-good second cornerback — maybe even with potential to become the first corner — but after looking at Ward’s process, I’m not so sure.

The process isn’t all bad, Ward is exceptional in the red zone, quite good in man coverage and is improving his technique and ball skills. The improved production can be misleading, too. Just in the Vikings game, he was beaten on two plays where the ball was thrown elsewhere. Those would have made a difference of at least 50 yards and at least one touchdown. Ward’s change of direction, eyes in zone coverage and inconsistent footwork still provide him with challenges to overcome.

Charvarius Ward has outplayed my expectations in 2019. He has proven he belongs in the Chiefs cornerback rotation — both this year and moving forward. But the Chiefs still desperately need a first cornerback for the future - and this year, too. I would feel much more comfortable with Ward as the third cornerback while he’s still developing.