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Seahawks on tape: What’s working for and against Byron Maxwell at CB2

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Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Richard Sherman is no longer a Seattle Seahawk. That still takes some getting used to.

Filling the chasm created by Sherman’s departure is second-year corner Shaquill Griffin, who moves across the field to left cornerback; The majority of the time, Seattle puts their best CB on that side of the field, as it’s the first part of the field a right-handed quarterback sees and the area he prefers to throw to.

While we know Griffin is the new CB1, we have no real idea who will slot into his old spot. The #2 cornerback position is now open.

As Pete Carroll said in his first training camp presser, “This is a fantastic competition to keep your eye on.” A lot of focus has been on the battle in the running back room between Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, yet in camp it is easier for defensive backs and wide receivers to impress, with contact rules restricting what can be garnered from the run game.

Though this offseason has provided plenty of gut-wrenchingly difficult moments, this vicious cornerback competition is exciting and almost a novelty given how the “Always Compete” mantra has been worn down over the years due to poor draft classes plus quality starting talent.

So, let’s take a look at the contestants vying for the place on the right of the Seahawks’ defensive backfield. We’ll begin by casting our eyes over the three names Carroll mentioned in the aforementioned press conference, beginning today with the expected veteran leader for the job. Then in the next piece I’ll delve deeper, studying the players further down the depth chart.

Byron Maxwell

We know what Maxwell was in his first spell in Seattle, and we know what he became in Philadelphia and Miami. We’re just going to analyze his second spell with the Seahawks, after they signed him in November following Sherman’s Achilles injury.

Maxwell spent time at both cornerback positions, first slotting in at right corner with Jeremy Lane on the left, and then moving to LCB once Griffin returned from his groin injury. Maxwell’s technique, including the step-kick, took a few games for him to get fully comfortable utilizing.

Encouragingly, issues such as overstepping in his step-kick, false-stepping with impatience at the line of scrimmage and reverting to a backpedal vanished as the season went on. Therefore, in the interests of fairness, most of the clips we’ll watch will be from when he appeared fully assimilated, which was around two weeks into his time on the roster.

When playing in the deep third zone technique, Seattle requires its corners to make a simple read from the #1 receiver to the #2. If the #1 receiver cuts their route off short, say on a hitch, Carroll wants the cornerback to move over to the #2 receiver and stay over the top vertically. This protects the defense against Cover 3 beaters, such as a smash concept, and picks up seam routes. Maxwell has this pattern matching nailed down.

In his first full-game back, Week 12 versus the San Francisco 49ers, he executed it even with the 49ers switch releasing. In the second clip, we also see how well Maxwell disguises his look-in zone bail—leaving it as late as possible when initially in a press alignment.

The Seahawks’ defensive back technique demands the corners use the sideline as their friend. When playing look-in zone, funneling the receiver into the deep middle of the field safety is important. In bump and run, once the corner has diagnosed the go-route, he must squeeze the receiver to the sideline and deny him space. With his back turned to the quarterback in more of a trail technique, the corner has to limit the room for a catch and maximize the time to play the ball.

Maxwell does this well. He regularly pushes the receiver to the area he wants, emphasizing his space. On this wheel route versus San Francisco, they try and go after him on a 3rd down play early in the game. With Blaine Gabbert knowing the coverage is man thanks to the pre-snap motion, his first read is the wheel-rub on Maxwell. Yet Maxwell avoids the pick, flattens the wheel route and then turns up field with it. Gabbert is forced to progress to the next read and the pressure gets home.

The other cut-up is from Week 17 and a Cardinals two-minute drive. They’re up 17-7 at this point, and on 1st and 10 Bruce Arians calls a trademark deep-shot. Maxwell does just enough here to push the receiver to the edge, and Jaron Brown can only get one foot in bounds. (More on Maxwell’s lack of contact early in the route and poor trail ball location later.)

A favorite method of dissection for offenses versus Seattle’s Cover 1/Cover 3 is the mesh concept. For corners, when in press-man, that often involves covering shallow crossing routes. Against the nippier, faster receivers, Maxwell struggles in such a foot race.

Covering crossers, Maxwell is fine running in step with less athletic guys. However, against the faster players, he gets in trouble. This play against the Jacksonville Jaguars felt pivotal at the time, because it was Maxwell succeeding against a burner in Dede Westbrook. The Seahawks were losing 30-24 with 3.36 left to play, and this 2nd and 8 was huge.

Maxwell step-kicks well, opening to break quickly afterwards with his second step backwards from the left foot. He takes a superb path to the receiver, staying in the hip pocket in between man and ball. He skillfully gets his eyes to Blake Bortles and his length shows up to swat the pass incomplete.

The complimentary clip illustrates Maxwell’s step-kicks at its best again. Crucially, he stays square at the line of scrimmage, not opening his hips up field to cover the vertical route and instead waiting for the receiver to clearly declare. This integral patience is rewarded. As a result, he is ready to undercut the slant and break the pass up.

Playing in a press alignment, it is vital that the cornerback makes some sort of contact with the receiver in order to disrupt the route. Otherwise, what’s the point of lining up so close to the receiver? It leaves the corner at a massive disadvantage, making them far more likely to be burnt.

Maxwell’s jam or “bump” in the bump and run needs work. This video displays a variety of small technique issues that, if they can be brushed up, would make him a far better corner.

Play 1, Jacksonville: He allows the receiver to re-set the LOS by moving backwards, rather than staying there after his step-kicks and jamming the receiver. A better jam would have flattened the route and disrupted the timing. For this quick pass, Bortles would have been forced to move on to his next read as a result. Maxwell’s relinquishing of room allows the space for the receiver to make the impressive catch inside.

Play 2, Dallas Cowboys: He does not kick back far enough or outside enough after his initial step. This makes him unable to get any hand on the receiver’s go route at all. He ends up not being able to locate the football because he is playing catch-up, and the contact he makes at the end of the route sees the receiver fall down to earn a DPI flag. With contact towards the start of the route, Maxwell would have had the leeway to get his head round to look for the ball towards the end. Referees are far more lenient regarding contact when the corner makes an attempt to locate the pass.

Sure, you aren’t going to have the opportunity to connect with the receiver every time. Yet in my notes, this wasn’t a one-off issue. It transpired multiple times in a game. That’s a problem. Maxwell’s athleticism, which might be starting the decline which comes with age, means that getting contact on the receiver and staying patient at the line of scrimmage consistently is integral to his coverage success.

Maxwell’s speed discrepancy shows up at the stem of routes too. Oftentimes his coverage was very tight on routes, until the break point where the receiver separated through superior burst rather than it being a technique issue for Maxwell.

The plays included in the video both resulted in incompletions, and the coverage would still grade positively. However, I’ve included them to demonstrate why the upside of a faster corner such as Tre Flowers is so attractive. The best quarterbacks will be able to thread these sorts of throws in. You don’t need me to tell you that Gabbert and Drew Stanton aren’t the best, or even close!

Seattle’s main emphasis to their corners is to not get beat deep. However, that does not change their expectations of man coverage on shallower routes. Maxwell has a clear weakness against a certain receiver release. Let me explain:

In each of those clips, Maxwell is assigned with press-man coverage. The walk-it-out release sees him not stay square at the line of scrimmage for long enough. Instead, he opens his hips to the outside way too early and turns to run up field, fooling for the go route each time. As soon as the receiver sees those hips swing, he knows the inside is as spacious as Olympic National Park. This has been an issue for Maxwell at Training Camp too.

The Seahawks’ defense, their base coverage being Cover 3 with their corners frequently playing a hybrid man-zone, is more likely to give up the slant than, for instance, a Cover 2 with the ‘backers watching for the slant. Admittedly, even Sherman had issues against the nippier receivers and their agility at the line of scrimmage. However, Maxwell gets in a pickle every time with such a release from the wideout.

I’ve managed to pick this flaw up. You can bet NFL coordinators will. Right now, it’s a simple completion each time and the issue could be exacerbated further by the wideout running a sluggo (slant go) with the same release at the line of scrimmage.

Maxwell’s run support is full of willing, and he makes contact with opponents how the Seahawks, USA Football, and now the NFL, want—Hawk-Tackling with his near-shoulder as the strike zone and his head out of the way. However, his wider-area pursuit suffers at times from patchy footwork when trying to get into a position to launch and bring the ball carrier down. The issue is he is either overly aggressive and overstepping, leaving the upfield open, or he does not use his feet enough—resulting in lunging and misses.

Play 1, San Francisco: He smartly changes his technique to give him a look-in at the mesh point and identifies the correct ball carrier. Yet, after correctly pressing the LOS to turn the runner inside, his angle becomes too aggressive and shallow, and he doesn’t stay tracking where the runner’s nearside hip will be. He ends up not using his feet enough and launches from too far away. The result is a completely missed tackle.

Play 2, Dallas: Yes it is 3rd and 17 on this play and yes, Maxwell does have help inside. However, he should not be so lazy in his foot-usage. There is no movement of feet. Chopping, short-stride, breaking down or swooping. Whatever you want to call it, Maxwell doesn’t do it. It sees him run clean past the ball carrier with no contact at all.

Play 3, Jacksonville: But he can tackle. Of course he can. Here, after capable route processing, he is forced into a difficult pursuit and angle after the pivot route. But he chases it down and with a firm wrap he drags the receiver to the floor. On the Jaguars’ first drive of the game, getting them to go three and out with this tackle was a great statement of defiance.

Play 4, Dallas: And of course he still has that trademark punch to force fumbles!

Maxwell when he can see the ball is accomplished at making a play on it. When he can not see the ball, the opposite is true. Trailing receivers downfield on go routes, with his back to the quarterback, his timing of when to look back for the ball and when picking the ball out in the moment is awry--as seen in two plays I’ve included already (Arizona catch out of bounds and Dallas DPI).

Here, with Seattle trailing 27-17 and defending a 3rd and 3, Jacksonville goes after Maxwell. He makes contact and presses to the edge of the field, but he gets caught looking for the ball at the wrong point over the incorrect shoulder. The pass ends up going right over him for the huge completion.

Now observe how improved he is when seeing the football. The first play he plays the hook zone for the Cover 2 defense nicely, undercutting the out and breaking the pass up to get the defense off the field on the 3rd and 9. Second, he mans up and is all over the out route to reach in for the incompletion on a 3rd and 6.

Ultimately, Maxwell had an impressive 2017. He only gave up one touchdown, with another falling in his vicinity. There is a similar theme to the two scores. As the play is extended by the quarterback, Maxwell does not stay aware of the deep crossing route coming into his area from the opposite side of the field.

The first play, in garbage time against San Francisco and the Seahawks up big, he needs to get his eyes to other routes potentially coming into his zone. On the Arizona touchdown the corners were manned up, but he still could have switched on to pick up the open receiver given that Stanton had escaped to that side.

Maxwell is the most experienced corner by far, heading into his eighth season with 52 regular season starts. You’d hope that wouldn’t count for much, and that he’ll have to fight until the last pass of camp…

Coming up in the next piece, I’ll take a look at Maxwell’s competition for the number two spot, which may be significantly more contested than many people originally thought it would be.