When the Chicago Bears signed cornerback Tracy Porter this off-season, few took notice.
The seven-year veteran was a second-round pick (40th overall) of the New Orleans Saints in 2009. Immediately out of the gate, Porter dealt with injuries. He played just five games his rookie year before being place on IR with a disloctated wrist. Since then, Porter has played a full 16-game slate just once in his career - 2012 with the Oakland Raiders - and he's played for three different teams the past three seasons.
One of those was the Denver Broncos, then coached by current Bears head coach John Fox.
"He’s a football player. He’s smart," John Fox said. "He understands the passing game in the National Football League. He’s an aware player, he’s got good ball skills, he’s got good transition skills. He’s got skins on the wall - he’s done it before, and at a high level. It was just a matter of getting him healthy enough to go out there so he could perform."
Porter missed a good chunk of training camp as well as three preseason games this year due to leg injuries, which included a hamstring strain that kept him out of the first two regular-season contests. To stay motivated during that time, he leaned on the coaching staff and his teammates.
"Just the fact that coach Fox had confidence in me, my teammates had confidence in me and the fact that I have confidence in myself," Porter said. "I knew what I could do once healthy. Just having those three aspects allowed me to stay motivated."
He was hardly used in Week 3 but against the Raiders in Week 4, Porter started over Alan Ball, who has struggled this year. In that contest, Porter shadowed receiver Amari Cooper, the fourth overall pick in this year's draft who, the two weeks previous, took both Jimmy Smith and Joe Haden, two of the top cover corners in the league, behind the woodshed. Yet with Porter covering him, Cooper caught just three passes for 23 yards.
"I obviously have a lot of faith in his abilities, having coached him before," said Fox. "I think the issue there was he had a hamstring injury. For skilled people those aren’t easy things to get over. They’re hard to put time limits on. So I think once he was healthy we were excited to get him back for sure."
Against the Chiefs last week, Porter had one of the biggest plays of the game, knocking away a third-down slant pass with a little more than two minutes left in the game. The pass breakup gave Chicago's offense the ball, and Jay Cutler promptly drove the team in for the winning score.
"Well, my mindset was to get the ball back for our offense. Do whatever it took to make a play," Porter said. "We knew that [the Chiefs], any team for that matter, when you have the lead, you’re not going to try to throw a shot all the way down the field. So it’s just me playing proper technique, being aggressive on the ball, having a good feel for what they like to run. He ran the slant, and I was able to make a play on the ball."
Porter has solidified himself as the club's top cornerback, which is a huge boost for a secondary that couldn't stop anyone the first three regular-season games.
What has made Porter so effective? I broke down his game film the last two weeks. Here's what I found.
On this snap, Porter is covering Cooper one-on-one. Cooper will run a 12-yard hitch route.
Porter is in press coverage, lined up just two yards across from Cooper.
As Cooper breaks down, notice Porter using his hands to measure the receiver, without grabbing him. Also notice his eyes burning into Cooper's chest.
As the reciever turns back to the line of scrimmage, Porter's eyes have switched into the backfield to find the football. There is contact here but nothing egregious.
Porter jumps the route as the receiver falls down. The pass falls well short and the play ends in an incompletion.
Analysis: The key on this play is Porter's eyes. Both Alan Ball and Kyle Fuller refuse to turn and look for the football, even after receivers stare back at the line of scrimmage for three seconds. Porter sticks in the receiver's hip and waits for him to make his break, then he immediately looks into the backfield. At the same time, he keeps tabs on Cooper with his hands, without eliciting a pass interference call. You can't cover a deep out any better than this.
Here again Porter is lined up a few yards from Cooper, only this time it's zone coverage. Because of that, we see Porter already bailing out of his backpedal before the ball is snapped. He doesn't have the short zone, so there's no reason to waste time turning and running. On this play, Cooper will run an inside stop route.
The inside linebacker is clearing to the left flat, which leaves a space open in the middle of the field. Cooper recognizes it and breaks back toward the line of scrimmage. Notice Porter cutting in unison with the receiver.
Porter breaks aggressively on the pass and closes hard on Cooper, hitting him in the back the moment the ball arrives. The pass drops to the ground incomplete.
Analysis: This play demonstrates Porter's ability to read and react, and then break on a pass. A play likes this requires quickness, intelligence and field vision.
This is the final third-down play against the Chiefs. Jeremy Maclin will run a slant pattern, with Porter in press coverage.
As Maclin makes his break, notice Porter's eyes staring right at the quarterback.
Porter closes on the ball and knocks it to the ground.
Analysis: Like Porter said, he knew the Chiefs weren't going over the top on this play, so he sat on the short pass and jumped the slant. That's intelligent play from a veteran who clearly understood the situation.