Editor's Note: Our play anatomy series looks at individual plays from the Arizona Cardinals' 2016 season that help showcase a particular player or a particular skill. In this week's play anatomy, we're looking at safety Tony Jefferson's ability to stop the run.
A former undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma, Arizona Cardinals' safety Tony Jefferson has been doubted more than his fair share of times throughout his career. Even after an impressive start to his NFL career with the Cardinals, Jefferson entered free agency last offseason and couldn't find any suitors on the open market, ultimately forcing him to return to Arizona on a one-year contract for the 2016 season.
With the Cardinals' addition of Tyvon Branch this offseason, Jefferson was expected to be the team's third safety, handling an important rotational role as an extra defensive back. However, from the moment the season began, the Cardinals' injury issues, depth challenges in the defensive backfield, and Jefferson's strong play created the perfect storm that gave Jefferson a golden opportunity to serve as the team's starter.
By the end of the season, Jefferson had put together one of the top campaigns of any safety in the NFL, and did so as a punishing box defender, becoming one of the best in-the-box defensive backs of any safeties in the league.
In week three against Buffalo, Jefferson forced and recovered a fumble on an impressive play against Bills' running back LeSean McCoy, and in this week's play anatomy, we're going to examine how Jefferson put himself in position to make the play.
Prior to the snap, Jefferson is walked up in the box and playing about five to six yards off the line of scrimmage. Though the entire field isn't visible in the photo above, the Cardinals have five defensive backs on the field and walked Jefferson closer to the line to give the Bills' the look of a seven-man box. On Jefferson's side of the field, all of the run responsibilities of each Cardinals' defender are drawn out, to showcase which gap each player is responsible for defending. This is important, because the play Jefferson makes won't take place in his gap.
At the snap, the Bills send their left guard pulling to the right side of the line of scrimmage to attack Ed Stinson, the Cardinals' defensive lineman lined up in the B-gap. This allows their right tackle to attack linebacker Deone Bucannon, which then allows their right guard to attack Kevin Minter, the Cardinals' backside linebacker. The goal of this blocking scheme is to create a wash and seal off the A-gap for McCoy to run through. Buffalo leaves Jefferson unblocked because the Bills' hope is that he reads the left guard pulling to the right side of the line of scrimmage and steps into the C-gap, his gap of responsibility.
However, Jefferson doesn't do this, because when he sees both the Bills' tackle and guard executing down blocks to the linebacker level, he knows he's the unaccounted for defender. By stepping up in the box and closer to the line of scrimmage, he might take himself out of the play, especially because he would need to range two gaps over, from the C-gap to the A-gap, to have a chance to bring down McCoy. By waiting for the play to develop, Jefferson has a better chance of reacting to McCoy's movements, and ultimately making a tackle.
Instead of flying up into his gap (where the play was not designed to go), Jefferson is patient and waits for McCoy to attack the hole. Once McCoy hits the A-gap, Jefferson comes from a trail position and recognizes an opportunity. Because Buffalo sealed off the A-gap so well, McCoy thinks he's running free through to the secondary, and holds the ball loosely as a result. Immediately, Jefferson recognizes the opportunity to pounce.
When Jefferson makes contact with McCoy, he sideswipes his arm and jars the ball loose, forcing his first fumble of the season. McCoy was shocked by the contact, and can't recover, allowing Jefferson to pounce on the ball and give possession back to the Cardinals.
Jefferson's ability to dissect the play and make a proper read, essentially starting out from a linebacker's depth, showcases his versatility. Many safeties have a hard time reacting quickly to fast-paced run reads designed to trick linebackers into guessing the wrong gap, but Jefferson didn't have any problems here. Instead of being swallowed into the wash created by down blocks from the tackle and guard, Jefferson allows himself to react to McCoy's track, and ends up making the play as a result.
Though Jefferson wasn't forcing and recovering fumbles at such an impressive clip throughout the 2016 season, he was making excellent run reads and proving himself as one of the NFL's best in-the-box safeties and this is one of many examples we could use to show how Jefferson made an impact against the run.