Editor's Note: In our play anatomy series, CardinalsSource looks at individuals plays that helped define the Arizona Cardinals' season or highlight a particular skill of a Cardinals' player. In this week's "Play Anatomy," we look at cornerback Justin Bethel's work in nickel packages.
The 2017 season wasn't kind to Justin Bethel.
The Arizona Cardinals' cornerback expected to enter training camp with an opportunity to win a starting job opposite Patrick Peterson, but an offseason surgery forced him to miss an extended portion of camp and provided a setback.
Eventually, by the time Bethel was ready to play, he didn't demonstrate nearly enough competency at the cornerback position to earn playing time, and once again, the Cardinals were forced to use Bethel almost exclusively as a special teams asset.
While Bethel is one of the best special teams players in the NFL, Arizona signed him to a three-year, $15 million deal in 2015 with the hopes that he would develop into a capable second or third cornerback.
By the middle of the season, as the Cardinals' depth was depleted in the secondary, Arizona had almost no choice but to use Bethel as a defensive back, and the results were hardly anything to write home about. Head coach Bruce Arians called Bethel a "failure in progress" at the cornerback position, essentially giving the cornerback a vote of zero confidence.
However, by the end of the season, Arians had changed his tune, and much of that had to do with the results the Cardinals received when they allowed Bethel to take over as a nickel cornerback late in the year.
In the final two games of the regular season, Bethel registered four passes defended and took an interception back for a touchdown that gave the Cardinals hope that perhaps they had found a home for Bethel as a nickel corner.
In this week's play anatomy, CardinalsSource will look at one of Bethel's impressive pass breakups he registered in week 16 against Seattle.
Early in the second half of Arizona's week 16 matchup with Seattle, the Cardinals held a 14-3 advantage and the Seahawks had the ball on Arizona's 34-yard line. On second down and three, the Seahawks came out with a bunch formation on the right side of the line of scrimmage, designed to confuse Cardinals' defenders on assignments in the passing game.
Because Arizona plays so much man coverage, these formations can be effective against the Cardinals because they rely on extremely quick communication and reactions from the team's defensive backs.
Prior to the snap, Bethel is responsible for any of the three eligible receivers that release over the middle of the field, and if multiple players release over the middle, Bethel is responsible for the first player because he's the defensive back at the greatest depth. As a result, Bethel has to be prepared to dissect the play immediately to make sure he stays with his man in coverage.
At the snap, though, Seattle shows a run read at the line of scrimmage. The Seahawks' right tackle is blocking down, while Seattle's tight end is man-on-man against Cardinals' edge rusher Markus Golden. Even though Seattle shows a run read, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse tips off to Bethel that the Seahawks might be using a play-action fake. Kearse does so by standing up straight out of his stance instead of keeping his shoulders square to Bethel as a run-blocker would, so Bethel is able to read and react accordingly.
As Kearse works across Bethel's face, he begins to pick up speed, and because Bethel aligned deeper than linebacker Kevin Minter, Bethel knows that Seattle is using play-action. If Kearse isn't trying to block Bethel or Minter, then there's no one left in the middle of the field, meaning Kearse is heading into a crossing pattern.
When Bethel sees this, he immediately works to close the gap on the shallow cross. He initially positions himself properly on Kearse's back shoulder so that if the ball is thrown to him, he can make an immediate tackle.
As the play continues to develop, though, Bethel uses his speed to go stride-for-stride with Kearse, and by the time the ball is out of quarterback Russell Wilson's hands, Bethel is ready to pounce. Instead of allowing a clear path for Kearse to come down with a reception, Bethel takes a step in front of his receiver, reaches his arm out, and bats the ball down to record a textbook pass breakup.
Bethel made this play look much easier than it actually is, especially because Seattle initially showed a run read at the line of scrimmage. Consider this, Bethel had to go from the possibility of defending the run, to looking up and potentially needing to cover any of the three eligible receivers on his side of the field. Furthermore, once Bethel does realize who he needs to cover, that receiver (Kearse), is in a crossing route, which is a very difficult pattern for a cornerback to defend.
This is the type of play that gives the Cardinals hope that Bethel can use his impressive change of direction skills as a slot corner in the future, and help maximize the value on the contract the Cardinals extended to him after the 2015 season.