There was no higher of a risk versus reward player in the 2013 NFL Draft than Louisiana State’s Tyrann Mathieu. His off-the-field indiscretions are well documented and a source of contention during the evaluation period. All that aside, were only interested on where and how Mathieu fits in with the Cardinals defense.
There was a buzz about “The Honey Badger” following OTA’s. Mathieu drew the ultimate praise from new Cardinal quarterback Carson Palmer who told Peter King, “He (Mathieu) reminds me of Troy Polamalu with his closing speed.” Not a shabby comparison for someone that many thought was too big of a risk to be drafted.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles made no bones about Mathieu’s role on this defense. Mathieu was on the field with the first-team in “nickel packages.” NFL offenses have historically forced the hand of those on defense. We may be experiencing a ‘golden age’ of offensive football with many teams adapting spread, zone-read principles and the pistol formation as more than just novel concepts. The answer by NFL defenses is increasingly becoming disguising fronts, coverages, and blitzes in “hybrid” schemes.
The days of lining up in base “40” or “30” fronts is a thing of the past. The most important asset to these “hybrid” defenses is a “hybrid” defender. It was never more evident than the 2013 NFL Draft, when two of the top six picks were “hybrid” pass rushers. One could make an argument for Tyrann Mathieu being a modern day “hybrid” safety. Mathieu’s early success will largely be predicated on Todd Bowles ability to move him around the defense in sub-packages. Mathieu was at his best at LSU when John Chavis used him in a variety of fashions. After the break we take a look at some of roles.
Mathieu will be listed on the depth chart as a free safety and could unseat Yeremiah Bell before the season kicks off to be the starter. Bell is 35-years old and has six career interceptions. Not exactly confidence inspiring for a new DC in Arizona. The one, most overlooked aspect of Mathieu’s game is that he is an intelligent on-field defender – capable of calling the shots in the secondary early.
Mathieu was viewed by most as a safety heading into the draft because of the lack of elite cover skills to stay at the corner position. What Mathieu lacks in size he will make up for with his knowledge of the game and tenacious style of play.
I expect that Mathieu will win the starting free safety position as camp bears out but sticking him solely in the backend would be a mistake.
There’s little doubt that Mathieu’s could factor in as a slot cornerback in Arizona. I’m not sure that this is his best fit at the next level, despite playing significant snaps in the slot at LSU. That said, Mathieu will be able to man the slot effectively but using him solely in this role will be detrimental to his development.
Mathieu is going to struggle covering quicker, faster slot receivers. His specialty isn’t lining up in off-man coverage and running with guys down the field. Mathieu is a matchup corner in the league. He’s not going to lock down outside receivers and will struggle in a bunch of slot matchups. But defenses are schemed on a week-to-week basis and Mathieu was and will be very good in certain matchups.
Mathieu lined up over half the snaps at this position throughout the 2011 season – a season which led to Mathieu being a Heisman finalist.
Mathieu is a nightmare for OC’s, especially on the goal line – lined up over the slot. Mathieu’s confidence is at it’s highest in this position and teams should look elsewhere when this situation poses itself.
We call this technique “dead foot” – in off-man coverage on the goal line, the corner will literally leave his feet on the goal line and read the receiver’s break to determine the break on the ball. The problem is that it requires supreme confidence in your technique because the corner will have no one over the top for help and has to allow the receiver to soak up cushion before he makes his move. Mathieu is a master of this technique – he breaks on this one and runs the route for the receiver – nearly coming up with a big pick.
“THE BIG NICKEL”
However you slice it or whatever you call it – it’s all about bringing in a safety as the third linebacker. Do yourself a favor and count how many times a game that a defense lines up with three or four ‘true’ linebackers on the field. Depending on the team, that answer could be less than 50% of the time. The nickel brings in an extra corner to replace a linebacker. The problem is that corners aren’t typically great in run support. The “big nickel” brings in a safety that can play the run, cover athletic tight ends, and blitz. The problem is that you have to find the right safety to play the position.
The increase in athletic, flex tight ends has made it difficult to cover with traditional linebackers. Asking a linebacker – any linebacker – to cover a Jimmy Graham-type for the entirety of a game is asking for problems. Arizona will face off against St. Louis (Jared Cook/Lance Kendricks), San Francisco (Vernon Davis/Vance McDonald), and Seattle (Zach Miller) in six contests. Asking Lorenzo Alexander or Sam Acho to cover those guys will make for a long day. Todd Bowles would be wise to audition Mathieu at this role in training camp and I happen to think this may be his best asset to an NFL team.
At 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds, Mathieu’s size is less than desirable to this role. That said, the position requires the ability to adequately cover, tackle in a condensed formation, and blitz off the edge. Check. Check. And Check. Mathieu excelled at LSU in those three areas and was a disruptive nightmare that had to be accounted for on every snap.
Mathieu is brought in the box – as the “Star,” lined up to the strongside. John Chavis and LSU frequently used sub-packages with Mathieu walked up on the line of scrimmage or as a third linebacker because of his ability to cover bigger tight ends, play the run, and make plays off the edge against the run and as a pass rusher. Tennessee condenses the formation in “12” personnel and Chavis isn’t afraid to roll the dice with Mathieu as the SLB.
Mathieu walked up on the weakside – a position that he did a lot of damage in during his days at LSU. Mathieu is going to accounted for by a back. His speed, agility, and tenacity make it a near-impossible assignment leading to Aaron Murray running for his life and making an off-target pass.
SPECIAL TEAMS MAVEN
At the very least, Mathieu is going to be an impact special teams player as a gunner and punt returner. Mathieu averaged over 15 yards per return during his Heisman finalist season of 2011 and returned two for scores. He’s fearless and finds way to make big plays everytime he gets his hands on the ball – a recipe for a great returner.
In addition to his prowess as a returner, he could be equally as impactful as a gunner. It’s conceivable that Mathieu will have an instant impact on special teams and could become one of the more well rounded, impactful special teams players’ in the league – an underrated necessity.
The Cardinals rolled the dice on Mathieu in the third round of April’s draft. It truly was a roll of the dice in the hopes that he would be mentored by former teammate and friend Patrick Peterson and pay instant dividends as a playmaker.
The Jaguars revealed a new position to NFL depth charts when they listed Denard Robinson as “OW” – offensive weapon. Mathieu could simply be the defensive version “DW” on Arizona’s depth chart. It’s clear that his versatility and ability to disrupt offenses is unique and shouldn’t be pigeonholed into one position but moved around the defense to create deception.
Today’s defensive gameplans should be largely predicated on the ability to deceive the offense. The prevalence of hybrid defenses and hybrid defenders in sub-packages is one of the few advantages that a defense has over an offense. Mathieu defines the term “hybrid” and will be an asset to Todd Bowles from day one – assuming he can stay together off the field.