Jalen Ramsey has done a lot of talking off the field and to this point in his career, he’s back all of that talk up on it.
Ramsey, the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, has been one the league’s best cornerbacks since he stepped onto the field as a rookie. He was a big part of a defense that ranked first in DVOA last season. Individually he was one of the hardest corners to pass on in the league. Per Football Outsiders, Ramsey ranked eighth among 81 qualified cornerbacks in yards allowed per pass and seventh in success rate. He was one of six corners to finish among the top 10 in both categories. One of the others was Ramsey’s teammate A.J. Bouye, who ranked 10th in both.
While this is going to focus on Ramsey, we can’t ignore the impact Bouye has on the defense. But even with two shutdown corners on the roster, Ramsey more often takes over the lead role. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, Jacksonville kept their cornerbacks on sides of the field 78 percent of the time, the 16th-highest rate in the league. When the Jaguars did move the corners around, it was to keep Ramsey on an opponent’s top receiver. It even moved into the slot, where Ramsey spent nine percent of his coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus. And with that, Jacksonville ranked first in DVOA against opposing No. 1 receivers along with just 42 yards allowed per game.
With a 6-foot-1, 208-pound frame and 4.4 speed, Ramsey has a size/speed/strength combination not many cornerbacks possess and he takes advantage of it on every snap. The multitude of ways Ramsey can attack makes him such a hard draw for any opposing wide receiver.
While Ramsey’s 6-1 height is around the 82nd percentile among NFL cornerbacks, his 33 ⅜ arm length puts him in the 96th percentile. He uses that arm length in a variety of ways, one of which is what makes him among the best press corners in the league.
The below is a third-and-10 against the Los Angeles Rams. Ramsey lined up tight against Sammy Watkins on the left side of the field.
Ramsey initiated contact right off the line and Watkins was not able to fight off the cornerback early. When quarterback Jared Goff got to the top of his drop, Watkins was barely three yards past the line of scrimmage.
That type of coverage on the outside opens up the rest of the defense to cover elsewhere. As Watkins is locked down, the single-high safety is able to cover the seam route over the top two defenders underneath that route. The other side of the field potentially has two linebackers on the tight end with the underneath defender able to cover the running back out of the backfield. Also in the slot, A.J. Bouye can sit off Robert Woods who was a checkdown option well short of the first down marker.
This tight coverage allows the defensive line to collapse the pocket and with nowhere to throw the ball, Goff gets hit by Calais Campbell for a sack.
That size also allows Ramsey to divert routes to the sideline. The below is a first-and-10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Antonio Brown during the regular season. After the snap, Ramsey made contact with Brown about five yards past the line of scrimmage then positioned himself inside so Brown could only fade his route down the sideline. As the pair got further down the field, the window for a throw to fit got smaller and while Brown was able to bring in the ball over Ramsey in coverage, he didn’t have enough room to get his feet in bounds and the pass was ruled incomplete.
Ramsey is so good at using his leverage and keeping receivers close to the sideline, which decreases the chance of a catch. He does that here on a second-and-7 against DeAndre Hopkins.
For a lot of press corners, that’s where it stops. But Ramsey also has the speed and instincts to play off receivers and still make an impact. Take this play against the Seattle Seahawks from Week 14. After motion, Ramsey is about seven yards off the line of scrimmage across from Doug Baldwin.
With such long strides and abrupt quickness, Ramsey was able to backpedal nearly 15 yards — around 20 past the line of scrimmage — before he needed to flip his hips and run with his back to the quarterback. This put him in position to stay back to prevent the deep pass and also have the ability to break on the route if cut short.
The pass ended up being a deep pass to the end zone, but with Ramsey in superior position the whole way, he was able to push past Baldwin and put himself in the better position to make the catch for an interception.
It’s possible for Ramsey to sit back like that because he might be the best corner in the league at breaking on the ball. His ability to read the quarterback and receiver in addition to his quickness makes him a threat to make a play regardless of the receiver or the route.
This is something that became an emphasis for the Jaguars last season — allowing Ramsey to do more things that make him special. After some vocal concerns with the defensive scheme in 2016, defensive coordinator Todd Wash loosened up some of the responsibilities for his star corner.
“He’s opened up [the defense] a lot,” Ramsey told Mike Kaye of the First Coast News last October. “The base stuff that we run is primarily the same but he’s given us more freedom - I would say - to make plays, go out and take gambles and just kind of be free without techniques. We’ve been able to add to our toolboxes and been able to do different little stuff that helps us be successful on Sunday.”
The below play came on a third-and-7 against the Indianapolis Colts. Ramsey was lined up against T.Y. Hilton on the right side of the formation (top of screen). Ramsey started to bail before the snap and sat back a few yards behind the first down marker. When Hilton turned to break off his route at the marker, Ramsey planted and broke on the ball for a near interception.
Per Football Outsiders, Ramsey led all cornerbacks in “defeats” last season. They consider a defeat (1) a tackle that results in a loss of yardage, including sacks (2) any play that results in a turnover, including tipped passes which are then intercepted, or (3) any tackle or tipped pass that leads to a stop on third or fourth down.
The pass breakup against Hilton would count as a defeat. Last season Ramsey made a habit of showing up in all three categories.
Here’s another play against Brown and the Steelers. Ramsey was again one-on-one with Brown (bottom of the screen). Ramsey played off and at about 12 yards into the route, Brown broke inside and created a decent amount of separation from the cornerback.
Against almost any other cornerback, that’s going to be enough for an easy Brown catch in the middle of the field. But with Ramsey’s recovery speed and a throw that ended up a little high, Ramsey was able to get a hand on the pass and tip it to safety Barry Church — who had dropped back from the line of scrimmage to a middle of the field robber in the scheme — for a pick-six.
Later in the season Ramsey made a similar play against the Chargers. Ramsey lined up against Keenan Allen, who might be the league’s best route runner, on third-and-1. Ramsey played a little tighter here, but again he was able to read the receiver on his break. With a little pressure in Philip Rivers’s face, the quarterback delivered a rushed high pass that Ramsey was able to tip the ball up for a near interception by defensive tackle Arby Jones — the play was first ruled an interception, but reversed on replay.
Ramsey isn’t unbeatable, but he can win in so many different ways it takes a special effort to get the better of him. That’s what Odell Beckham will be tasked with on most of his routes come Sunday. What a way to be welcomed back to the field for the Giants’ top receiver.