The New York Giants secondary has been a much-maligned unit in 2019. With the defense ranking 28th in total yards allowed per game and 25th in passing yards per game, you can’t argue with the criticism, but the wheel of change has commenced. Not only was Sam Beal activated from the Injured Reserve, but Corey Ballentine, the sixth-round pick out of Washburn, received the nickel duties over Grant Haley in Monday.
Ballentine was drafted out of a Division II school, and had an 11 ¼ foot broad jump, which is in the 98th perfentile for his position in the NFL. He also had a vertical jump of 39 ½ feet, which is in the 87th percentile of his position, so the young corner does possess some intriguing lower body explosiveness.
Last week, I scrutinized Haley’s ability to effectively cover receivers at this level, which was evident on tape and proved itself true in the statistics, but Haley did not see the field in Week 9 -- that task was reserved for Ballentine who played 53 of the teams 69 snaps, all in the slot; for you math wizards, that means the defense was in sub-packages 77 percent of the time, which is honestly less than the last few weeks.
Between Ballentine and fellow rookie DeAndre Baker, there’s a lot of youth in the secondary. This youth has made its fair share of mistakes stemming from miscommunication and confusion on assignments that resulted in blown coverages and easy touchdown opportunities for the Giants opponents. This happened Monday on a third-and-14, during a one possession game. A 45-yard touchdown to Cooper was the result, as well as a fourth- quarter deficit that the Giants would not conquer:
The Giants are showing a 2 High coverage, but Ballentine and Baker are not on the same page; Ballentine carries the slot receiver up the field and never passes him off to the two-high safety look and Baker passes Amari Cooper off to the void that was Ballentine’s zone. The Giants utilize a lot of pattern match coverages which is essentially man coverage with zone principles and it relies a lot on cohesion and communication. You can see in the clip that Baker passes the inside release of Cooper off inside and fades into his zone towards the sideline, but everyone else (Janoris Jenkins, Jabrill Peppers, and Alec Ogletree) cover the Cowboys that enter their zone like it’s man coverage. Ballentine carries the slot receiver too far up the seam and neglects his responsibility as the hook zone defender on the seam. I would have initially thought that this was pure man coverage and that Baker made the mistake, but according to Pat Shurmur after the game, that’s not the case. Here’s a Q & A of Shurmur talking about this play after the game:
“Q: On the 45-yard touchdown to (Amari) Cooper, it looked like maybe (Corey) Ballentine was running man and everyone else was playing a zone. Something like that?
A: There’s a couple of players that could have played that better, but that wasn’t man coverage.
Q: Right, but it looked like he was playing man, no?
A: No. Well, he’s matching that initial receiver up the field, but that was through what was called as a zone coverage, which happens.
Q: So, he knew it was a zone but stayed with the guy? Is that what you’re saying there?
A: Yeah, but there was zone around him. So, in that situation there, there’s a couple things that could have been played better. So, if the ball gets completed, then we’ve obviously just gotta get it tackled and then play on.”
Giants nation has become accustomed to seeing these mistakes on the back-end, and this roster doesn’t have the personnel to make up for these miscues. Antoine Bethea is the free safety on this team and while I have a lot of respect for what he’s done in the league, he doesn’t possess the range, acceleration, or overall athletic ability to fix these issues. These are the growing pains with a secondary that essentially has three rookies that will be playing significant snaps, an aging veteran, Peppers who plays his behind off but still makes mental mistakes, and Jenkins ... a player that more than likely won’t be on the team next season. With all that being stated, let’s take a look at some of the other significant plays Ballentine came across in his first game playing nickel:
Above you’ll see a play action rollout by the Cowboys with Jason Witten releasing into the flat. Ballentine handles this zone coverage well and doesn’t carry the receiver up the seam like he did on the Cooper touchdown. Instead, he utilized his vision and kept the play in front of him. Ballentine saw Dak Prescott rolling out to the flat and Witten came off his block. The young corner went low and hard at the tight end and chopped him down aggressively. I would like to see more of a wrap up, but Ballentine got the job done and showed that he’s not hesitant to tackle.
Above is a third-and-2 situation for Dallas and the Cowboys d a good job motioning Cobb from the Bunch to the slot towards the field side. This forced Ballentine to be on the move, so he’s not set, and then have to react to a receiver with a ton of space, while the outside receiver’s route acted as a natural pick to assist in providing space for the Cowboys. This is an incredibly tough play for Ballentine to effectively cover, and he’s being picked on here, but I actually think he handled this situation well. Once Ballentine saw Cobb head towards the flat, he doesn’t hesitate through the pick, and more importantly, he goes through it instead of underneath it; if Ballentine went underneath that natural pick by Michael Gallup, Cobb would have had a blocking Gallup vs. Baker, and nothing but green grass and positive angles against Deone Bucannon and Antonie Bethea.
Here we see Ballentine with outside leverage against Cobb in the slot on an inside breaking horizontal cross. Let me reiterate, these horizontal crosses/drag routes are very hard to cover in man, and all we can hope for is that the corner stays in phase near the hip pocket of the receiver and I feel Ballentine did this at a solid level on the play above. Right off the snap, Ballentine sees the stem is inside, so he angles his hips and shuffles his feet, while staying square to the receiver, with a solid angle of attack. Once Cobb gets to the near hash, Ballentine explodes towards the inner hip of the receiver, effectively cutting off the underneath portion of the initial route, but Cobb does a good job getting more depth on his route, which forces Ballentine to be in a less desirable location, although he’s still relatively in phase, albeit he wasn’t in an ideal situation. A very good throw to the upfield shoulder of Cobb, right after the receiver attempted to get more depth, would have exposed the young corner, but the throw was slightly behind Cobb and Ballentine did an excellent job playing through Cobb’s body and attacking the ball at the catch point, which forced the incompletion. I feel Ballentine had a couple reps that were more encouraging than this one in terms of staying in phase:
This is another play action pass towards his side and luckily Ballentine doesn’t blink and stays on Cobb, while getting a bit physical at the top of the route. Same as the last play I wrote about, covered down in the slot with outside leverage, hip pointing inward, and Ballentine does a solid job staying with Cobb on this crosser. Giants fans have seen the nickel position as a place to attack for a long while, and it still may be, but seeing Ballentine stay in phase on some of these crossers is an encouraging sign, even though it’s a small sample size. Below, you’ll see Ballentine used in a different manner - as a blitzer:
Ballentine is right next to Leonard Williams, off the near hash, and he’s doing a good job disguising himself, which fools Tony Pollard with his blitz pick up responsibilities. Giants overload blitz with 5 to the field side of the offensive line, with Ballentine attacking the B-gap right behind the slight twist of Deone Bucannon and Alec Ogletree, while Golden and Carter both drop off the boundary side’s line of scrimmage in coverage. Ballentine gets a really good shot on Prescott, but the ball is still completed for a minimal gain. The young corner showed explosiveness and quick acceleration and also timed this blitz very well and even ran through Pollard’s failed attempt at picking him up.
Is Ballentine the long term answer at the nickel position? Only time will tell, but this young player out of a Division II school will have his chance, and he certainly showed positive traits in his first significant game on Monday. Let’s hope Ballentine, and the rest of this team led by neophytes, continues to progress and learn as this season continues to spiral into oblivion.