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Film study: Yes, Giants’ rookie cornerback DeAndre Baker really is improving

His work vs. Philadelphia showed that progress

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

DeAndre Baker’s rookie season with the New York Giants has been turbulent.

The Giants traded back into the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft to select the physical rookie out of Georgia, and he’s been much-maligned this season. He’s been targeted 63 times, surrendering 37 catches (58.7 percent completion rate) for 661 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 7 penalties.

Baker was thrust into a complex defensive system predicated on players possessing a high football IQ, and he saw significant snaps since Week 1, where he struggled mightily against the Dallas Cowboys. He followed that performance up by blowing multiple coverages against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2. It was apparent that Baker was having trouble with his assignments in defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s scheme that features pattern match concepts, which the Giants do not run exclusively.

In a nutshell, pattern match coverage assignments vary on each specific play by the position of the ball on the field (near-hash, far-hash, middle of the field), the alignment of the offensive players, and (to some extent) the direction of the offensive players off their stem; these types of variables will determine if the deep Cover 1 safety will shade to one specific side of the field, so boundary corners must know these rules and align themselves accordingly on their respective assignments. If a boundary corner expects help over the top pre-snap, depending on the wide receiver’s alignment, then the corner would align himself in a much different position, with much different leverage, than if he knew he was the last line of defense.

The defense must be cohesive, communicative, and have a sound understanding of how all of these assignments are interchangeable depending on how the offense may use pre-snap motion, bunch/stacks, or other means to confuse young teams’ assignments in this type of defense. Baker struggled with this throughout the season and he was caught loafing on a few plays as well. Obviously, not a great look, but I feel Baker has the traits to be a solid cornerback in this league and he’s been showing signs of improvement over the past three weeks.

Baker has become quicker and more decisive with his ability to read and react. It’s something that I still have concerns about with Corey Ballentine and Sam Beal, but not Baker or Julian Love. Above, Baker is the boundary corner, off the numbers, on a third-and-5 situation; Alshon Jeffery (17), one of the more physical wide receivers in football, engages Baker at his break and tries to use his body to create space. Baker is disciplined. He’s got inside leverage because he’s aware of the lack of space outside, due to Jeffery being 5 yards off the numbers. Once Jeffery breaks inside, Baker doesn’t allow him to disengage from his initial contact, and Baker sees Wentz release the football, so he stays on the inside hip of the receiver and plays the ball, while not fouling. Baker utilized good position, awareness, and strength against a very physical receiver who was trying to impose said physicality.

The second clip is a stack to the boundary in a Banjo Coverage (explanation here) situation from Baker and Janoris Jenkins. Baker has the outside receiver, which is the man on the line of scrimmage who is inside. It’s third-and-3 late in the first half. Baker reads, reacts, and attacks Greg Ward’s flat route to force the incompletion and give the ball back to the Giants. Although it’s a subpar wide receiver, and a bad inside throw by Wentz, Baker reacts at the turn of Ward’s hips and closes quickly to help force an incompletion.

Here we see Baker as the boundary corner with Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz as the inline tight end as the last receiver to the boundary. There are two tight ends to the boundary and the play is a scissors concept attempting to confuse Baker. The Giants are in a three-deep look and they drop an eighth defender near the box to add strength against the run. Ertz runs the post from the inline position and Dallas Goedert (88) runs the corner route. Baker is again to the boundary with a tough task here, but he doesn’t overreact and he trusts the continuity of the defense, his teammates, and the details of the playbook. He’s in the boundary position and there are no receivers outside of the numbers, just the two inline tight ends, who are both running deep routes. Since the ball is on the near hash and two eligible receivers are running deep, the deep center field safety would logically have that area.

We’ve seen Baker in similar situations earlier in the year following the clear out, but he plays this rep well. Baker rides Ertz up his route until about the 43-yard line while keeping his eyes on Goedert’s route from the second tight end position. Baker reads the route combination and knows he has safety help, judging by the alignments on the field and the defense that is called, so he doesn’t jump on Ertz’s route. He angles his hips inward to show Wentz that he can break on the ball in that direction while narrowing the space for Goedert to gain depth on his route by flowing towards the sideline. Essentially, Baker was able to eliminate both routes for a small period with his leverage and the direction he was flowing towards, and that is all you need in a football rep. This play shows some maturity and trust, two things we did not see with Baker earlier in this season.

The second clip is a third-down play where Baker is inviting the inside release for Ward, knowing he can cover the inside break. Baker has the outside leverage. When Ward breaks inside, Baker quickly flips his hips and closes on his route to force an incompletion. This shows confidence, understanding of leverage, and an ability to click and close on routes when the ball is released. Another very good rep from Baker against a receiver he should beat.

Above is a second-and-11 play at the beginning of the fourth quarter where Baker stood in the hip pocket of JJ Arcega-Whiteside throughout the play and then disrupted the catch point at the goal line. The video isn’t excellent quality, but Baker is at the top of the screen about 7 yards off Whiteside. Baker stays right with his fellow rookie counterpart for about 15 seconds, which isn’t easy even with a slower receiver like Whiteside. Then, Baker hits Whiteside at the end of the play to force the incompletion. I can’t say for sure if Baker made an incredibly instinctual and smart play by hitting Whiteside early, due to the ball being tipped by Ward and him knowing that contact can happen after a tip, or if Baker just misjudged the timing, but either way, Baker was in position to make the play and he executed hard through the catch point, which led to a third-and-long situation.

Above, you see Baker defending a stack to the field; initially, he has his eyes on the outside receiver who is off the line of scrimmage, but pay attention to what happens at around the 40-yard line. The inside receiver runs the clear out for the deep horizontal crosser, so that receiver’s job is to take Jenkins up the field along with Baker to set a void in the middle of the defense, but both corners play it very well. Jenkins jumps on that horizontal crosser and Baker stays patient and disciplined with his outside assignment and handles the transition with Jenkins very well.

The subtle plant outside by the Eagles receiver actually turns Baker around, which is far from ideal, but I love to see the fluidity in Baker’s hips to easily bring himself back over the top of the receiver’s route. Not a perfect rep, but a very nice play that shows some of those traits that you like to see in a young player who has struggled: patience, cohesion, ability to adjust, fluid hips.

The second clip isn’t as ideal. Baker is alone with no safety help and his assignment, Josh Perkins (81), is in a plus split off the numbers of about 1 yard, which is important in terms of space to the sideline. Perkins utilizes a quick outside jab step before his inside break, which almost turns Baker around. The young corner gives the tight end an easy inside release that could have been a touchdown if it were noticed by Carson Wentz.

The context of the situation shouldn’t have warranted Baker to turn his hips outside; Perkins is a bigger body and has some speed for a tight end, but nothing like the receivers Baker sees regularly. Since the alignment was so close to the sideline and the ball was in the middle of the field, the room on an outside breaking route for Perkins would be very minimal. Baker may have been anticipating a fade route because there’s just not that much space, but inside there’s a ton of space, so I would like to see Baker be a bit more disciplined with the context of the play and where they were on the field in the second clip. It didn’t result in a touchdown or anything negative, but a more savvy corner would have known to not turn his entire body away from the area of the field where there is a lot of space and no help.

Final thoughts

I’m hoping the mental side of playing cornerback in a system like Bettcher’s continues to improve for Baker, albeit who knows if Bettcher will be the defensive coordinator next year. Regardless, Baker’s rookie season had its ups and its downs, but he still possesses traits that I feel can help a team compete at a high level.

His ability to stay in phase in and out of breaks, while showing a good ability to disrupt the ball at the catch point is a vital part of playing cornerback. He’s also a corner who is not afraid to tackle, ranking above a 70 grade, according to PFF, nine times this season in terms of tackling, and he ranks better than Alec Ogletree does in that metric this season. In the Philadelphia loss. Baker had the Giants’ highest defensive grade by a large margin according to Pro Football Focus. He was targeted 5 times against the Eagles and surrendered only one catch for 7 yards. In the last three games against the Bears, Packers, and the Eagles, he’s been targeted 12 times, while giving up 2 catches for 32 yards and no penalties, with an average NFL passer rating of 42.3 in that span. He’s improving, he’s more confident, and hopefully, he’ll continue to grow into a solid starter at the NFL level.