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What went wrong for Aaron Robinson against the Patriots?

It’s all in the hips

NFL: New York Giants at New England Patriots Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

New York Giants cornerback Aaron Robinson played just 14 snaps against the New England Patriots in the first preseason game. But while he was on the field for less than a quarter of the Giants’ total defensive snaps, they might have been some of the most important snaps in the game.

We’ve been noting since Wink Martindale was hired to be the Giants’ new defensive coordinator that his scheme depends on the coverage players. They need to hold up for his pressure packages to be effective.

Robinson is expected to man one of the Giants’ starting outside cornerback positions, making him one of the team’s cornerstone defenders and an important piece in Martindale’s schemes. So it was somewhat disconcerting to see the second-year cornerback struggle against the Patriots’ backup quarterback and receivers.

The preseason isn’t about wins and losses, but instead about evaluating players and their growth over the course of the process. The first game of the preseason is a chance for coaches to see where their players are after the opening weeks of training camp. It’s also a baseline for them to improve on over the remaining games. Now Robinson and the Giants coaches are going back to the tape and seeing what went wrong for him before they can take the next step of working to correct the problem.

Let’s do the same.

What went wrong?

Robinson’s tough night started with the Patriots’ first offensive play of the game, a quick slant.

Robinson is lined up in man coverage on the X receiver at the top of the screen. The receiver uses a quick stutter-step at the release before making his cut toward the middle of the field. The stutter-step freezes Robinson for an instant before he turns to get in phase with the receiver. Robinson’s hips are bit slow to open and rather than fluidly flipping his hips to run in the receiver’s hip pocket, Robinson takes two or three quick steps to turn off the line of scrimmage. The receiver is able to get a clean inside release, even though he has to modify his route slightly because of the quick out route from the slot.

While Robinson also drifts upfield slightly, giving the receiver a bit more separation at the catch point, he is beaten right off the snap by the receivers release. The slow hips prevented him from getting in phase right away, which is necessary in man coverage.

This was a theme throughout the night for Robinson.

The next play is the Patriots’ first deep pass attempt on their second drive.

Robinson is once again lined up at the top of the screen, matched up against rookie receiver Tyquan Thornton playing the flanker.

Thornton accelerates hard off the line of scrimmage, pressing his route into Robinson’s chest before slipping to the outside and running up the sideline. Once again, Robinson’s feet freeze for a second and his hips are slow to open as he transitions from his backpedal to running with the receiver. And as with the first play, Robinson uses several quick steps to turn rather than fluidly flipping his hips.

The Giants are bailed out by a poor throw from Brian Hoyer. The pass is underthrown and floated, giving Robinson the chance to recover and make a play on the ball. While the result was good, the Giants got lucky here, which we saw on the next play. The Patriots went right back to the well and right back at Robinson with the same route. That time, however, Hoyer drove the ball and the result was a long reception.

We’ll finish up with Robinson’s last play of the night.

Robinson once again starts the play lined up on the defensive left and is once again matched up with Thornton playing the flanker role.

He does a better job of opening his hips early in the route to run with the receiver, though he grabs at the top of the route as Thornton breaks into the scramble drill. At that point we once again see the issue with frozen feet and slow hips. Robinson is caught flat-footed by the scramble drill, stoping his feet and forcing himself to run through the turn as opposed to opening his hips.

Even if Robinson had stayed with the receiver through the scramble and hadn’t given up the reception, the hold would have given the Patriots a fresh set of downs right on the door to the endzone. However, the (relatively) slow transition gives Thornton plenty of separation to make the catch from the scrambling Hoyer.

Now what?

This was a bad performance from Robinson, no two ways about it. While he was certainly physical, he struggled badly in coverage and was exploited by the Patriots.

The first preseason game sets a baseline for players to improve, and Robinson gave himself a good opportunity to show improvement going forward. Sitting here, we don’t know precisely why he struggled so badly to stay in phase with receivers through their breaks. It’s possible that he was thinking through his responsibilities at a new position in a new scheme, as opposed to “just playing.” It’s also certainly possible that he just had an off night.

It’s also possible that the issue is mechanical and he doesn’t quite have the agility for the techniques he was asked to execute. Robinson has plenty of speed for his new role, clocking a 4.39 second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. However, his agility scores were merely “okay” for the position.

If the issue was mental or some variation on the ups and downs that come with a new player at a new position, we should see Robinson improve over the coming weeks. However, if the issue is athletic we might see the Giants adjust how they call coverage or even see the door open for Darnay Holmes or Cor’Dale Flott to compete on the outside.

While there’s reason for concern, there’s no reason to panic. Robinson is only entering his second year in the NFL after missing much of his rookie season. He’s still a developing player, and that process is rarely a smooth one.

The Giants will give him the chance to work though whatever issues troubled him in the first game and the opportunity to show improvement. This does bear watching over the remainder of camp and preseason, however.

Final thoughts

NFL preseason games are curious things.

The outcomes don’t matter, but what happens between the whistles is very important to the overall process. There’s also an inherently small sample size for any one player. There are only three games, and coaches often need to get a look at the entire roster, and they’re often trying to work on specific things.

That can make it easy for those of us on the outside to over-react in either direction. Not only do fans not know what their team is really trying to accomplish, they don’t know what the opposing team is trying to accomplish either. All of that should give context to how we evaluate Robinson’s play and temper our reactions.

The fact that Robinson struggled is a concern — we can’t say it isn’t, given how important coverage is to the Giants’ defense. The fact that he struggled against the Patriots’ back-up quarterback and receivers is a concern as well. But while we can look at the tape and see what went wrong, we don’t know precisely why. Robinson is a young player stepping into a larger role in a new scheme. It’s possible that he was over-thinking with regard to his techniques and responsibilities, or he could have been trying new techniques in a live game setting.

This is, ultimately, a single data point. It’s a significant one, given the role Robinson is expected to play in the Giants’ defense. Every other team will watch this tape and be perfectly happy to test the young corner in the regular season. But for now, this is just two poor series. What really matters is how Robinson responds and whether he’s able to show improvement in the remaining preseason games.