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Justin Layne film study: What can ex-Steeler offer Giants’ secondary?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The New York Giants emphasized adding defensive back help at final cuts. The team’s cap situation forced the unfortunate release of James Bradberry during the offseason. Bradberry’s departure propelled Adoree’ Jackson to cornerback one, but the starting cornerback opposite Jackson was unresolved.

Aaron Robinson received the first opportunity, but training camp wasn’t the kindest to Robinson. Robinson was picked on against the Patriots in preseason Week 1; he was beaten twice off the line of scrimmage against outside releases on two consecutive plays, surrendering one catch.

Robinson did not inspire confidence, but he’s the best option for cornerback two right now. He finished his preseason surrendering six catches for 70 yards on 12 targets with a touchdown and two passes defended - not a terrible stat line; however, an undisciplined taunting penalty that led to a touchdown did not sit well. It’s Robinson’s job to lose.

The depth behind the starters - and slot cornerback Darnay Holmes - remains unproven but is almost certainly better than the back-end cornerbacks that spent training camp with the Giants.

Rookie Cor’Dale Flott is still developing on the outside, and rookie UDFA Zyon Gilbert and former Minnesota Viking Harrison Hand signed with the practice squad. The Giants claimed two cornerbacks off waivers: Nick McCloud (BUF) and Layne (PIT).


Layne was a four-star recruit from Benedict High School (the same school as Chuck Noll) in Cleveland, Ohio. He received offers from Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and other top programs. Layne took his talents to East Lansing and played as a Spartan.

The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Layne at pick 83 (third round) of the 2019 NFL Draft. He’s still only 24 years old, and he has great baseline traits.

He’s got great length, height, and good explosive testing. However, he never lived up to expectations while in Pittsburgh. He struggled with man coverage and a lack of burst at the top of wide receiver’s breaks was an issue on his tape, but he can still provide value to a defense. He also has experience as a special teams gunner.

He’s played 151 defensive snaps in his career, surrendering 13 catches on 16 targets for 164 scoreless yards. Let’s get into his film.

(Justin Layne is No. 31)


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His coverage does not have a large sample size, but Layne executes his assignment well against this play action Yankee concept in the preseason. The Yankee concept is a deep post combined with a deep over, typically off a play action pass. The objective against this middle-of-the-field closed (MOFC) look (safety in middle of the field) is to “force” the safety to “bite” on the over, giving the WR running the post route space from the numbers through the middle of the field due to some three-deep coverages playing their cornerbacks in outside leverage.

The Steelers - and many teams - will replace the MOFC safety with the backside deep third defender (Layne in this case). Layne does a good job passing his receiver to the safety and noticing the route concept; he gets his eyes on the post route and sinks underneath to almost snag an interception.

The coverage against this concept looks like inverted Cover-2 or Tampa-2 Robber on the back-end. The Steelers did not execute this coverage well against the Giants in their week one primetime matchup back in 2020:

Joe Haden (23) at the top of the screen cannot undercut Daniel Jones (8) throw, which was on a rope. This is also a fantastic route by Darius Slayton (86). He angles outward off the line of scrimmage to eat into Steven Nelson’s (22) leverage; in doing so, Nelson angles his turn towards the sideline, attempting to squeeze Slayton in that direction. Slayton stays in his blind spot like an annoying driver on the Turnpike and explodes inside with the safety biting up (by design). At this point, it’s difficult for Nelson to defend Slayton out of his well-timed break, and the help is too far away. The Giants go for six but lose.

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Layne is on the backside receiver to the boundary, and the Steelers bring the blitz, resulting in a single high safety look that will place Layne in man coverage outside of the divider. This means he must play the receiver outside-in and use the sideline to his advantage. Layne’s leverage is great on this play - inside and high; a well-timed back shoulder pass or a difficult touch pass over the top must be executed for the offense to have success targeting this lone receiver to the backside. Layne makes contact, gets his eyes on the football, and the ball sails over the head of both players. Layne was assignment sound on this play.

Layne shows good route recognition and reactionary quickness on this play, albeit the offense achieved the first down.

Career interceptions

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Both of Layne’s interceptions were in the preseason - both showed the ability to read the quarterback while in coverage. The interception against Jacksonville was not an on-target throw, but Layne was not cleared out by the vertical route; he remained patient, read the quarterback, and jumped the premature throw. Layne took advantage of the quarterback getting hit against Philadelphia; he finished the tight end’s route and positioned himself well for the takeaway.

Can improve

Man Coverage

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Layne is slightly shaded outside DJ Moore (2) and off the numbers in a plus splits of about three. Layne’s leverage at the snap is over the top, so he turns his hips, attempts to work over the top, and squeezes Moore closer to the sideline. Layne jams with the off-hand and reaches to make contact with his outside hand, and Moore quickly stops, swats, and presents a target for Sam Darnold (14). It takes Layne a few choppy steps to slow his momentum down and reorient himself towards Moore, who catches the football with about 2 yards of separation on a route 5 yards off the line of scrimmage.

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Like the play above, Layne is in a slight outside shade in a press-man alignment; Moore releases inside on this play, and Layne gets to his outer hip with ease, but Moore’s objective was to expand Layne inside to work back outside into much more space. In an attempt to shift his weight with Moore’s break, Layne loses balance and falls. The route to the flat comes open, and Darnold obliges. Layne struggles to work his hands and feet in unison and doesn’t possess the best balance or control when forced to cut quickly.

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The Raiders convert this third-and-four quick curl to Hunter Renfrow (13). Guarding Renfrow is not easy, but we can see similar stiffness and reactionary issues on this play; Renfrow fires his feet and hands, keeping Layne guessing and getting him into a backpedal that creates more operating space for Renfrow. Layne slips, attempting to drive down on Renfrow as the WR turns towards Derek Carr (4). It also takes Layne a split second to recollect himself and get square to the shifty WR. Renfrow makes the catch and moves the chains.

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On first-and-ten, the Eagles connected on a quick in-route during the preseason in 2021. Layne opens his hips and goes to jam with the outside hand; his feet are moving upfield at the wide receiver’s break. Layne has to reset his feet - and kind of pitter-patters - before getting out of his stance, despite his hips being oriented towards the receiver. The receiver makes the catch and picks up solid yardage after the catch.

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Layne is beat inside by KJ Osborn (17), despite his inside leverage. Osborn uses his hands aggressively to put Layne back on his toes; the receiver leans into Layne, gets him to open his hips completely, tempos the initial speed he uses, and then works underneath Layne to the inside, forcing Layne to flip his hips. Layne is not overly fluid as a cornerback, and he too often allowed receivers to work through his leverage.

Tackling consistency

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Layne does not surrender the catch, but he misses the tackle and takes out one of his pursuit defenders near the sticks on a fourth-and-four.

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I know it’s twice, but this is an anomaly as he ends up taking out another pursuit defender while missing this tackle. Layne does a good job seeing the full-back leak over the middle of the field. He closes width and drops to a knee for some reason at the tackle point (he might have tripped near the full-back). He whiffs on tackling Devonta Freeman (33), and the play goes for a solid gain.

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Layne attempts to undercut the blocker in the flat to make a play on the tight end, but he fails to find the angle. Layne does a good job absorbing contact and bouncing off, giving himself an opportunity to make the tackle; however, he lost contain while attempting to undercut, and the ball carrier exploited his mistake for a 7-yard gain on first down.

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Jacksonville completes a curl in front of the buzz defender with Layne as the deep third to the boundary. Somehow, the Steelers miss two tackles, allowing Layne to make an open field tackle. Layne targets the outside hip, closes width, and lacks the power and technique to wrap up and end the play.

It’s not always bad

Some of those missed tackles are not encouraging, but Layne is not passive and can make quality open field tackles. Layne’s professional missed tackle rate is a high 33 percent, but the sample size is small; according to Pro Football Focus, he has nine career tackles.

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Layne is in off coverage against Marquise Brown (5) on the screen. Layne takes an initial inward angle, and Brown attempts to spin back outside but stumbles; Layne comes to balance, squares up to Brown, wraps the receiver up to the outside, and drags him to the deck. If we are looking at this play from a glass-half-empty point of view, Brown trips, and he is 175 pounds soaking wet.

I love to see this play from Layne, who takes a punishment but shows great resilience to pop up and find the ball carrier. A well-executed play action screen matches an offensive lineman against the lone Layne.

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This play isn’t as impressive as the last one, but it does show the willingness to lower his shoulder and attempt to hit with power. Layne’s play strength is marginal when squared up against a running back or tight end in the flat. Still, he slows the tight end down, allowing the Steelers to rally for the tackle.

New Giants wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton beats Layne on the drag route. Layne does not do the best job staying in phase with Pimipleton, as he works over the top of traffic, but he does a good job closing width and tackling Pimpleton as he catches the football.

Final thoughts

The Giants need capable cornerback depth who - at the very least - can perform at an adequate level. Layne has stiffness in his lower half, and his ability to transition smoothly seems difficult. He is not the most reliable tackler, either. However, he seemingly understands route concepts and does an adequate job knowing how to use his leverage, albeit athletic limitations and technique limit his ability to successfully maintain said leverage.

He can play outside and offers some upside if coach Jerome Henderson can get him to be a bit more disciplined at the top of wide receiver’s stems which could help mask the stiffness issue. At the very worst, he can compete as a gunner on special teams - he has 20 special teams tackles in his career, nine from last season, which tied Cam Brown.