The NFL’s top 11 slot defenders

[ad_1]

In the 2020 NFL season, per Sports Info Solutions, defenses played more dime (six defensive backs) than “base” (four defensive backs). Nickel is the new base, as teams played with five defensive backs on the field 65.7% of the time (11,813 snaps), and the positionless player revolution, and the need for defensive coordinators to adjust to passing concepts that are ever more diverse and potentially explosive, have those coaches putting more and more defenders in the slot to defend all kinds of concepts. On a total of 17,969 pass defense snaps in 2020, teams lined up with six defensive backs 3,695 times (20.6% of the time), and with four defensive backs just 3,063 times (17.0%).

So, if you’re of the old-school opinion that the modern slot defender is an afterthought, now is a good time to catch up. Because in the NFL of today, if you don’t have at least one top-notch slot guy who can do everything from defending the run to the outside to working pressure with blitzes to covering slot receivers and tight ends up the seam to covering curl/flat, your defense is going to be at least one step behind.

The slot defender is more important than ever, and here are the 11 best in the NFL today.

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

While Humphrey is also a top-tier outside cornerback, it’s as a slot defender that he’s really stood out in his NFL career. Last season, he allowed 46 slot catches on 72 targets for 392 yards, 167 yards after the catch, one touchdown, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 82.6. Humphrey is especially effective in man and match coverage, as he showed on this Baker Mayfield attempt to receiver Rashard Higgins — Humphrey trails Higgins’ route all the way through, and just shuts it down.

(William Glasheen-USA TODAY NETWORK)

Not only is Savage one of the NFL’s best safeties — he finished third on that particular list of ours, behind only Tyrann Mathieu and Justin Simmons — but he’s also a great slot defender when asked to move around in Green Bay’s dime-heavy defense. When in the slot last season, Savage gave up seven catches on 14 targets for 126 yards, 42 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 65.5. Savage became one of the NFL’s best overall pass defenders in his second NFL season, and it will be interesting to see if his roles change at all in the switch from Mike Pettine to Joe Barry as the Packers’ defensive coordinator.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Murphy-Bunting’s 2020 season was a perfect illustration of the axiom “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” In the regular season of his second NFL campaign, Tampa Bay’s primary slot defender allowed 40 catches on 47 targets for 459 yards, 264 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 126.9. Yikes.

Then, the postseason started, and Murphy-Bunting hit a level we’ve never seen from him before. From the wild-card round through the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl LV win, he gave up just 13 catches on 22 targets for 157 yards, 73 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 56.6. All of a sudden, receivers couldn’t get away from Murphy-Bunting, and he was a big part of that playoff run. Aaron Rodgers, who threw this pick to Murphy-Bunting on a deep attempt to receiver Allen Lazard in the NFC Championship game, would certainly agree.

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Howard led the NFL in interceptions last season with 10, and three of those picks came from the slot, where he allowed eight receptions on 16 targets for 83 yards, 60 yards after the catch, one touchdown, and an opponent passer rating of 46.6. It’s rare for a top outside cornerback to also excel in the slot, but when you have the ability to man up on Tyreek Hill on a deep route as Howard does here (generally speaking, manning up one-on-one with Tyreek Hill is a recipe for disaster)… well, it’s clear why Howard is one of the NFL’s best defenders, regardless of where he’s aligned.

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

A fourth-round pick out of Weber State in the 2018 draft, Johnson has seen his involvement in Buffalo’s defense increase in each of his three NFL seasons — from 405 snaps in his rookie season, to 504 in 2019, to 1,005 last season. 2020 was the first instance of Johnson as the team’s primary slot defender, to great effect — he allowed 68 slot catches on 95 targets for 765 yards, 361 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 90.0. Both of Johnson’s picks were pick-sixes — a 51-yard return against Ben Roethlisberger in Week 14, and this 101-yarder against Lamar Jackson in the Bills’ divisional-round win over the Ravens. On both interceptions, Johnson displayed his ability to bait quarterbacks and jump routes, which will hold him in good stead in 2021 and beyond.

(Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)

While Jalen Ramsey was the Rams’ moveable chess piece in their defense last season, Hill was the primary slot defender, and a very good one. He allowed 44 slot receptions on 66 targets for 395 yards, 216 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 75.4. Hill will now run the slot for the Browns’ vastly improved secondary, which is a good thing — last season from the slot, Cleveland’s defense allowed four touchdowns, and only cornerback M.J. Stewart could manage above-average coverage.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

When Ramsey wasn’t locking opponents down as an outside cornerback, he was playing the “STAR” position in Brandon Staley’s defense last season, revisiting what he did at Florida State, and allowing him to use his athleticism and field acumen all over the field. From the slot last season, Ramsey allowed six catches on 12 targets for 40 yards, 42 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 57.6. It will be interesting to see if new Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris will have Ramsey in that similar multi-tiered role.

(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Hilton was one of the underrated parts of the NFL’s best pass defense in Pittsburgh last season, and the Steelers will miss him now that he’s signed a four-year, $24 million contract with the Bengals. Last season from the slot, Hilton allowed 26 catches on 39 targets for 306 yards, 206 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 75.4. Hilton has the ability to run routes better than the guys he’s covering at times, as he did on this interception of a Philip Rivers deep pass to Michael Pittman Jr. in Week 16.

(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)

Moore was an undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State who made the Colts’ roster in 2017, and has shown himself to be more and more of an asset in coverage since. In 2020, he added great value to Matt Eberflus’ defense as the team’s primary slot defender, allowing 50 slot receptions on 66 targets for 463 yards, 259 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 80.6. Moore has the ability to follow any receiver all over the field — even gigantic receivers like Raiders tight end Darren Waller on this end zone interception, where Moore fakes Derek Carr out of a potential touchdown.

(Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Callahan had the fewest slot snaps of any player on this list (120), but given the excellence of his slot coverage over time when he’s healthy, it’s entirely appropriate to put him high on the list. Callahan was limited to just 10 games due to a foot injury last season, but on those 120 snaps, he allowed six receptions on 14 targets for 41 yards, 12 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and an absolutely preposterous opponent passer rating of 10.7 — by far the lowest of any regular slot defender in the NFL last season. The only thing keeping Callahan from the top spot on this list is a worrisome recent injury history — he also missed the entire 2019 season due to a 2018 foot injury that didn’t quite heal as everyone would have liked.

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Depending on how he’s deployed on a week-to-week basis, you could make the argument that Mathieu is not only one of the best safeties in the NFL (we ranked him second overall), but also one of the best slot defenders. Mathieu has a rare combination of overall athleticism, quickness to the target, and on-field acumen that makes him a dangerous defender wherever he’s lined up, and this was the case once again in 2020. On 238 coverage snaps in the slot last season, Mathieu allowed 22 catches on 33 targets for 295 yards, 127 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 67.1. Denver’s Drew Lock, who made the list too often when it was time to determine the worst NFL quarterbacks for every type of throw, should probably add “Anything thrown in the general vicinity of Tyrann Mathieu” to that resume, as Mathieu picked off three Lock passes last season, including this slot pick in Week 7 in which receiver KJ Hamler had the ball for a second, and Mathieu then made the ball his own.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Jordan Whitehead, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

K’Waun Williams, San Francisco 49ers

Jalen Mills, New England Patriots

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, New Orleans Saints

Juston Burris, Carolina Panthers

Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs

Jonathan Jones, New England Patriots

[ad_2]

Source link

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap