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Casey Hayward has been playing like an all-pro; Sunday he faces one

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Julio Jones is the biggest challenge that Hayward and the rest of the secondary will face all year.

Atlanta Falcons v Green Bay Packers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Even if the Chargers had been at full strength, if 6 weeks through the season you told me that they were 9th in passing DVOA, I probably would’ve slapped you. This year San Diego has been matching up their corners and having them follow the other teams best receiver. That has allowed the defense to either put more pressure on the QB or load up the middle of the field forcing the offense to beat them outside of the numbers.

So far the numbers support Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett before injury. San Diego is 2nd in DVOA on passes thrown to the left and 6th on passes thrown to the right. They are also 4th in passes attempted in the air over 15 yards.

That’s been the key, taking away the big play. Naturally, your mind will go to the 4th down touchdown Hayward gave up against the Raiders. Come on, that’s just a perfect throw and catch. That happens in the NFL. It just so happened at the most inconvenient time for San Diego. In the big picture, Hayward has not only not been great at taking away the big play, he’s been 1 of the 7 best CBs in the NFL. Here’s a list of the least “blown coverages” by all corners. Here I compared Hayward to the top 3 corners from each conference(Patrick Peterson isn’t listed because teams do not throw at him.)

Player Blown Coverages 1st downs G/U Comp/Target TD INT pbu
Casey Hayward 4 7 8/23 1 3 1
Desmond Trufant 14 8 17/26 2 1 1
Richard Sherman 13 8 14/30 2 2 2
Janoris Jenkins 11 7 13/20 0 2 6
Marcus Peters 2 8 12/30 1 4 4
Chris Harris 3 6 12/28 1 1 4
Aqib Talib 4 11 13/23 1 1 6

Don’t focus so much on completion/targets due to the lack of context. For example, a guy like Desmond Trufant’s numbers look bad on the surface but a lot of those are for minimal gains. What matters here is the blown coverages(apparently I’m the Russian judge grading much harder for NFC guys). As you can see, Hayward stacks up against the best of the best. Let’s look at what has made Hayward so reliable for San Diego.

Health helps. Watching him last year compared to this year, you can tell that he has another gear back. I think the year removed from injury has really showed. He looks like the rookie season Hayward that had star potential. Last year he couldn’t really accelerate if he was beat. There was no extra gear. This year is different. This year you see him running stride for stride with the Amari Coopers, the Denver & Jacksonville receivers.

What has vaulted Hayward into the upper echelon of corners this year is what you see at the end of the clip above, his ability to play the ball in the air. We’ve seen it from every level of the field. Whether it’s down the field like above or against Jacksonville where he comes off his man to get an interception. It’s all well and good that the Hayward has taken away the deep ball but the best of the best are just as stingy near the line of scrimmage. That’s exactly what he’s done this year. If injured, Hayward likely would bail not trusting his speed and give up easy catch after easy catch from a press alignment. Now that it’s not the case he has shown Sherman like patience and it’s put Hayward in a position to show off his ball skills.

Then going back to week 1, against Chris Conley.

Both clips above are against 4.3 WRs. Guys that can really scoot. You’ll notice in both clips Hayward doesn’t take any false steps. You’ll also see that he doesn’t move until the receiver moves. It’s called a “read step”, something Sherman & Talib are famous for. It doesn’t let you fall for any receiver head fakes at the line but you have to be obnoxiously patient for this to work. So far so good on Hayward’s end.

You’re going to get beat

It’s the NFL. The best of the best get beat. Each one of the names in the table above has bad games. Hayward gave up a couple plays to Michael Crabtree. These are the two plays I’ve thought were his worst this year so far.

Travis Kelce is a lot better than people realize and being in the slot only magnifies things because the receiver has a two-way go. Hayward being able to recover and stay in position against a very good route tells me all I need to know about his health.

This route against Cooper is impossible. I mentioned the read step above. Hayward plays it about was well as you can. He is patient, patient, and as Cooper goes to break vertically he opens up and runs. Cooper stops on a dime and turns him around.

I put these plays in here to put things in perspective and understand that everyone gets beat in the NFL. Law of averages always wins.

Julio Jones

This coming Sunday Hayward will likely shadow Jones. Jones had a 300-yard game a couple weeks ago and made the Panthers overreact and release their 2nd best CB. Last week, against arguably the best NFC CB tandem, Jones had 7 catches for 139 yards and made it look effortless. Hayward will have to show off patience and change of direction. This first one is unfair. It’s a 25 yard out route.

We all know Jones is 1 of the faster players in the NFL so on plays like this you either hope for an errant throw by Matt Ryan or pray to the football gods because there’s nobody stopping this. Natural instincts would tell any corner once he’s past 15 yards it’s likely some sort of vertical route.

The next 3 routes is are man to man against Sherman. If you’re not in position on these underneath routes, he can break them for the distance if these throws are more accurate or he’s not stumbling. Limiting his YAC will be huge.

I would imagine Hayward will have help over top so hopefully, that will allow him to be more aggressive. There are no Julio Jones comparisons in the NFL. Hayward has not and will not face a receiver like this. The Broncos were physical with him and basically cut their losses everywhere else. It helps when you have 3 stud corners. In San Diego’s case, they will likely roll a safety Jones’ way.

Winning on early downs is how San Diego will beat the Falcons, and we’ll review that next as I break down how Brandon Mebane has been. Until then, Hayward against Jones will be a tough battle but that shouldn’t take away how well he’s played this season. He’s playing at an all-pro level and none of us expected that. This is a feather in Tom Telesco’s hat.