NFL Closeup: Safety Tyrann Mathieu And Economy of Motion


Mathieu has a chance to be one of the impact performers as a safety/corner hybrid. Photo by wxcasterphx.

Mathieu has become an impact performer as a safety/corner hybrid. Photo by wxcasterphx.

Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu is playing his tail off and the biggest reason this rookie has made the jump from LSU to the NFL with a year away from football in between is his mental command of the game. Mathieu is an incisive player and it’s easy to see this quality on the field. Here are two plays against the Texans – notably Andre Johnson and Ben Tate – where Mathieu demonstrates multiple skills with no wasted motion.

in·ci·sive inˈsīsiv/ adjective 1. (of a person or mental process) intelligently analytical and clear-thinking.

A common characteristic that most good football players share is the economy of motion. Be it a streamline route with a sudden, sharp break; a hard plant and cut without a gather step; or a quick release of the football, efficient technique helps a player gain an edge over his opponent.  This especially true for defensive players.

Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu is playing his tail off and the biggest reason this rookie has made the jump from LSU to the NFL with a year away from football in between is his mental command of the game. Mathieu is an incisive player and it’s easy to see this quality on the field. Here are two plays against the Texans – notably Andre Johnson and Ben Tate – where Mathieu demonstrates multiple skills with no wasted motion.

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Mathieu’s read and react skills are on fine display as the slot defender paired with Andre Johnson as his obstacle to runner Ben Tate. Mathieu begins the play shading the receiver’s inside, but watch how this changes as the play develops.

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When the Texans snap the ball and Case Keenum makes the exchange with Tate, Mathieu takes the outside. One reason is to anticipate any short, outside-breaking routes if this exchange is actually a play fake. Since Mathieu also has a shallower position as the slot man, his move outside also gives him a chance to funnel Johnson inside where there’s a greater chance for help to arrive if the receiver runs a vertical route and beats the rookie.

Assuming this is a running play, Mathieu’s initial work to the outside is to maintain gap responsibility at the edge so he can keep Tate away from the sideline and funnel the runner insider where there’s additional help. At this point, Mathieu is waiting for Tate to make a choice to run inside or outside the Texan’s right tackle.

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When Tate chooses the inside path based on the direction of the right tackle’s block, Mathieu makes a swift turn inside and extends his arms towards Johnson. Although not as easy to see how fluid Mathieu is with still photographs, there’s value in seeing how the defensive back uses his arms to beat Johnson inside with swat of the receiver’s arms similar to a wide receiver beating the jam at the line of scrimmage.

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As soon as Mathieu gets inside Johnson, he breaks down into a stance square to the ball carrier, which will enable the defensive back to explode through the ball carrier. Tate is a step beyond the line of scrimmage with enough help around him to earn at least 7-10 yards if he can avoid Mathieu. At this vantage point, Tate appears to have enough space to set up Mathieu. However, it Mathieu demonstrates that three yards of space isn’t enough.

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Mathieu is patient enough to maintain his position as Tate takes another step. Mathieu’s angle forces Tate to consider a bounce outside  and once a safety can get a big back working east west, it’s an advantage for the defense. When Mathieu shoots for Tate’s legs, he explodes through the runner’s body and raises his right forearm as high as possible to force the runner off his feet.

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There’s no chance Tate will maintain his balance with a balance-touch plant of the inside arm after this hit. From the snap through the tackle, Mathieu displays no wasted motion; every movement has a purpose for each contingency of the play. Well done.

Mathieu demonstrates the same incisive skill to diagnose the run on this play in the second quarter. Not only does Mathieu split two blockers in the process of making the tackle, but his understanding of angles as a tackler is also on display here. Mathieu is once again the slot defender matched with Johnson on a run to this twin receiver side. Also note that outside receiver DeAndre Hopkins will work towards Mathieu on this play. Whether Tate bounces this play to the sideline or cuts underneath, Hopkins or Johnson will – in theory – work off a double-team of Mathieu to the cornerback  outside, depending on their position on the field.

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From the beginning, Mathieu has his eyes glued to the Tate. At the snap, Mathieu takes two steps backwards and maintains his back to the sideline to keep Johnson inside or to account for the possibility of Johnson breaking outside and Hopkins slanting inside. Mathieu’s position allows he and the corner to be in position to pick up either receiver depending on the route combination they run if this was a play action pass. Once it’s decidedly run, Mathieu works downhill.

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Johnson peels outside to address Mathieu, but the defensive back has his pads square and he’s ready to split Johnson and Hopkins. As you’ll see in the next few frames, this a decisive move rooted in an understanding of where he needs to be to force Tate inside. This is an aspect of defense that some folks forget: The first responsibility is to play team defense and defend a position rather than just make the tackle.

Much like a running back who bounces a play outside to go for the big play at the risk of losing yards when he should earn a tough (and seemingly uninspiring) 2-3 yards and keep his offensive on schedule, a defender who freelances too often can expose a great deal of open field to a runner if he fails to make the play. When a defender plays within the structure of the defense, he might miss the tackle, but still force the ball carrier towards his teammates who will finish the play.

Mathieu’s angle is all about defending the edge first and then making the tackle and that’s how it should be.

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The rookie defender extends both arms to swat past Johnson and Hopkins as he drives downhill towards Tate, who has earned the edge at the line of scrimmage. Within the next two steps, Mathieu’s decisive course influences Tate to work downhill.

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If Tate bounces his play towards the sideline, he’ll be moving east west and Mathieu the Texans’ back to boundary or cut the runner for a minimal gain. If Mathieu misses this tackle on Tate, Daryl Washington is just inside the left hash to clean this up. If not Washington, then No.25 Jerraud Powers.

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Mathieu breaks down so he can attempt the tackle. Note the angle Mathieu takes inside. He’s anticipating where Tate will be and not shooting for where Tate is. This sounds like common sense, but after splitting two receivers, the quick thinking to process this angle is impressive.

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Mathieu wraps Tate at the ankle and the runner is dropped after a six-yard gain. It’s a nice play for the Texans, but Mathieu’s support prevents Tate from earning a first down. It’s this awareness where he should be and the confidence to react fast that has helped Mathieu become one of the top first-year defenders in the game.

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