What made Tennessee's two young corners, Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty, so darn good in 2011? Last time, I tried to stress the importance of gaining yards after the catch as one of the key indicators of an offense's explosiveness and effectiveness, so naturally it should be equally as important to defense to stop receivers from running in space after they get the ball.
Tennessee did not have a top pass defense in 2011, but it should be noted that the cornerbacks were not to blame. Ahead lies more fun with the all important yards after catch stat, but this time as it applies to a defense.
Verner and McCourty, two guys who have basically wrapped up the two starting corner positions for next year, were simply fantastic at getting the ballcarrier to the ground quickly and efficiently. McCourty, who should start to gain some respect as one of the best steals of the draft in the past few years and maybe even the as best late round corner since Finnegan, was in totally elite company. Receivers were only allowed to go 2.1 yards on average after they caught the ball. Consider that he was targeted an asinine 98 times over the course of the season and that really starts to add up. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why teams tried to pick on him.
Perhaps it was because his batterymate, Alterraun Verner, was doing an even better job in coverage (57% success rate for McCourty, 61% for Verner) and an almost equally good job at keeping receivers from breaking past the secondary. Based on his success rate and ability to drop receivers where they stand, Verner might have been the teams' best cornerback in 2011. The difference between his 2.3 YAC and McCourty's 2.1 is pretty negligible and his success rate of 61% is right on par with Cortland Finnegan's 64%, a number good for sixth in the league. He really takes a "best of both worlds" approach to the secondary.
Speaking of Cortland Finnegan, what would you say if I told you that Finnegan, as amazing as he was to watch last year, was the worst cornerback on the team based on YAC allowed? Pretty shocking, right? Cortland is a terrific coverage artist and tackles as well as any defensive back in the game, how is it that he was "victimized" for 2.6 YAC? Well, our good friend Finny spent some time covering receivers who ran some very short routes, as evidenced by his 4.3 yards per passes that were completed and an average pass distance of 7.8 yards. Compare that to Verner who had a 10.0 average pass distance and McCourty who had an 11.4 average pass distance and it becomes clear that Finnegan was more often playing short distance, high percentage routes that were designed to get the receivers the ball quickly so that they could freelance in space to get upfield. This is where Finnegan's 64% success rate becomes even more impressive. He leads the team, and most of the NFL, in this category, yet teams were consistently trying to complete little dump offs on him all season. This is where we will miss Finnegan the most I think.
In any case, the Titans' starting three corners allowed a minuscule 2.3 yards after the catch on average. Say what you will about the nature of the secondary, this is one area where they were really at the top of the league. That 2.3 YAC allowed, if it were applied to an individual, would rank sixth in the NFL. Is this an outlier? It very well might be, the mercurial nature of this year's list compared to last year's is definitely noticeable, there are no repeat appearances in the YAC allowed category, however, this could also be attributed to the improvement of two young players who had loads of potential already coming into this season and the positive effect of Jerry Gray's defense on Cortland Finnegan. Or it could all just be luck, we probably won't know for sure until this time next year at the earliest.
All in all, even with the departure of Finnegan, this could be a very stingy pass defense if they could get some more steady play from their safeties which seems unlikely considering that that part of the secondary remains untouched with both starters and primary backup all returning. Perhaps Markelle Martin or Coty Sensabaugh make some noise and push Chris Hope or Chris Hawkins respectively for some playing time. It would certainly fit the pattern that has developed over the past few years here in Nashville.