I selected 4 games from 2016 to review every play for Tony Jefferson to get an idea of his style of play. Those included:
@SF Week 4
Sea Week 7
@Atl Week 12
Was Week 13
The process is simple…watch every play from those games, identify Jefferson, and note his impact on each play, in addition to recording positioning, targets, yards etc. Here are my notes by play which I’ll include here for folks who’d like to follow along with Game Pass:
(Q1, 9:19) Covered Hyde on a 10-yard pass to the left (PL10) (-2 + 12 YAC) near left sideline, missed tackle at LoS
(Q1, 8:42) Pinched from offensive right side (ORS) to assist on Hyde RM4 (that’s a run middle for 4 yards)
(Q2, 7:45) Beat RT with speed, but Gabbert evaded sack, RR4
(Q2, 4:54) Pinched well from OLS to tackle Hyde RM3
(Q2, 1:24) Had deep left responsibility as Gabbert looked to his side, then took a 9-yard sack (S-9)
(Q3, 6:38) Evaded by Gabbert in pocket on RL11 as he rushed QB
(Q3, 2:57) Squared up and attacked Hyde RM4 with pinch from Peterson
(Q3, 2:23) Made hand gesture during motion and approached pile with palms up after PR9 (not his guy?)
(Q3, 1:59) Pancaked by RT on Hyde RM1 TD
(Q4, 4:14) Covered Celek as Minter sacked Gabbert
(Q4, 2:57) Moved up quickly to tackle Celek PL4 (4 + 0) between numbers and left hash
(Q4, 2:00) Found opening with delayed blitz for QH, negated by Mathieu’s DPI
(Q4, 1:56) Broke inside on option, Gabbert RR1 TD naked
(Q1, 11:24) Covered Graham standing by right sideline, Wilson pressured, threw away in his direction
(Q1, 10:40) Read Wilson option left, tackle RL-2
(Q1, 8:56) Picked up crossing Baldwin well, INC
(Q1, 8:10) Underneath coverage of TE Vannett in zone, Wilson misfired
(Q1, 0:48) Close coverage of RB Prosise by right sideline, INC
(Q2, 11:58) Close coverage of Graham by right sideline, thrown away
(Q2, 2:39) Blocked effectively by Graham, on RM6
(Q2, 2:05) Undercut Graham out route by left sideline for PD
(Q3, 14:22) Blocked effectively by Kearse on Michael RR3
(Q4, 11:43) Deep, picked up crossing Baldwin, gave space, ball slightly overthrown approx 15 yards by right sideline
(Q4, 8:40) Wilson looked at Graham covered by Jefferson, 10 yards between right hash and numbers, double pumped and took SF-7
(OT, 11:23) Backed up Bucannon on Michael RR10
(OT, 10:46) Wilson rolled right PR13 (13 + 0) to Graham by right sideline over Peterson, in front of Jefferson
(OT, 6:52) Had single outside coverage of Graham 25 yards by right sideline, Wilson overthrew tight coverage
(OT, 1:47) Worked off Baldwin block for uncredited assist on Collins RM2
(OT, 1:04) Lined up short on OLS, pass went right to Baldwin PL27 (1 + 26) by right sideline who evaded Mathieu. Jefferson hustled across to force OOB, saved TD, set up missed FG to preserve tie.
(Q1, 7:51) Second to play on Freeman RR-1 tackled by Peterson
(Q1, 7:10) Immediate tackle of Coleman PM2 (2 + 0) between numbers and right hash denied 3rd/5
(Q1, 4:24) Slipped off block from TE Toilolo to tackle Sanu RR5
(Q1, 3:42) Unable to avoid pulling RG Chester on Freeman RR1 TD
(Q2, 1:16) Ryan PR3 (3 + 0) by right sideline to Hooper, Jefferson tackled but converted 2nd/2
(Q3, 13:49) Blitzed from inside slot right, Ryan play action reversed blind side allowing Jefferson free run for S-8
(Q3, 6:05) Hooper PR5 (5 + 0) between Jefferson and Okafor, Jefferson tackles
(Q3, 4:58) Unable to bring down Freeman at 2 yards on RM8
(Q3, 3:41) Spun off block from RT Schraeder to tackle Freeman RR2
(Q4, 11:26) Drew hold on Schraeder to negate Freeman RR28
(Q4, 8:58) Ryan threw WR screen to Gabriel PL25 (-4 + 29) TD between numbers and left hash, Jefferson (playing deep) caught in wash then blocked by LT 70
(Q4, 3:47) Obstructed Mathieu in coverage of Sanu PM12
(Q4, 3:00) Blocked by pulling LG Levitre on Freeman RR7
(Q4, 2:14) Sealed effectively by Toilolo on Freeman RL5 TD
(Q1, 5:15) Cousins threw incomplete for Jackson about 10 yards by right sideline, Jefferson underneath but ball underthrown and wide
(Q2, 12:15) Took bad angle/caught in wash on Kelley RM19
(Q2, 10:57) Blocked by pulling C Long on Kelley RR4
(Q2, 7:18) Blocked by pulling RG Scherff on Thompson RR8
(Q2, 5:01) Pressured Cousins on naked boot right PR7
(Q2, 3:00) Cousins to Davis PR5 (1 + 4) near right sideline, Jefferson missed tackle at 1 yard
(Q3, 13:39) Good coverage of Crowder forced throw away on Cousins roll right
(Q3, 4:10) Ran wide and out of play on Kelley RM3
(Q3, 2:50) Cousins to Garcon PL28 (9 + 19) by left sideline good open field tackle by Jefferson
(Q3, 2:05) Cousins for Davis about 13 yards between hashes, PD by Jefferson (injured on play)
(Q3, 1:12) Cousins to Crowder PM26 TD (21 + 5) between hash and right numbers, blew by Jefferson coverage
(Q4, 10:27) Cousins threw incomplete as Swearinger collided with Jefferson, Swearinger hurt
(Q4, 8:17) Cousins to Davis PL7 (7 + 0) by left sideline, Jefferson immediate tackle. Rare soft man coverage at LoS may have been due to late switch.
(Q4, 0:57) Cousins to Davis PR6 (5 +1) by right sideline. Jefferson pushed OOB on 1st/10. Soft and not guarding sideline based on game situation.
Some general notes:
The Cardinals used an extensive set of 3 and 4-safety alignments with D.J. Swearinger (primarily deep), Deone Bucannon (dime, always near the LoS), Tyrann Mathieu (usually near LoS, but typically with man responsibilities on passing downs), and Jefferson (swingman who played more near the LoS, but deep as down/distance dictated).
On the unpenalized pass plays in these 4 games he lined up 80 times close to the LoS and 60 times deep (his percentage near the LoS on run plays was higher, but I didn’t count those). For these purposes, I’m defining “deep” as a traditional cover-2 or single high positioning where he didn’t have a man coverage responsibility at the snap. When at the LoS, he was most typically on the edge and opposite a TE.
Tony approaches well as second man to the ball in run defense, but is discriminating about when he throws his body in. In these 4 games, I didn’t see anything I would term unnecessary head/neck risk, a common problem for thumping safeties (see Pollard, Bernard). He’s a good tackler both in terms of technique and knowing where he has help. Since he plays on the edge on most plays, he gets a number of unblocked opportunities to contribute to run defense as Ed Reed did. Generally speaking, he’s good at converting those opportunities, but Blaine Gabbert (of all people) made him look bad against the run in one of these games.
Like most safeties, he had difficulty getting off blocks from linemen, but he made a nice spin move to evade one, drew a huge holding call on Schraeder, and beat blocking TEs several times. For the season, he had 40 run tackles with 10 for loss. Given that statistic and PFF’s extremely high rating of his run defense (#1 among safeties), and contrasting with some of the things I saw versus the option in these games, I’m going to assume this was a below average set run defense games for him.
While he comes with a reputation for run defense, the thing I found most exciting about his game was the ability to cover good TEs when lined up in their face. In these 4 games, he was targeted 20 times with 9 receptions for 76 yards (14 of that coming as yards after missed tackles), 1 TD, 0 INTs, and 2 PDs. With the exception of the 2 noted missed tackles, he did a fine job of taking down his assignment without appreciable YAC. While less yardage is always good, that’s a particularly valuable trait to deny 3rd downs.
It is often said that a TE is too fast for LBs and too big for safeties to cover. Despite being only 5’11”, that wasn’t an issue in these games for Jefferson, who routinely had responsibility for Vernon Davis (6’3”), Jimmy Graham (6’7”), Brent Celek (6’5”), and Levine Toilolo (6’8”). He had 1 serious coverage failure, when Crowder blew by him for a 26-yard TD when he was lined up as a deep safety.
He was used as a pass rusher on 9 occasions in these games, including a sack and 1 pressure. He also had a QH washed out by penalty, so I’d call that a solid conversion rate.
Want something else to like? He was penalized just twice in 2016 (unnecessary roughness and a 29-yard DPI, both in Week 11) and not at all in 2015. That’s amazing for someone who plays so close to his man assignment where illegal contact and defensive holding calls tend to occur in the normal course of play. By comparison, Mathieu was penalized 10 times in 2015-16 in many fewer snaps.
The biggest possibility to have Jefferson fail is to ask him to be someone he is not. I was unimpressed with his play on the back end. He didn’t instinctively anticipate the throw or read the QB in these games. He also didn’t transition from pass to run quickly enough to impact many run plays. Said otherwise, he’s a player who seeks specific man or zone responsibilities, but is not a natural gambler like Reed, Eric Weddle, Rod Woodson, C.J. Mosley, or Ray Lewis. I realize those are all great players, but anticipation/gambling ability is often the difference between good and great. Obviously, the Ravens like Jefferson, and Newsome’s use of the word “ascending” indicates (or I am projecting) they see a player who can improve in that phase.
I’ve written extensively about the lack of multiple pass defense looks under Pees, so I won’t rehash here (you can go here instead). Jefferson is a player who could address those issues directly and dramatically if the Ravens can find a complementary back-end to play next to Weddle on passing downs and move Tony up to guard the sticks. Webb’s price tag was too high for such a role, but if he could be re-signed, his flexibility would keep opposing OCs/QBs guessing by allowing for switches to support the pass rush and better disguise coverage.
Just 2 years ago, the Ravens acquired a safety who was incorrectly judged by his tackle total (Kendrick Lewis led the Texans in tackles in 2014) as a physical player. By contrast, Jefferson led the Cardinals with 92 tackles employing a careful, physical style. Those are durability characteristics fans should appreciate in a player with his price tag in the age of the concussion protocol. He played all but 1 snap in these 4 games and returned immediately after a hard collision that caused his only absence.
Most free agent moves result in full market value paid to a player for the decline phase of his career. Jefferson just turned 25, and is thus more likely to provide value for the duration of his contract. He directly addresses the Ravens underneath/TE coverage weakness and is an excellent gamble as a cornerstone player.