As a part of our series on the 2013/14 Ravens defense, we’re going to start looking at young veterans who are projected to have a big impact this fall. This piece will dig deeper into the Ravens’ backup-turned-starting corner, Corey Graham. Don’t miss our previous parts of this series: 1) Arthur Brown 2) Matt Elam 3) John Simon 4) Brandon Williams 5) Courtney Upshaw and 6) Jimmy Smith.
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Through the first few weeks of the 2012 season, Corey Graham was simply a backup cornerback on the roster who was relegated to Special Teams duties when he played at all. But he was suddenly thrust into action in the Week 6 game against Dallas when Lardarius Webb left the game (and the season) injured with his second career ACL tear. With Jimmy Smith struggling with his own injuries, Graham was given the starting cornerback role opposite Carey Williams as well as slot corner duty in the Ravens’ Nickel package. His usage is plotted below:
The Backup “Stepping Up”
The Ravens had a disappointing season on the defensive side of the ball by their own standards. Much of this was due to injuries (Suggs, Webb, Jimmy Smith, Ray Lewis, etc.), but injuries are an ever-present reality in football, so the next man must be ready to fill the role vacated by those at the top of depth chart.
Based on the chart above, one can see that once Jimmy Smith went down (after Week 9 vs. CLE), the majority of Graham’s snaps-per-game were no longer dominated by coverage duties in Nickel or Dime situations. He began to be a regular starter and, save for the meaningless Week 17 game, Graham played no less than 97% of the teams’ snaps per game.
It’s clear that the Ravens preferred Graham’s skill-set over Chykie Brown and Chris Johnson, so I decided to take a look at the season that was to see how he’ll fit in the defense this coming season.
Watching this defense through the past few years (and defensive coordinators), we see that the Ravens clearly covet versatility. This system asks its players to execute a number of variable tasks throughout a game and to excel at each of them. Few Ravens exhibit this trait more than Corey Graham. I saw Graham filling the following roles on multiple occasions:
- Man (press and off) coverage from the outside and slot
- Slot Blitz
- Deep and shallow Cover 2, 3, 4, and 6 zone coverage
While Graham doesn’t exhibit natural straight-line speed, he has good acceleration with nimble hips that help him cover receivers across the middle of the field. His field sense also stood out as a strength based on his efficient switching on route combinations and understanding of complex zone coverages/blitzes that the Ravens often employ.
As a Slot Corner
When offenses attacked the Ravens with >2 receiving threats, Graham bumped from his outside CB role to the slot. This is where he made his biggest impact. As an example of Corey Graham’s slot play, I looked at his pass deflection (and eventual INT) in the waning minutes of the Wild Card Playoff game.
In Image #1, Graham is defending Reggie Wayne in the slot in man-to-man coverage. The Ravens prefer to jam the slot receivers, especially with short yardage, in order to keep them from running unabated “option” routes that kill 3rd down defenses. Graham doesn’t have the luxury of pressing as Wayne is off the LOS.
Image #2 exemplifies why slot corner is so difficult to play. Wayne has just gotten out of his stance and Graham is forced to back-pedal straight because Wayne has a “2-way go.” Besides studying team tendencies, Graham has no way to discern whether his matchup will run his route inside or outside.
Once Wayne breaks to the outside (Image #3), Graham accelerates forward and looks back to the QB well before the WR does. Risky? Yes, he could get double-moved, but the Ravens are blitzing so Graham knows the ball needs to come out. Graham drives to the ball, deflects it into the air, and Carey Williams pulls it down for a momentum killing interception.
Corey Graham excels at sticking to the back hip of receivers running shallow routes. This task is not an easy one, as he needs to stick with shifty, intermediate receivers and play the ball. It’s my opinion that his solid man coverage in the slot allowed the Ravens to Cover-0 blitz much more during their Playoff run than during the majority of the regular season. Where Graham’s game begins to break down is when he defends receivers up the seam or down the sideline:
Graham’s assignment on this play is the same as the previous breakdown; man coverage on the slot receiver.
Graham and Williams do a good job communicating and stick to their original matchups throughout the legal pick play. Even in tighter quarters (bunch formations) Graham rarely struggled to maintain his assignment and this example is no different.
Problems for Graham begin once Moss directs his shoulders vertically. Santana Moss gets a step and Graham can’t make up ground, he just simply lacks that next gear. The ball eventually lands incomplete (luckily for the Ravens) but only because the ball was late coming out and slightly underthrown.
This is a weakness of Graham’s and it could become an issue if teams use speedier receivers up the seam (a shorter throw) as evidenced in the Conference Championship when Graham got burned by Welker on a double-move down the seam.
Graham getting his uniform dirty
In the beginning of the year when Graham came onto the field as a Nickel corner to play the slot, he didn’t play the run particularly well. He seemed apprehensive about taking on lineman (relatively), and it didn’t appear that he wanted to get his nose dirty. Once Graham took on a greater workload as a starter, I saw his attitude start to shift.
Graham began to play the run more aggressively and sifted through the “trash” to make tackles on the edge with more regularity. He is no Webb in this sense (few are) but his tenacious side began to shine through, which can only lead to a greater role in this defense due to slot corners necessarily needing to be sturdy on the edge against run plays.
When aligning in the slot, the Ravens took advantage of his proximity to the QB by blitzing him off the edge:
Corey Graham was very effective at disguising blitzes as this image suggests. His outside alignment on the slot receiver doesn’t tip his hand in the slightest.
Suggs (#55) slants toward the left guard from his outside alignment leaving Graham one-on-one with the left tackle Castonzo. As it (hopefully) shows in these slides, Graham uses Castonzo’s exaggerated lateral movement to cut inside of him and pick up the sack on Luck.
This was Graham’s lone sack of the year but he did pressure the QB on 13% of his pass rushes last year. Depending on how much slot-play Graham sees next season once Webb returns, I can see Graham playing a big role in the Ravens zone blitz or Amoeba packages.
Corey Graham didn’t get the credit he deserved for his role in the secondary. I think there are several reasons for this:
- He was penciled in as a Special Teams guy at the beginning of the year
- His controlled way of playing is not explosive but it allowed hyper-aggressive players like Reed, Pollard, and Kruger to play their risky game without fear of disaster.
- He allowed touchdowns in his coverage in both the Denver and New England games
Altogether Corey Graham is sagacious in his approach to the game but, it doesn’t hinder him from excelling as a skilled man-coverage slot corner with a hint of nastiness that we are just seeing the beginnings of. His fit in this defense is as a Nickel corner with a potential to start on the outside if Jimmy Smith struggles or if Webb transitions to a safety role.