Analysis Don't Call Him a Nickel: Why C. J. Gardner-Johnson is So Much More (1 Viewer)

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Credit: Jason Behnken - Associated Press


By Dan Levy - Staff Writer -

When the question of "Who is the most valuable player on the Saints defense?" comes up, there are always the usual suspects: Demario Davis, Cameron Jordan, Marshon Lattimore…

And rightfully so.

However, the most worthy name typically missing from this conversation is C. J. Gardner-Johnson. While the scrappy, trash-talking playmaker is most commonly referred to as a nickel, when it comes to the Saints’ defense he is actually so much more. His role expands far beyond the traditional slot corner position, first and foremost, because the Saints play what would be considered a Nickel Big or a 4-2-5 as their base defense. What this means is that, as a 5th DB, GJGJ takes more defensive snaps than any linebacker not named Demario Davis.

Still there is more to CJGJ than the semantics of his position and his status as a starter; it is what he does—his actions—that really define the value he brings to the team. The term football player for guys like this is an often overused trope, but when it comes to the narrow definition of “an athlete who can play any position on the field at a high level”... well, that’s exactly what GJGJ is.

Here’s why:

Slot Coverage
For a true nickel defender, this is where it all starts: being able to effectively cover a slot receiver. The emergence of this position has changed NFL offenses—and, by extension, defenses. It is certainly no easy task, especially when it comes to man coverage, and while perimeter corners are able to leverage the sideline as an extra defender, slot corners do not have that luxury. From the moment the ball is snapped, the odds are not in their favor.

Yet CJ Gardner-Johnson routinely makes it look easy.

From the wide angle here, watch from the snap how CJGJ plays the slot WR vs. how Roby and Lattimore play out on the perimeter, where their WRs are on the line and the sideline is their friend. The two perimeter CBs play aggressive press coverage, activating their feet at the snap. By contrast, CJ stays flat-footed at the snap, relying on patience and discipline in the face of the slot's release, thereby not giving him a two-way go.

Here's another angle:
Again, notice how CJ doesn't bite on the release. He forces the WR to commit and then shoots his hands, denying him the separation of the line he wants. By staying flat-footed and timing his hands well, he is able to funnel the WR to the outside and get into his hip pocket. The WR is unable to get him stacked, and CJ reads the break and undercuts the out route, nearly coming away with the interception.

But CJ isn't just effective at covering man-to-man down the field and making plays on the ball. He is also an absolute demon when it comes to breaking up on the short game. His instincts, discipline, and aggression when it comes to screen plays in front of him is particularly impressive.

Here we see him completely destroy a quick tunnel screen. He shows live feet at the snap in the face of the vertical burst from the slot, but he stays gathered. Then as soon as the WR sinks back for the screen, CJ executes a flawless plant-and-drive (no false steps). And as he closes, he even gears down to establish a tight angle, and beats the releasing OT for a sure tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

Here, he's an absolute DAWG on the quick flat screen. Again, getting into his backpedal read at the snap, then immediately diagnosing the play, sharp plant-and-drive, taking a perfect angle, and running through the block like it just isn't there.

Pass Rush
As a spectator, if I had to guess what CJ's favorite thing in the world is, I would say blitzing. And it's no wonder why; as a DB, he is simply one of the best.

First of all, this is just silly. You're looking at a 200-210 lb. DB putting a 300+ lb. OT on his butt. CJ simply shoots his arms, gets his hand inside, and runs right through the block... just in case you were under the illusion that he only did that to WRs blocking on screen plays. The fact is that whether it's pulling down INTs, locking up a WR at the line, or shedding blocks, CJ's combination of long arms, core strength, and technique makes him one of the most well-rounded players playing in the NFL today.

Here you see another tremendous aspect of his game—his patience—on display in a pass rush situation, though it is not limited to just these (more on that later). CJ comes off the edge, sees the QB forced off his spot, and instead of just shooting through out of control, looking for blood, he gears down, reestablishes his contain angle, effortlessly slips the block of the RB, and forces an errant throw.

Run Defense
Speaking of patience, let's talk about CJ as a run defender. There is a reason the Saints are able to stay in a "nickel" defense on first down, and basically run it as their base. That's because, when it comes to run defense, CJ is as good as just about any LB.

Here we see him lined up as an overhang at the top of the screen. At the snap, he gets split backfield action on an inside zone run and immediately begins slow playing to B-gap. He doesn't shoot down into the wash, he knows he's a free hitter (6 blockers for the 6 box defenders = CJ as the add-in). Once the gap opens and the RB is funneled to it, CJ shoots right in and makes a sound tackle at the legs. Again, this is discipline, patience, and technique on display. It's also LB-level run fit instincts you don't always see from a DB.

When I talk about the Saints using CJ in their base defense, this is what I mean. Here they are facing 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs), which traditionally a defense would match up with a base 4-3 or 3-4 front (with only 4 DBs on the field). But because of CJ's ability to play the run like a LB, the Saints are able to stay in nickel. Here, he is the force player against outside zone at him, and again he plays the run with discipline and patience. Almost immediately, a gap opens up in front of him where he could possibly shoot in and tackle the RB in the backfield. But he sticks to his assignment, working his shuffle, holding the edge, and then folding back in for the assit when the RB decides to take it vertical.

Here he is vs. another heavy personnel run look, where the ACE combo between the center and guard works up to him, and he's able to shed the C's block—again, using his hands and technique to defeat a man who outweighs him by 100+ lbs.—and make the tackle short of the first down.

Here's a similar look vs. Outside Zone. CJ is actually playing on the bubble, at the exact same depth and alignment of a WILL LB. He diagnoses the play and gets downhill immediately. The OG takes a reach angle to cut him off, and CJ uses a sneaky plant-and-rip to slip underneath the block and make the tackle at the line of scrimmage. An actual linebacker could not have played this situation better.

This, right here, is one of my favorite plays. The Bucs use alignment and formation to get a short edge and try to run a quick pin-&-pull toss to the outside. In terms of alignment, they have the Saints defense right where they want them. Give Carl Granderson credit for getting to the edge and stringing the play out, but CJ's savvy here to use the block on Lattimore ("hiding" as it were) to gain outside leverage on the run, mirror the RB, and as soon as his momentum is slowed, CJ shoots off the edge and makes the tackle in the backfield. His acceleration is just on another level right here.

Ball Skills
Now to everyone's favorite part: CJ picking off Brady.

I made this clip a little longer so we can get all the angles and fully appreciate what a great play this is—and it starts with film study. From time to time, you will see CJ gamble on a play, just as all ball-hawking DBs do, but just about every time he's taking a gamble with confidence because he's already put in the film time. Here, you see the Bucs trying to execute a rub route combination. CJ gets aggressive with his man off the line, disrupting that vertical drive meant to open up space for the out breaking route underneath. You can also see the difference between the vet CJ and the rookie Adebo here, as Adebo is actually beat in the release, and even with his hold, the WR would be open (if not for CJ).

The gamble comes when he peeks to the QB and then peels off his man for the INT. But that is film study. CJ likely knows that this is a rub combination, and who the ball is meant to go to. He anticipates this and is able to steal normally very high percentage play from one of the best QBs in the game.

Now, the reason why I love this: I can't be sure, but this INT from game 2 vs. the Bucs looks awfully similar to the offensive play from game 1. My hunch as a coach is that the Bucs were trying to take advantage of CJ here, after seeing on film how he gambled on the rub route in the first game. So they align in the same formation and use a similar looking release combination, only now the rub guy is actually the primary receiver.

You even see CJ almost fall for it when he peeks early into the backfield. But fortunately, he is only briefly fooled, and Brady is forced off his spot. CJ's confidence and recovery speed kick in, and he dials in another INT vs. "the GOAT" on a play that was specifically designed to make him look stupid.

Don't call this man a nickel. He's one of the best defensive players in the league.
Dan Levy

Dan Levy

Staff Writer

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