The All-22: Teams are turning primary receivers into slot machines
Admit it -- if I say "slot receiver," you probably think of Wes Welker, and why wouldn't you? Welker has redefined the position as it's grown in importance throughout the NFL with his uncanny command of option routes and short-area concepts. But there's more to the slot role than a bunch of seven-yard slants these days. Victor Cruz of the New York Giants has become a new kind of speed slot receiver, putting safeties to the test with elite speed up the seam. Other teams have followed that paradigm, but the really interesting thing about the slot position these days is how many teams are taking their star receivers and putting them inside to create matchups that are nearly impossible for defenses to win.
This wasn't as much of a concern in the days when passing offenses weren't so wide open and formation-diverse, but in a new era, it makes all the sense in the world. If you can put your $60 million receiver with his rare height/speed/agility prowess on a nickel cornerback or linebacker, why on earth not?
Take the case of Brandon Marshall. In 2012, the Chicago Bears' star receiver ran 120 of his 546 routes from the slot. He was targeted 33 times, caught 22 passes for 318 yards, and scored two touchdowns. This season, Marshall has already been in the slot for 211 of his 467 routes -- an uptick in slot percentage from 22.0% to 45.2% -- and has 31 catches on 48 targets for 459 yards and five touchdowns. Calvin Johnson, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne before he was injured, Andre Johnson ... the list goes on and on.
As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup explained, this tactic is a great way to push your best receivers away from your opponents' top cornerbacks -- because as much as receivers can adapt to the slot role, it's a lot tougher for some pass defenders.
"It becomes difficult to match up, because a lot of cornerbacks are purely outside corners -- they don't play in the slot. They're not comfortable playing "two-way gos" (option routes in which the receiver can turn inside or outside based on coverage), and you get those in the slot. A lot of cornerbacks grow up playing outside. If they're playing man, they're comfortable with the sideline as a defender, basically. They know that they can play that way, and they're comfortable with certain techniques that you can only play on the outside. There are a lot of good corners who just are not comfortable playing inside.
"Let's say you're playing man-free coverage -- if you're doing that [in the slot], you have no help to the outside. There's a lot more room to defend, and it's just harder."
That's one reason NFL teams are placing more value in true starting slot cornerbacks (another NFL trend that will grow in the next few years), but it doesn't quite ease the pain of certain matchup nightmares. The Minnesota Vikings found this out on Oct. 27, when they gave up two touchdowns to Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson in a 44-31 loss. The Packers were trying to find ways to augment their slot productivity after a broken fibula took Randall Cobb out of the picture, and taking Nelson inside was an interesting switch. Nelson has been one of the most productive outside speed receivers over the last few seasons, but in his seven-catch, 123-yard performance against Minnesota, Nelson caught two touchdowns, and both were from the slot. His 76-yard touchdown with 3:36 left in the second quarter was a perfect example of what happens when a top receiver is let loose in an area covered by guys without the physical ability to keep up.
Though Nelson had moved inside to the slot before, he couldn't remember the last time he had done so with such frequency -- perhaps "a couple years ago," he guessed per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. But there was no guessing about the effectiveness of Nelson in the slot -- Nelson actually leads the team with 200 slot routes and 35 targets this season, and he had just 27 and six in 2012.
"It worked well," he said after the Minnesota game. "I had some good plays out of it. It's something different we were looking at. We had some different opportunities and Aaron and I were able to connect on some big plays."
The Packers had a 3 x 1 formation with Nelson on the inside slot on the right side. The Vikings countered with nickel coverage and two deep safeties, but they sent nickel cornerback Marcus Sherels on a blitz from that same side, leaving a clear opening for outside slot receiver Myles White. However, the plan was for Aaron Rodgers to hit Nelson over the middle, and this was made easier by the fact that linebacker Chad Greenway had to haul it over to Nelson's area as fellow linebacker Erin Henderson fired through on an inside blitz. Safeties Andrew Sendejo and Mistrial Raymond actually had a shot at compressing Nelson's ability to stay open with their high-low concept, but Rodgers fired the ball with perfect timing, and Nelson raced through the defenders for a relatively easy score.
"He is just a smart player," Rodgers said of Nelson. "He can play inside and outside, and he understands all of the run concepts. We tried to get him in positions where we could get him singled up, and we like those matchups where we can get him one on one. Whether that is inside or outside, and he is just a valuable resource to our team, and to the young guys that we have in that role, and I am just really proud of him."
As for Marshall, he had two touchdown catches in Chicago's 21-19 loss to the Detroit Lions on Nov. 10, and one of those two was from the slot into a deep vertical route. However, I was most intrigued by a formation the Bears used on their third play of the game. Chicago had third-and-six from their own 39-yard line, and Marshall stacked inside with tight end Martellus Bennett. The route combination used on his play perfectly illustrates how effective slot positions can be with creative playcallers like Bears head coach Marc Trestman.
Bennett started his route by charging inside to block linebacker DeAndre Levy (who currently leads the NFL in interceptions with six), but he then took a sharp cut outside. Meanwhile, Marshall took defensive back Rashean Mathis up top as the route combination prompted single coverage on a crossing route.
As this trend increases in volume, you'll see more teams blurring the traditional lines for receivers -- the advantages are too great to ignore, as Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said in July regarding a new focus on moving Calvin Johnson around the formation.
"Calvin is so versatile -- people don't say [that] a whole lot. They talk about how great of a player he is, which is obvious. His versatility is the thing that took him to a different level last year -- playing in the slot, playing not only his position but playing the split-end position. Shoot. he even lined up at a tight end spot a couple times. That has a lot to do with his growth -- if you believe he can grow and can get better, I think he proved that last year.'' This year, Johnson has run 119 of his 455 routes in the slot, and scored four of his 12 touchdowns there. Good enough for Megatron, good enough for the rest of the league. And the rest of the league is paying attention.