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Film Reveals How Broncos Rookie CB Damarri Mathis is Developing

The Denver Broncos have a keeper in rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis.

When the Denver Broncos selected Damarri Mathis in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL draft, the team mostly had its sights set on utilizing him as a developmental boundary cornerback that could take some time to see the field other than in a rotational role. With a myriad of unfortunate injuries to the cornerback position, specifically veteran starter Ronald Darby missing most of the season, Mathis has been forced to start over the past few weeks.

Early on, Mathis struggled mightily, which is expected from a player tabbed as more of an athlete than a football player. Given the overall depth of the cornerback unit, Mathis was expected to be as low as the fifth cornerback in the rotation at the onset of the season, but as the weeks have moved forward following his four-penalty game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Mathis has developed into a fine player for the Broncos' secondary as a potential long-term starter at the position.

Part of what made Mathis so attractive as a player was his physicality and ability to play off of the line of scrimmage in man coverage. While there were some technical flaws in his game coming out of Pittsburgh, the athletic tools were there to form him into a quality coverage defender in their scheme, which features many Cover 3 and off-man principles.

Despite the struggles early on, Mathis turned in a fantastic performance this past weekend in Denver's loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, showing the goods in coverage a handful of times against an elite route runner in Davante Adams, as well as an incredibly impressive presence as a physical defender out in open space both against the run and in the passing game when targeted.

Join me as I examine the tape. 

Play 1: Learn From Your Mistakes

In this first play, Mathis does a tremendous job of correcting a mistake he made in his technique earlier in the game. Previously, the Raiders used a similar route stem against Mathis on a deep dig route by Mack Hollins. 

On that particular play, Mathis had to maintain his inside leverage with a shuffle step to the boundary, allowing Hollins to break free over the middle of the field. Here, rather than running over the middle of the field, Adams runs the out route trying to pick on the rookie defender.

Watch how Mathis flips his hips open and drives on the ball to the outside hand and across the face of Adams, breaking up would be first down completion.

This is a great sign of Mathis gaining trust in his technique and using his athleticism to make a great play on the ball. His drive to the catch point is tremendous, and his aggressiveness at the catch point accentuates the greatness of this particular rep.

Play 2: Angular Pursuit in the Run Game

Something you will find with rookie boundary cornerbacks is a lack of willingness to get physical in the running game out in open space. They take bad angles, attack the wrong area of the ball carrier, and can miss tackles leading to big plays.

Here, we see Mathis slide inside as Raiders tight end Foster Moreau condenses the formation to add another backside blocker and get left alone on the boundary.

Broncos defensive lineman D.J. Jones blows this play up in the backfield but cannot make the tackle, allowing Josh Jacobs to bounce the play toward the boundary.

Watch Mathis here as he slides inside to make his run fit. He notices Jacobs has gotten free and is pressing back towards his side of the field, slips a block from Hollins, explodes towards the backfield, and makes a critical tackle out in the open field.

If he misses that tackle, Jacobs might hit his head on the wall of the North stands of Mile High Stadium. 

Mathis not only takes a great angle to the ball carrier here, but he also attacks the outside shoulder area so that if he misses the tackle, there are defenders following in pursuit to make a play. This is a textbook example of knowing your responsibility and staying true to your technique.

Play 3: Click & Close With Ferocity

After a critical change of possession in the fourth quarter, the Raiders chose to attack Mathis a few times, with the rookie making a few nice plays to close out the game. To start the drive, the Raiders use a quick-hitting whip route to Hollins to gain some positive momentum. The Broncos are playing way off of the ball in Cover 3 with Justin Simmons buzzing the intermediate area of the field and trying to not get beat over the top, allowing the quick hitters to the boundary.

When Hollins hits the whip route back towards the boundary, Mathis keys and drives to the ball with a vengeance. He arrives right as the ball arrives and delivers a perfect form tackle to stop the play and keep the clock rolling.

Mathis was targeted on the very next play on another outbreaking route by Hollins, in which he also showed great poise in his technique, drove on the football, and forced an incompletion on a tight window throw along the sideline. These back-to-back plays showed something you wouldn't typically expect from a young corner that had already allowed a few receptions on the day.

This next play exemplifies it perfectly.

Play 4: Resilience

The Raiders noticed a tendency with Mathis from his time as a college player at Pittsburgh that has bled through in his showings as a Broncos, and fortunately, they weren't able to capitalize on it.

Biting on double moves.

Several times throughout the game, Mathis had gotten exposed to double moves on vertical routes, leaving streaking receivers open down the field. On one occasion, Mathis was torched by Keelan Cole on a hitch-and-go double move route in which Derek Carr barely missed Cole for a wide-open touchdown.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Raiders dialed up another double move with Cole running a deep post route into man coverage against Mathis. Knowing he has inside leverage with a deep safety over the top, Mathis opens his hips to turn and run with Cole.

Where things go wrong here is at the top of the route stem. Mathis exposes his back as Cole breaks towards the boundary, opening a lane towards the middle of the field.

Where things go right is the athletic display by Mathis to recover despite being beaten by a high-quality route run by Cole.

Notice how far Mathis recovers across the field to make an amazing pass breakup. An underthrown ball assists in his recovery, but Mathis never gave up on the play despite getting turned around on the route.

That shows resilience and a desire to go out and make a play.

Play 5: Still Room for Improvement

While there is a lot to like about the performance of Mathis against the Raiders, there are still a few things that need to be improved upon if he is to take over as a full-time starter for the Broncos' defense moving forward.

One of the most egregious flaws about Mathis’ game coming out of college was his penchant for being grabby at the top of the route stem when playing off of the line of scrimmage. He drew a lot of flags in college, as well as his first game as a starter in the NFL, due to panicking when receivers close the gap in his coverage in his backpedal.

This improvement should come as Mathis becomes more sound in the understanding of the rules of the NFL, but there are still some technical flaws that need to be addressed as well. Early in the game against the Raiders, Mathis had another incident where he got stacked up at the top of the stem and latched onto his receiver, drawing a penalty flag and erasing a spectacular pass breakup by Essang Bassey.

In this play, Mathis is caught flat-footed at the top of the stem, forcing him to create unnecessary contact to slow the receiver down. There are multiple times where that has been the case throughout the season.

It’s an easily coachable aspect of his game, and Mathis has cut down on these types of plays, but there are still flashes of these problems in every game he has played.

The Takeaway

While it may not have come about as intended, the Broncos may have found a high-quality cornerback to serve on the opposite side of the field of Patrick Surtain II in the future. The struggles of a rookie playing the position are there for Mathis, but the growth is certainly apparent over the past month of games.

Mathis is playing at a relatively high level for this Broncos' defense as a rookie, showing a multitude of different abilities in coverage as well as a highly impressive physicality for a young player at a difficult position. The traits of a quality coverage cornerback are flashing constantly, even if they aren’t the most consistent on a down-to-down basis. His consistent physicality as a tackler is something every team should desire, regardless of position.

It’s going to be fun to watch Mathis continue to grow over the last handful of games of the season. There’s a chance that finding a cornerback in free agency or the draft could become less of a need should he continue to grow at this rate.

You have to forgive the struggles to find the successes. Mathis is already proving as much. 

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