It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…
The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.
Articles come from a lot of places. Some of them come very easily; that is, an idea just organically pops into my head. Some are triggered by something I read; it may be a tweet, a mainstream media article or a comment here on Hogs Haven. A lot of articles are the product of just knowing that there’s a (digital) blank page to be filled with content here at Hogs Haven, so I’ve got to write about something. When that happens, I go rooting around for ideas, and sometimes it means doing a little work to try to create something out of not much.
This morning, I was trying to generate a story out of thin air and I came up with an idea that would require me to organize some data on offensive and defensive snap counts from the first 8 games of 2020. I opened up the PFF database and a blank Excel spreadsheet and started putting some data tables together.
The offensive part was easy — very straightforward aside from some wide receiver data. But when I started doing the defense, I began to falter. The issue that was causing me grief was that, while a left guard on offense plays left guard every snap, and if he moves to right guard, even my 8-year-old niece can spot the change, defenses are different. Players move around; they flip sides, DBs rush the passer, DEs drop into coverage. In short, defensive assignments are more fluid, and single position designations often aren’t sufficient to explain what a player does in the defense.
But as I struggled to make sense of the snap counts I was looking at, an idea started to form in my head, and after an hour or so, I had what I believed was an “Aha! moment”. I’ll show you some detail first, then share what I concluded from it all.
Before I get to the work I did on the spreadsheet, let me take a second to show you what snap counts by position look like when they are displayed in the PFF website:
What you see above are the detailed defensive snap counts for Kamren Curl for 2020, per PFF.
Of course, the level of detail can be reduced.
My point here is to demonstrate that when someone says that a defensive player like Curl played strong safety against the Bengals in Week 11, they’re right, but not completely accurate according to PFF, who list him as also playing slot corner, boundary corner and free safety in that game.
This is where X’s and O’s guys earn their money. They will look at how a player is being used on a play and explain the intricacies.
I’m not an X’s and O’s guy.
Why defensive players are like Schrödinger’s cat
I like black & white distinctions — you’re pregnant or you’re not. He’s a strong safety or he isn’t. Unfortunately, the world is a full-color experience and defensive players are a bit like Schrödinger’s cat – the player is not a strong safety, a free safety, a slot corner or a boundary corner…he’s all of them at the same time. It’s only in observing the play that all the potentialities merge into a single “reality”. Explanations of EPR experiments that are consistent with standard microscopic quantum mechanics require that macroscopic objects, such as cats, notebooks, and defensive backs do not always have unique classical descriptions. That applies to Kam Curl very well; he “does not always have a unique classical description” when it comes to what he does on the football field.
I need to beg your forgiveness in advance for ignoring historically gifted NFL analysts like Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen, and Schrödinger by simplifying my snap count analysis to the point where I will talk about Washington defensive players as though they played a single position (or perhaps two) in a game. This is not true, but I’m hoping that you’ll accept it as a useful fiction that allows a discussion that is relatively straightforward in order to get to a specific conclusion expeditiously.
What I saw on my spreadsheet
I want to focus on the snap counts of a few Washington defenders who got on the field in the first half of the 2020 season: Kendall Fuller, Jimmy Moreland, Fabian Moreau, Kamren Curl and Landon Collins.
In this discussion of Weeks 1-9 of the 2020 season, Fuller and Collins are independent variables — Fuller is a starting boundary corner and Collins is the starting strong safety. Moreland, Moreau and Curl are related dependent variables. What they did was dependent on others, and changed with the circumstances. My objective in this study is to better understand how Washington coaches perceived Kamren Curl last season in hopes of better understanding how they see the 2021 roster as we head into training camp.
Here’s a look at my snap count spreadsheet:
Prior to Landon Collins’ Week 7 Achilles injury, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to rookie Kam Curl, but from that point forward, I came to think of him as a strong safety. Looking at these snap counts— remembering that they are oversimplified — I realized that the coaches were treating Kam Curl more like a slot corner (not a safety) through the first 5 weeks of the season.
In Weeks 1 & 2, Fuller was injured, so Moreland replaced him on the boundary and Fabian Moreau filled in as a slot corner in place of Moreland along with Curl.
In Weeks 3, 4 & 5, Moreland and Curl split the slot duties while Moreau virtually disappeared from the defense (he got just 1 defensive snap in those three weeks).
The defense was only on the field for 48 snaps in Week 6. I’m not sure why Curl only played 2 defensive snaps. At first I thought he might’ve been injured, but he played special teams. I think, in the end, it was a product of game flow and matchups.
Landon Collins was injured early in Week 7. When that happened, Curl took over the Strong Safety position for the balance of the season and Moreland increased his snap counts in the slot. Moreau got back on the field a bit in Week 6 (when Kam only played 2 snaps) and Week 7 (after Collins was injured and Kam moved to SS), but played minimal defensive snaps again until the final game of the regular season.
What I took from this analysis was that, prior to Landon Collins’ injury, Kamren Curl was being used more as a slot corner than a safety. He actually started at that position in Weeks 4 & 5 and dramatically out-snapped Jimmy Moreland, whom, prior to this snap count review, I had been thinking about as Washington’s starting slot corner.
In effect, Curl, playing the now-well-known Buffalo nickel position, had become the team’s primary slot corner by Week 4 of the 2020 season.
Here’s the second defensive play of the game in Week 4
That’s Kam Curl lined up as the slot defender against the Ravens, with Apke (#30) in the free safety spot. You can see Bostic and Kevin Pierre-Louis, Washington’s nickel linebackers, in the defensive formation as well.
The following week against the Rams, the Washington defense came on the field for their first play with 8 in the box, ready to stop the run
Apke is playing free safety, but Curl and Collins are both in the box, effectively giving the defense a 4-4-3 look, with two boundary corners. The Rams ran up the middle against this defense for some reason, and got stuffed.
On 2nd & long, Washington showed nickel cover
Curl is lined up as the slot defender here, but with the man motioning to the right side of the offense, the Rams are overloaded to the other side. There was a lot going on with this play. A TE came in motion and there was a fake pitch to the RB coming towards Curl. He initially came on a pass rush, but broke it off to cover the running back behind the line, who was merely a decoy on this play. The pass was incomplete, and it was 3rd & long.
Curl was off the field for the next 4 defensive plays while Jimmy Moreland played the slot.
When Curl next came on the field, the Rams had the ball in the red zone
This apparent 3-safety look is Washington’s ‘Buffalo Nickel’ package, with Curl lined up over the slot receiver, and Collins & Apke playing traditional safety positions.
On this play, Curl initially disrupted the receiver in front of him as he released, then dropped into zone coverage at the linebacker level.
When he identifies the screen pass to the back to the left side of the offense (3 blockers vs 2 defenders at the 10 yard line), Curl starts to track down the running back.
Curl defeats the blocker at the 5 yard line and takes aim at the running back, who is looking at a touchdown if he can get past Curl.
Curl, of course, makes the tackle to prevent the touchdown.
My exercise in looking at snap counts followed by watching a few plays from Weeks 4 & 5 led me to a few conclusions.
Firstly, prior to Landon Collins’ injury last season, Curl wasn’t often being used as a backup strong safety. He was a flexible DB able to play box safety, as he did on the opening play against the Rams, line up as a blitzer, as he did on the next play, or — and this was his most frequent role — as the nickel back.
Secondly, while I tend to think of Jimmy Moreland as the team’s starting nickel corner because he played there so much in the second half of the season, prior to Collins’ injury, Kam Curl was out-snapping Moreland more than 2 to 1 at the position. In Weeks 4 & 5, Curl lined up as the slot defender 46 times while Moreland did so 22 times. Curl was, in effect, the primary slot corner in Weeks 4 & 5.
Based on these observations, it occurred to me that the 6’2”, 198 pound Curl was seen as an overall better option as a slot defender than the 5’10”, 179 pound Jimmy Moreland. Had Collins not been injured, I think we would have come to regard Curl as the top slot defender on the defense by the end of his rookie season rather than primarily thinking of him as a strong safety.
This means that, as Jack Del Rio has said repeatedly, it’s not “either/or” with Curl and Collins. As you can see from the screenshots above, Apke, Collins and Curl routinely played together in nickel packages. Of course, in 2021, the team will line up a different free safety — probably Bobby McCain.
The snap review also helped me realize just how little Fabian Moreau played from Weeks 3 to 16 last year. It’s not surprising that he’s gone now, and I expect Darryl Roberts to provide a big upgrade as a do-it-all backup CB this season.
I think that the coaches realized early last season that they had caught lightning in a bottle with Kam Curl. Not only did he far exceed what is expected of a 7th round rookie, but he demonstrated that he has skills far beyond the typical strong safety. He can play tough in the run game as a strong tackler, and has good coverage skills as well. His size gives him an advantage over a similarly skilled cornerback like Jimmy Moreland.
Landon Collins is “just” a strong safety, but Kamren Curl offers much more flexibility. I think it’s time to start believing Jack Del Rio when he says that there’s room on the roster and on the field for both players, and to think about Kam Curl as a multi-skilled defensive back that can line up and play at every level of the defense. I strongly suspect that Del Rio will design schemes designed to get Kamren Curl on the field of play as often as possible in the coming season.