Another one of PFF’s new awards to debut, the Dick “Night Train” Lane Award is to be given to the defender who has performed the best in pass-coverage over the course of the season.
Today’s NFL may bear little resemblance to the game of the 1950s, and as passing and coverage records continue to tumble with the ball in the air more than ever before, one record belonging to “Night Train” Lane has continued to stand: most interceptions in a single season.
In Lane’s first season in the NFL (at the age of 24), he picked off 14 passes in coverage, leading the league and setting a record that hasn’t been tied or surpassed in 67 years of trying. Lane did it in a 12-game season, and against just 360 passing attempts. The average number of attempts for the 21 QBs to start all 16 games this season was 550. Had Lane seen that volume of passing that season over 16 games, at the same rate of intercepting the ball, he would have ended the year with 21—as a rookie.
Lane pioneered the art of baiting quarterbacks in coverage into throwing passes towards receivers that looked open, only to break on the ball and pick it off, and would have been perfectly suited to the modern game with all its passing. There is no more fitting player to name an award recognizing outstanding coverage after than Lane himself.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Luke Kuechly’s name keeps coming up during PFF's award week, and that should tell you all you need to know about the kind of season he posted. As a coverage linebacker, he is a completely different proposition than most other LBs in the NFL. Offenses scheme to try and match up their receivers on linebackers, because they know that is a mismatch in their favor. Kuechly can cover backs and tight ends—and swing the pendulum back the other way, making it a mismatch in favor of the defense.
He picked off a pass against Dallas QB Tony Romo this season because Romo saw he had Jason Witten running down the seam against a linebacker—usually a big win for the offense—but the linebacker was Luke Kuechly, and it evolved into a turnover. By the end of the season, Kuechly had allowed a passer rating of just 57.8 into his coverage—the best among all LBs—despite that number being hurt by his matchups with Julio Jones late in the season, a receiver even the best defensive backs in the league can’t cover, let alone a linebacker. The league average passer rating surrendered by a LB this season was 102.5, so targeting Kuechly as opposed to any other linebacker immediately causes a 45-point drop in passer rating.
We may typically think defensive back when discussing pass coverage, but there was no better player in that department than Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly this season.
Charles Woodson, S, Oakland Raiders
Charles Woodson’s rookie season was 1998.
In 2015, he was PFF’s highest-graded safety in coverage, despite playing deep center field for the majority of his snaps. Playing as the free safety in cover-1/3 looks is the role in coverage that requires the most range and speed to play well. Seattle's Earl Thomas is the poster-boy for that position, because he has the legs for it in the way few do. Charles Woodson was able to excel in that role at 39 years of age this season, and ended up picking off five passes and breaking up another three.
Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals
Just as offenses in the NFL have X-factor players that can line up in multiple spots and cause matchup problems on the defense, the Arizona Cardinals have Tyrann Mathieu, who can do exactly the same in reverse. Mathieu can line up as a safety, cornerback, or linebacker, and cover whomever the Cardinals need him to—and do it well. He is one of the league’s most versatile coverage weapons, and was a huge part of Arizona’s success over the season.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Patrick Peterson had arguably the best season of his career, and put himself right back in the elite defensive back debate. As a player tasked with covering an offense’s top receiver and moving around on defense, Peterson allowed just 47.7 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, the best mark of his career, and second-best in the NFL.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Richard Sherman had something of a down year and was still one of the league’s best shutdown cornerbacks, which speaks volumes about just how good he is. He allowed only 47.8 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught this season, and there may be no better single-game performance than his job against the otherwise-unstoppable Antonio Brown. Brown was thrown at 10 times with Sherman in coverage, catching just three of them for 24 yards, while Sherman picked off one of the incompletions (he also intercepted a two-point conversion pass intended for Brown).
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