The lines between positions in the NFL can be fuzzy. In hybrid defenses, an edge rusher can be a 4-3 defensive end half of the time, and a 3-4 outside linebacker the other half. Tight ends can play in-line or split out as a wide receiver, safeties can become linebackers in sub-packages, and cornerbacks can become safeties—or vice versa.
The Arizona Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu is one of the league’s best players this season, and has a real case to make as Defensive Player of the Year—but we seem to spend half our time trying to classify him at one set position or another.
So, let’s clear that up right now.
The Cardinals list Mathieu as a safety, because in base defense, that’s what he plays most of the time. In their base 3-4 defense, Mathieu lines up as a safety 77.6 percent of the time—but the Cardinals only play base defense on 33 percent of their defensive snaps.
In almost all other sub-packages, Mathieu plays cornerback, primarily, though he has played in pretty much every position in the back seven at one point this season.
Overall, he has been on the field for 720 defensive snaps this season. Of those 720 snaps, 66.7 percent of them have been at cornerback (mostly slot), with just 24.4 percent at strong safety, and 8.9 percent at free safety.
|% of snaps||66.7||24.4||8.9|
Because of those numbers, PFF calls Mathieu a cornerback. He plays the majority of his snaps as a corner over the course of the season, so we list him in that position group.
Call him a safety, call him a cornerback, call him simply a defensive back: Tyrann Mathieu is a playmaker, and has been spectacular this season.
He currently sits in second place in PFF’s cornerback ratings, a hair behind Josh Norman for the best mark on the season. While Norman has been a coverage specialist, Mathieu has been far more involved in other facets of the game. He has been a force against the run and an effective part of the Arizona pass-rush on the blitz.
Mathieu has rushed the passer 32 times this season, and has notched a sack, hit, and five hurries on those plays, as well as two batted passes.
Here is the sack he recorded back against the Ravens as part of Arizona’s heavy blitz packages. On this play, the Cardinals sent six rushers against the six blockers in protection for Baltimore, but the running back wasn’t able to spot that Mathieu would be the sixth man, and he ended up with a straight line to the quarterback for an unblocked sack.
This play is obviously nothing special, but rather to illustrate that Arizona uses him as a pass-rushing force more than most defensive backs. No corner has more pass-rushing snaps on the blitz than Mathieu this season, and even if you classify him as a safety, only two players have blitzed more from the defensive backfield.
What makes Mathieu special is what he can do against both the run and the pass in a way most cornerbacks can’t. He can line up essentially as a linebacker and play the run like an extra man in the box better than many bigger-bodied players.
Take this play against the 49ers this past week, as an example. Mathieu lines up here down in the box alongside the linebackers, as the 49ers have just one wide receiver and a heavy-set formation showing run. They pitch the ball to Shaun Draughn running left, only to find Mathieu flying around the corner and right into his path to drop him for a two-yard loss.
This isn’t a case of not knowing he was coming or him being unaccounted for in the blocking scheme, but like Antoine Winfield before him, Mathieu is a master of using his quickness and leverage to beat bigger, slower blockers at the point of attack.
On this play, he is able to sink incredibly low and bend right around the would-be block from the TE without allowing himself to be washed wide. Not many defensive backs can make this play, and it’s why he is our highest-graded cornerback against the run this season.
There may be bigger, stronger, faster players on the field every time the Cardinals play, but I’m not sure there are any in the league that read the game better than Mathieu, and that gives him an advantage that buys him extra time and space. He doesn’t just execute his own assignment on plays, but is peerless at rolling with the myriad of adjustments that take place after the snap when the chalkboard fades and the human element takes over. Some players struggle with this aspect of football more than any other.
They can shut a guy down within their zone or in-man coverage, but fail to read the game as it evolves in seconds and understand when their zone needs to expand or collapse, stretch or flow across the field because of what is happening around it. Some players make plays because they can read when they are able to impact something that they were never intended to based on how the play was originally drawn up.
Here’s another play against the Ravens that shows that well. On 2nd-and-20, the Cardinals send Mathieu on the blitz from the right side of the defense. Baltimore fakes a zone run to the right, but is actually running an end around to the receiver from the far side of the formation.
It may seem like this is running right into Mathieu, and it is, but all too often in the NFL, you see the player in Mathieu’s position lock on to either the running back or quarterback and the reverse/end around player shoots past him like cars traveling in opposite directions on the highway. Mathieu reads it, throttles down slightly and drops the receiver for a big loss right as he gets the ball.
Like a lot of great players, it isn’t the spectacular things he does that makes Mathieu so great, but rather how well he does the little things that you can take for granted at times—until somebody screws them up.
In coverage, he is a complicated player. Because he doesn’t simply play any one spot, he is often used as a matchup weapon on defense. The NFL has offenses full of matchup problem players. Teams are able to move guys around on offense until they end up on a defender that can’t cover them and then they use them to get big gains. The Cardinals can use Mathieu to much the same effect on defense. Against Seattle, after the Seahawks had just taken the lead, Mathieu was called upon to cover Jimmy Graham. Ordinarily, Graham is the matchup problem.
On the two-point conversion play, they split him out wide, isolated to that side of the formation, daring the Cardinals to cover him with just one guy, and they did exactly that: sending Mathieu out to play cornerback on an island against a 6-foot-6, 260-pound pass-catcher in the end zone. He executed his assignment without problem, and Russell Wilson was forced to just fire the ball past them as they locked up in the end zone.
The same thing happened earlier in the season against the Rams. This time Mathieu was sent out to cover Jared Cook one-on-one, and the Rams went after the matchup. Mathieu didn’t do the best job in the world of jamming him, but ran with him well down the sideline into the end zone, and, knowing he couldn’t compete with the bigger body and reach at the catch point, waited to play the arms instead of the ball. Cook caught the pass before Mathieu swatted it out of his arms with authority, breaking up the pass.
Josh Norman has the best coverage numbers in the NFL at cornerback this season. Quarterbacks throwing the ball his way have a passer rating of just 38.4, which is still worse than just throwing the ball into the turf every play. Mathieu can’t match that, but because of how much he plays inside, at safety, and in linebacker-type spots, you wouldn’t expect him to. The average passer rating surrendered by linebackers this year is 103. By safeties it is 88.9, and from players manning the slot, it is 98.1, but Mathieu is yielding a passer rating of only 83.6, and has a higher coverage grade than all but Norman at the position when you look at his performance on a play-by-play level.
Whatever you want to label Tyrann Mathieu as, we need to make sure we don’t get caught up in the semantics, and instead focus on one of the league’s most instinctive and dominant playmakers. Mathieu was one of the most exciting players in the country to watch as a versatile playmaker at LSU, and somehow the Cardinals are almost identically replicating that role for him in the NFL, where he continues to make a huge impact on his team, and has a very real argument for Defensive Player of the Year.