Eleven months ago, the Texans gave a contract extension to one of the more underrated players in the NFL, cornerback Johnathan Joseph. It caught many by surprise when it happened because Joseph still had a year left on his earlier deal. It wasn't surprising, though, given the fact that he had a strong bounce-back year in 2014 after nagging injuries impacted his play in 2013.
Similar to the team's start in 2015, he did struggle a bit out of the gate, but by Week 3 against Tampa Bay and Mike Evans, he was back playing at a Pro Bowl level. He had five passes defensed in that game and helped hold Evans, the star second-year receiver for the Bucs, in check. Evans was targeted 17 times, his second-most targets all year, and caught only seven of them and no touchdowns.
From that game forward, he was outstanding the rest of the season. He didn't have a ton of interceptions, but he was fourth in the entire league in passes defensed with 22 (passes defensed = interceptions pass breakups). But, he also made timely plays that were huge in the biggest games. Ask any Texans player about 2015 and two games invariably pop up - Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Against Cincinnati, Joseph had his only pick of the year on a deep post down the middle of the field. Against Indianapolis, he jarred the ball loose from Colts wide receiver Griff Whalen late in the fourth quarter for a key turnover to break the will of the Colts in that historic win.
Examining the top 10 players in passes defensed, one aspect sticks out more than any other. The average age of the nine other players in the top 10 was under 25. Joseph turned 32 in April. This is a young man's game, more specifically, it's a young man's position. Yet, not only is Joseph starting and playing the position heading into his 11th season, he's playing it as well as any cornerback in the game, if not better.
He doesn't cultivate a new persona from game to game. He doesn't have a catchy nickname. He doesn't punctuate a great play with a signature celebration. And, perhaps, that's what keeps him from getting the acclaim that he deserves. But, he balls out, every play, every game and I love to see teams challenge him because you're not getting much going at him.
Why has he been so successful? Amongst the many plays that he made the past few years, a couple stood out that helped illustrate how he thrived in 2015.
At Tennessee, Week 16
12 personnel (one back, two TE) - motion to 3x1 set.
The Titans faced a third down situation and aligned in a 3x1 set – wide receiver Dorial Green Beckham is out of the end zone shot, to the left side of the offensive formation. We'll see him in a bit.
The Titans have a mesh concept with crossing routes from each side - DGB from the left and tight end Anthony Fasano from the right side. Joseph is aligned on the lone receiver side (Fasano's side).
As the ball is snapped, Fasano immediately started back across the formation.
This is where an inexperienced cornerback in zone can get lazy and undisciplined. They'll float or look in the backfield or even drop too deep in coverage. Joseph, though, immediately got his eyes to the other side of the formation. He got depth in his drop, knowing that either Kendall Wright or Green-Beckham could run a deep over route or a crossing route and he knew he had to stay on top of that route and in proper position.
At this point, Joseph settled down realizing that DGB was the only receiver that could threaten his zone.
This to me, though, was the most impressive part of the entire play. His play recognition and understanding put him in position to do this, but 10 years playing cornerback has taught him things. He didn't immediately dart to DGB when he recognized the play. He waited back, just a bit, to bait Zach Mettenberger into throwing him an interception. Due to the pressure from J.J. Watt, Mettenberger had to hold the ball a split second longer, decided to avoid any more sack selfies and threw it away.
New England - Battle Red Sunday Night
20 personnel (two backs and no TE)
Early in the game against the Patriots, Tom Brady and company faced a third down and long with two backs and no tight ends on the field. The Texans countered with a six defensive back sub-package look with Joseph in his customary perimeter cornerback position.
The Texans rushed three and dropped eight into coverage, which they can do because the law firm of Watt, Mercilus and Clowney LLC can handle its business up front. To the bottom of the screen the Texans had three defensive backs seemingly to account for the two wide receivers and a possible running back leaking out.
To Joseph's side, Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell worked a stutter and go double move and when he recognized the middle of the field open, he sprinted to the post deep down the field.
This is without question the hardest and most difficult route for any cornerback to cover. Joseph had outside leverage on LaFell, who then sprinted away from Joseph to the middle of the field. That's a lot of ground to cover. A lot. But, Joseph never bit on the double move and as LaFell sprinted downfield, Joseph ran to a spot where he could stay on top of LaFell without letting the Pats receiver box him out on a 50/50 high ball catch downfield.
As Brady launched deep, Joseph was in perfect position.
Right in LaFell's hip pocket, Joseph broke up the deep pass to set the NRG Stadium crowd on fire early on.
Football IQ. Route understanding. Speed. Guile. Experience. Perfect positioning. Toughness. There's so much in just these two plays that define the player that Joseph has become and will continue to be in the future.