Football 101: S Tyrann Mathieu’s playmaking ability

The 2010 LSU Tigers were loaded, especially on the defensive side of the ball. First and second-round picks dotted the two-deep depth chart, especially in the secondary. Three future first-round selections highlighted the secondary, led by future All-Pro Patrick Peterson. Yet, every single week…

“Who is number 14?”

I asked that question of a writer from LSU’s Rivals.com site. I mean, I knew his name was Tyrann Mathieu, but why was this 5-9, 180 lb. true freshman whirling dervish standing out so much more than the big names in the LSU secondary? Even with those three first-round selections in the secondary, Mathieu was a force that consistently filled the stat sheet. He finished with 57 tackles (fourth on the team), two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, seven PBU, one QB hurry, and five forced fumbles.

Not bad for a recruit no one really knew of until he starred at a University of Tennessee camp heading into his senior season at St. Augustine HS (LA).

Little did we know at the time that Mathieu would face one bout of adversity after another for the next seven seasons. But, in the process, he became a Pro Bowl safety for the Arizona Cardinals and one of the most respected playmakers in the NFL. When the Cardinals decided to part ways last week, it seemed every team in the league made a play for him. Players from teams all over the NFL took to social media to make a convincing argument for Mathieu to don their colors.

Then on Friday night, J.J. Watt broke the news we’d all been waiting to hear. Mathieu chose the Texans. He made it official, signing on Monday, and the city of Houston and Texans fans everywhere lost their collective you-know-what in happiness.

Why?

He’s still the stat-stuffing superstar that he was as a true freshman in 2010. He’s versatile and can play a number of different positions in the secondary. He can rush the passer as well as most edge players in this league. He can change the game in multiple ways, from multiple positions, playing with a certain joie de vivre along the way.

Against Jacksonville in a 27-24 Arizona win last season, Mathieu disrupted the Jaguars offense in two disparate manners in a key second quarter. Midway through the quarter, the Jaguars had 11 personnel in the game but with Marcedes Lewis in the game and in the backfield it was more like 20 personnel. Quarterback Blake Bortles was in the gun with running back T.J. Yeldon to his left.

The Cardinals countered with dime personnel to match the three-receiver set of the Jaguars, but Mathieu rolled up to the line of scrimmage as a true edge rusher.

Lewis was responsible for the first outside threat in pass protection, which in this case was Mathieu. Now, that means 6-6, 267 lb. v. 5-9, 180 lb.

Mathieu didn’t try to run around the hulking Jaguars tight end as you’d expect a player giving up 87 lb. in the fight. He set up Lewis with an inside move to get the tight end off balance and to see if he could get Bortles to move off the spot.

As he made contact with Lewis, Mathieu then realized that he needed to maintain contain, while he rushed Bortles. So, he threw hands on Lewis to square back up.

Then, he shed Lewis as he ripped back up-field to the left, which immediately forced Bortles to turn tail and run the opposite direction.

When Bortles turned the other direction, Mathieu chased him right into the arms of Olson Pierre for the sack.

Mathieu is a tremendous pass rusher, which isn’t something often said about a defensive back. A 5-9, 180 lb. defensive back.

After seeing that quarterback hurry, some may assume that Mathieu did most of his work near, or at, the line of scrimmage. How many defensive backs in the league can rush the quarterback as a quality edge player and then cover receivers down the field in man coverage? Any?

One that I know of. Mathieu.

Later in the quarter, the Jaguars were set up at around midfield and had similar personnel in the game. This time, they aligned in a Y-trips open set, with trips receivers to the bottom of the picture. The Cardinals matched up with those three receivers on that side.

Based on the releases of the receivers, there was a distinct possibility that Mathieu would end up man-to-man on speedy rookie receiver Keelan Cole. If Lewis went vertical eight to 10 yards, then safety Budda Baker would match his route. If Lewis crossed the formation early, Baker would help Mathieu deep in the middle of the field.

So, as Lewis drove up the field and then turned to the inside at about 12 yards, Baker jumped on that responsibility. That left Mathieu one-on-one with Cole and no help in the middle of the field.

It was a well-schemed play by the Jaguars because they got what they wanted: a one-on-one situation with a fast receiver against a safety. Unfortunately for the Jaguars, Mathieu is much more than “just a safety.”

He got in the hip pocket of Cole…

...and number 32 ran step for step with Cole all the way down the field.

Mathieu then timed his break up just as the ball arrived, knocking away the throw and a possible touchdown.

On the next play, a 3rd-and-3 situation, the Jaguars tried to work a pick play on Mathieu on an inside slot receiver, running a wheel route up the sideline. Mathieu, again, rode the hip pocket of the receiver, avoided the pick route, running up the sideline step for step. His glue-like coverage forced a sack and a subsequent punt.

Rush the passer. Blitz the edge. Tackle in space. Blanket receivers. Make plays. Be the Badger. Play with unending energy. Always evolving.

That’s Tyrann Mathieu, the football player and leader... and a Houston Texan.

Thankfully.

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