There was never an issue with Ken Crawley’s ability to cover players last year.
The New Orleans Saints cornerback, then a rookie, could stay in phase with most wide receivers and shadow them as well as anyone. His issues often came at the top of routes when the ball was coming in. Instead of trusting his instincts, locating the ball and making a play, he’d often start to panic and give up a reception on an otherwise well-covered route.
There were a few examples of this from last season, with the most damaging probably coming in Week 2 against the New York Giants when he let what looked like a game-sealing interception turn into a game-winning touchdown. But through two games this season, it looks like Crawley has solved the issue.
“I think he’s done a better job of finishing plays," secondary coach Aaron Glenn said. "You saw it in training camp last year, he was finishing some plays last year, but he never got a chance to do it in games. I think he understands how to do it in games, and how to put himself in position to finish those plays in games. That’s been a huge deal for him coming into this year. He worked his butt off on it this offseason.”
That feeling of last-second failures was new to Crawley. He didn’t always locate the ball while at Colorado, but the feeling of panic when he came toward him wasn’t something he ever felt before. Maybe it was rookie nerves. Maybe it was something else. Whatever the culprit, the problem compounded when he started to develop bad habits and stopped trusting himself.
Some issues were expected. New Orleans never intended to play Crawley as much as he played last season; he entered the league as an undrafted rookie. The Saints saw his promise and wanted to develop his talent, but the plan was to bring him along slowly behind P.J. Williams and Delvin Breaux. The plan changed when both of those players were injured, and Crawley had to step up.
And, at times, New Orleans had to manage his confidence level.
“(He) was thrust into a role that quite honestly he wasn’t ready for at that time,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “We all recognized that he had talent. We all recognized that he had the ability. But yet, it’s a big difference between being at the University of Colorado and playing games on Sunday or Monday night in the National Football League.”
There were some high points during Crawley’s rookie season. In what has almost become a rite of passage for young, unheralded Saints cornerbacks, Crawley shutdown Atlanta’s Julio Jones, much the same way Breaux did the year before. Crawley matched up with the All-Pro receiver on five targets and allowed one reception for 18 yards.
The performance showed a great ability to bounce back after surrendering the game-winning touchdown to the Giants’ Victor Cruz the week before, but it also likely set unrealistic expectations. Crawley had some positive moments during his rookie season but ended up surrendering 460 yards on 38 receptions. The potential was there. He just needed to polish it.
That’s why he spent the offseason trying to improve his instincts and figure out how to stop panicking. He would watch tape, receive coaching and then go on the field and practice it. He did this over and over, with the help of Glenn, until his situational awareness started to improve and he could showcase the ability to turn around and locate the ball during practices.
“I felt last year I was in (the right) position a lot; some plays it was 50-50 balls,” Crawley said. “I feel like this year I made a huge jump from last year. I’m doing what I’m coached to do, and I know it’s more confidence and just going out there and playing.”
Glenn said film study has been key.
“A lot of times when you’re coaching and not validating it by letting a guy see it on tape, you’re missing the point,” Glenn said. “I think he’s done a good job of listening to the coaching points, seeing himself on tape, really focusing on trying to change it. I think he’s done a really good job of that. Now, he still has room to improve.”
Crawley only had three interceptions during his collegiate career and did not intercept a pass during his rookie season. He ended the drought last week against the Miami Dolphins when he read a fade route to Julius Thomas, went up and got the ball. He later almost intercepted another pass.
He’s only appeared in two games this season, and there’s a chance he wasn’t supposed to play in either game. His start in Week 3 against the Panthers came as the result of injuries, and he played last week after P.J. Williams was benched for disciplinary reasons. But Crawley has made the most of both starts. He’s given up seven catches on 16 targets for 66 yards. His passer rating-against is 28.06.
“It’s finally showing on Sundays,” Crawley said.
It’s hard to know what the secondary is going to look like when the Saints come back from the bye week, let alone when Breaux, who has been out with a broke fibula, returns from injured reserve in four weeks. Crawley, Marshon Lattimore, Williams and Breaux all have shown they deserve to play. The problem is that all can't be on the field at the same time.
Breaux and Crawley have only played on the outside, and that seems to be Lattimore’s strength, too, though there has been some talk about him being able to move inside. Williams can play either spot.
Somehow, New Orleans is going to have to figure out how and where to play everyone. But after being forced to play Crawley, Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb last season because of injuries, this problem will be a welcome change.
Members of the secondary have repeatedly said they want to be the strength of the team. That could happen, but coaches are guarded when asked about expectations.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Allen said. “What we have to do is take the guys that we have available and get them to play to the best of their ability and get them to play."