To play cornerback effectively in the NFL, you need to know what you can get away with each week.
One week’s green light can turn yellow the next. There is a feeling-out process that happens each game — and even with extensive scouting of officials' tendencies, it can sometimes be hard to figure out where the lines are drawn.
That’s why it takes some cornerbacks a little time to settle into a game.
Eli Apple is one of those players. Statistically, the New Orleans cornerback has been steady: He has allowed a similar number of receptions and yards in each quarter of every game he’s played since he landed with the Saints ahead of a Week 8 meeting with the Vikings.
Apple's play and ability to help settle the Saints' secondary is one of the reasons they claimed the NFC’s top seed.
But he has typically played better in the second half than during the first half — and that's because it takes him a while to get comfortable with how officials are calling the game.
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“You want to get physical, and you want to set the tone. Sometimes with the refs, it’s different,” Apple said. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot of calls; that's known. I feel like the more I get to know how the game is going — it obviously helps every DB out there to know how physical you can play. It’s just finding the balance and getting into the flow of the game.
"It’s just how I’ve always been: finding out what type of game it is and playing to that.”
Every team plays some variation of the same coverages.
Apple led the Saints with eight accepted penalties despite joining the team midway through the season. No other player had more than six. But the funny thing is, seven of his infractions came during the first half. Once the second half arrives, it's borderline shocking to see Apple get a flag.
Still, even though he has his process — one that works well once he knows where to draw the line — Apple hates being flagged early in games. He knows he needs to avoid infractions, and that's a point of emphasis for him and the rest of the Saints each week.
“This past game (against Carolina in the regular-season finale), we had a lot calls on third down, and those are big,” said Apple, who was called for pass interference on third-and-8 against the Panthers. “You turn those into first downs, that’s demoralizing for us. You never want to be in that position, negatively affecting the team.”
Apple and the other defensive backs never go into a game blindly. Each week, coach Sean Payton presents a scouting report that details how often a crew calls penalties and which ones they frequently flag.
The report creates a baseline for the players, allowing them to enter the game with a set of expectations on how things might play out, but sometimes things do not always go as expected.
“Some games with refs that don’t call it as much, you can be more aggressive in the coverage,” cornerback P.J. Williams said. “You see a ref that calls it a lot, you've got to make sure you aren’t doing too much.”
Aaron Glenn laughed, because, well, sometimes that is all you can do.
So, for instance, if Payton were to give a report on Carl Cheffers, who is serving as the referee in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, he might point out that his crew threw 16 flags per game, which is about the league average. Payton might also note that Cheffers' crew only called defensive pass interference nine times this season.
Those tendencies bode well for the defense. The problem is, the league mixes officiating crews during the playoffs, so it's almost impossible to gauge how the game might be called ahead of time.
“We’ll profile the referee, but there is obviously a side note, asterisks to that because the crews are different,” Payton said. “It’s hard to go chart each official’s calls during the year — the back judge, side judge, that type of thing.”
Without having those tendencies to follow, it will be harder for Apple and others to find that line before the game. It will take some time — but once Apple locates it, there is little chance he will cross it again.
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