Los Angeles Rams CB E.J. Gaines missed the 2015 season with a Lisfranc injury. His presence was sorely missed despite the Rams having plenty of other talented defensive backs. The return of Gaines will provide another consistent cornerback opposite of Trumaine Johnson.
Derrik: Gaines is a great zone defender, and he puts that on display here. He holds his presence down low, then flies over to the middle of the field to break up that pass and nearly comes away with an interception. He accelerates very well, and has that ability to play off in coverage and close in on catch points that appear open to quarterbacks.
Misone: I love this shot because of his change of direction skills being on full display. More often than not, his eyes and feet are in sync with each other, which is vital to success in the NFL regardless of position. He breaks on the ball very quickly and times his pass break ups as well as anyone.
Derrik: Gaines' feet and eyes being in sync is a great point. He is so fluid in the way he moves and flows to different areas of the field. His skill there in 2014 was very impressive for any cornerback, let alone a sixth-round rookie.
Misone: My thoughts exactly. His ability to break on the ball isn't a result of exceptional physical skills. He's only an average athlete. It's instead a result of his unbelievable footwork and reaction skills. It's almost like he senses things. I think I'll call him Spiderman from now on.
Derrik: That's perfect! He really does have ability there that can't be quantified; it's just something you see and know is there with him. And it doesn't come in waves like it did with, say, Janoris Jenkins. Gaines is on his game all the time. He's an intense, aware player. Speaking of which...
Derrik: Corners don't normally play the run like Gaines can. A lot of the time, playing the run as a cornerback is just about being willing and being aware. Gaines shows both of those traits here.
Misone: Ah, yes. This is easily one of my favorite parts of his game. It was also one of my favorite parts of his game when he was at Missouri and one of the reasons I listed him as being the steal of the draft in my draft grades. He's both a willing and capable tackler. Regardless of the ball carrier -- whether it's a quarterback, running back or receiver -- he attacks the same way every time. He's an awesome open field tackler, but he's equally as dangerous in the box. The way he closes the hole quickly on Marshawn Lynch here and gobbles him up before he can get his feet going is ideal. Every defensive coordinator asks their corners to do this, but only a few are willing to go in there with the big uglies and even fewer can come out victorious. This is a 'want to' trait.
Derrik: It makes life much easier for the linebackers, too. I think we too often miss how one player affects what is around him. Gaines being willing to clamp down on the edge like he does gives the linebackers a bit more freedom to gamble, which is huge for playmakers like Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree.
Misone: It also gives the edge rushers more freedom to pin their ears back, knowing that they have someone ready and willing to clean things up.
Derrik: Absolutely. Run defending at a passing-based position seems trivial, but it opens up so much for the defense as a whole.
Derrik: Back to Gaines' ability in coverage, though. He wipes out three different receivers on this play, at least to some extent. He carries the first man up the field, works his way back to cover the route in the flats, then flies to the corner of the end zone to swat away a touchdown pass. It's kind of amazing how much ground he can cover on his own sometimes.
Misone: This clip is a perfect example as to why he is a good player. He again demonstrates great change of direction skills. His eyes and feet are in sync again and he almost senses where the quarterback wants to go with the ball on each read. For that reason, he is able to get to the receiver quickly and effortlessly. He does a great job of timing his jump when he realizes when the ball is going to be there. He gets to the back of the end zone and makes a heck of a play. This is really some of his best work. This is fundamentals at its best. He stays in his zone, never over committing to one receiver. His eyes are locked onto the quarterback's eyes. Wherever the quarterback's eyes go, Gaines' feet follow. That is exceptional discipline.
Derrik: And he almost tipped it back to a teammate for an interception. Richard Sherman has talked about doing that. If he knows he can't grab the ball himself, Sherman tries to give one of his teammates a shot at the ball and Gaines did that here. Awareness like that is rare for someone at this stage in their career.
Misone: Agreed. He is alert enough to not lock onto just one of the receiver, the quarterback or the ball. He's aware of everything, even of the field. Because he i so aware of his positioning on the field he identifies that the best thing to do is to deflect the ball and, in the process, try to deflect it to a teammate. The best part is that eh was in Cover 2 and made the play that the safety would have to make. But looking at the tape, had he not made the play, the safety would not have been there in time to stop the touchdown.
Derrik: It was such a great heads up play, just like this next example.
Derrik: Before saying anything about Gaines' effort here, it has to be noted that the situation is third-and-short. Gaines understands where the offense is likely going to go with the ball because of that. He keys in on the receiver running the slant, bolts toward him and crushes him before he can pick up a first down. That is a great heads up, veteran type play.
Misone: I touched on it earlier, but his open field tackling deserves more praise. So often we saw him make a great tackle in the open field, and at times on some of the most dangerous open field players the NFL has to offer. Here, Gaines never entered his backpedal. His momentum was always either parallel or downhill. He understood the down and distance, and he stood within a yard of the first down marker. This left the underneath receiver one option; beat a player who has demonstrated some of the best open field tackling all year (2014) long. This was both a display of awareness and discipline. Those two words appear to be a common theme when discussing Gaines.
Derrik: Absolutely. And what's funny is that this goes down as a reception in the box score, but Gaines still made an outstanding play. Like you said, awareness and discipline is seen throughout his film in every facet of the game.
Derrik: His savvy on this last play is so subtle, yet so effective. Just as Larry Fitzgerald begins to turn up the field and accelerate, Gaines runs into him and gives him a little nudge. It doesn't look like much at first glance, but Gaines being able to slow Fitzgerald down while maintaining hos own speed closed the window that the quarterback was trying to hit. Had Fitzgerald been able to run cleanly through those one or two steps, he very well may have been in position to contest that catch.
Misone: This one goes back to field awareness. He identifies very early in the play where the route is going and where they're at on the field. Here, Fitzgerald runs a wheel route to the far side of the field. Considering the ball is in the red zone, Spiderman recognizes it will be a quick pass. Gaines cuts off the receiver immediately and stacks him, allowing him to run the route for the receiver. If you're running the route for the receiver, you dictate where the route is going. And Gaines used the boundary as an extra defender and forces Fitzgerald to the sideline. As the old saying goes, "The sideline is a defender's best friend." As odd as it sounds, Fitzgerald never stood a chance against the rookie on this play.
Derrik: It certainly does sound weird given Fitzgerald's Hall of Fame status, but it's true. Gaines made a stellar play that could have only been beaten by a flawless throw. I think what we have yet to mention is that he can play both the outside corner spot and work in the slot. He can do it all. Having him back in the lineup next year is going to bring more consistency to the pass defense than was seen in 2015.
Misone: Gaines only allowed one touchdown as a rookie. It came week one against the Vikings. This was not because he was not tried, but because he played with such great discipline, awareness and instincts. Gaines is a fundamentally sound corner who excels at using his eyes to make plays. While his instincts are exceptional and has earned him his new Spiderman nickname, his consistency with his change of direction and fundamentals is what has and will set him apart. He was truly the steal, or at least one of them, of the 2014 draft.
Derrik: And that is especially so since he was able to start right out of the gate, whereas plenty of late round steals take a bit of seasoning before blooming. Gaines was ready day one and it's fair to assume he'll be just as ready to get back on the field for 2016.