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Film Room: Dolphins CB Xavien Howard will challenge the Bengals’ receivers

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Xavien Howard is one of the best young cornerbacks in the league and the Dolphins may test his skills by asking him to shadow A.J. Green.

Oakland Raiders v Miami Dolphins Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins have outperformed expectations so far this season, and one of the biggest reasons why has been the performance of their defense. They have been strong up front, but the emergence of Xavien Howard at cornerback may be the best thing they have going for them.

The 6’0,” 210 pound former second-round pick out of Baylor is the Dolphins' version of William Jackson. Both are incredibly talented young players, and as was the case with Jackson last year, Howard is not getting the attention he deserves.

Howard is excellent in man coverage. Here he is in press and patiently waits as Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper makes his initial move to the inside. Once Cooper comes back to release to the outside, Howard strikes him with his inside hand. This helps to open his hips, so he can transition and keep pace with Cooper. Howard has his eyes on Cooper post-release, but fails to stop as the receiver does. This may be because he is not specifically looking at Cooper’s hips or because he just didn’t react quickly enough. Either way, it shows that he may be susceptible to underneath cuts when a wide receiver sells a vertical release. This may be something that the Bengals can take advantage of.

The above play . showed that it may be possible to get open by cutting underneath Howard, but here Howard demonstrates that getting by him in any direction is easier said than done. Here, Cooper sells the outside release getting Howard to open his hips and bring his left hand. Bringing the left hand helps to open up his hips for an outside release, but essentially locks them off for an inside release. Despite this, Howard continues to compete and gets to the play on time. Howard secures the tackle with his left hand and brings his right hand around front to make a play on the ball.

Although Howard can be a shutdown cornerback, the Dolphins are not solely a man coverage team. Howard will also be responsible for the curl/flat zones in Cover 2 looks or deep field zones in Cover 3 and Cover 4 looks. Here he is aligned close to the line of scrimmage, making it look like the Dolphins are playing Cover 2 to his side, but on the snap he turns and runs to get to his deep field zone.

Here, Cooper again gets Howard to turn his hips the wrong direction. Cooper sells that he is working inside to the seam and as Howard opens up to the inside, Cooper cuts to the outside. Howard than uses a move called the bicycle turn (or speed turn). This is when a defensive back turns the wrong way, but instead of stopping and tuning back, he turns completely around (360 degrees). Essentially it is the difference between putting a car in reverse or making a U-turn. It is not ideal that a player has to use the bicycle turn because it means he made a mistake, but Howard uses it well and gets back into good position on Cooper. Howard is not the perfect cornerback, but he has the athletic ability and fight to make up for his mistakes.

With the Dolphins running a good amount of press man, they are susceptible to pick plays. Here against the New England Patriots, Howard is exposed on one of these plays. Patriots running back James White is lined up to quarterback Tom Brady’s left. He motions in and then sits his route down just outside of Howard. Howard is pressed against wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who releases wide over White’s route. This creates a pick. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick stays with his man White, while Howard hustles down field attempting and failing to run down Patterson. The Bengals should also use pick plays to get players open.

There’s not much to say here; Cooper gives up on the route and Howard keeps competing. He shows great athletic ability and determination and comes up with the interception.

With the game on the line, the Raiders look to throw the ball to wide receiver Martavis Bryant in the end zone. Howard has been shadowing Cooper (covering him when in man-to-man regardless of what side he lines up on), but with Cooper in the slot, he is covering Bryant on this play. Bryant does little to get open, Howard sticks with him as he stems to the outside and when Bryant turns to look for the ball, Howard does too. With Howard’s shoulder on Bryant and the sideline just behind the receiver, there is a very tight window for Carr to try to fit the ball. As a result, Howard comes up with the interception.

Howard is a physical player and a competitor. Just as he didn’t give up on the play to make the first interception, he didn’t give up on this inside run play on the goal line. Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch runs the ball to the inside looking to dive into the end zone. Howard comes in from the edge, getting involved in the play and trying futilely to keep Lynch out of the end zone. This is the type of competitor that great defenses are built on.

Howard is a pass-first player here, so even if he sees the ball in the hands of the rusher, he has to ensure that the play is a run and not a play-action, flea-flicker, or tailback pass before he plays the run. To do so, one of two things needs to happen: the rusher needs to cross the line of scrimmage or Howard needs to have a blocker physically put his hands on him to block him down field.

Here, the wide receiver comes out seemingly to stalk block Howard, but Howard patiently waits for the block to actually occur before he plays the run. In the meantime, he maintains outside position on the receiver, knowing that he is the last defender between the running back and the sideline. The receiver eventually puts his hands on him and the rusher crosses the line of scrimmage. As a result, Howard steps up and makes the tackle.

This is a play that not many cornerbacks in the league will make. Howard is responsible for keeping the run contained to the inside on this play. When Raiders right guard Gabe Jackson pulls to the outside, Howard cuts him. This is a great play by Howard who obviously was not going to defeat the 336 pounder’s block with strength. Attempting to beat the block with speed is a risky proposition. If he runs past the block, but cannot get to the rusher, he has essentially blocked himself and left the guard to pick another defender. The numbers work strongly against the defense there. By cutting the puller, Howard neutralizes him and does his job by forcing the rusher to cut inside to the rest of the Dolphins’ defense. This is a tough, intelligent, and unselfish play by Howard who gains no glory, but does the right thing to help the defense succeed.

When the Dolphins play the Bengals, they will likely shadow A.J. Green with Howard. Howard has some skills, but is not infallible, and Green has a notable size advantage on him. He also does not travel to the slot (the exception being if a running back is lined up as the widest receiver and a receiver is in the slot), where Green has had a lot of success so far this season. For more a full video breakdown of Howard’s performance versus the Raiders, check out this link (or watch below).