Johnathan Abram will be Las Vegas Raiders X-Factor on defense

The Raiders JohnathanAbram had a great game against the Denver Broncos – his only game before the team placed him on IR ending his rookie season. However, Abram showed flashes of brilliance and showed veteran capabilities while being a rookie.

Of all the players coming back to the Las Vegas Raiders this season, Johnathan Abram is the one I’m looking forward to the most. Good safeties in the NFL are hard to come by and ones drafted in the first-round are required to perform at an elite level.

I went back and watched the Week 1 Raiders victory over the Broncos on NFL Gamepass – which is currently free. Specifically, I wanted to see Abram and what he looked like again. He was very patient, agile, and allowed the ball to come to him instead of breaking and over pursuing; all of which are veteran safety traits.

A few plays stood out to me.

This play, in particular, was one that stood out to me the most. The cover-2 concept is very hard for a safety to cover well. Essentially, you have four pass rushers, the corners go into the flats, and the linebackers drop back and cover intermediate routes while both safeties cover half of the field.

The main holes in cover-2 are the quick slant, the seam over the linebacker, underneath the safeties, and short crossing routes, and the outside streak thrown to the outside shoulder. Communication is often stressed on the offensive side of the ball but not as much on the defensive side.

Usually, defenses are regarded as being reactive rather than proactive; meaning they react to the offense rather than the offense reacting to them.

Communication is key in cover-2 because of the way the coverage is set up. The corners have to know they have safety help when they “pass off” their receiver to the safety. In this play, the corner came off his receiver and tried to jump the other route but Abram made a veteran move and stayed patient. He watched Joe Flacco‘s eyes and while the throw wasn’t the best, Abram made sure it wasn’t completed. He jumped the route and got his hands up and knocked the ball down, essentially perfect safety play.

The second play which stood out to me was on a play-action rollout where players can become too aggressive and over-pursue the ball carrier.

The concept of this play is simple: the offense is trying to pull the linebackers forward and then use the crossing routes to make an opening. They’re also using a cutback technique – the offensive line goes one way and the ballcarrier goes the opposite – to confuse the defense too. The Broncos were betting on either man-to-man coverage or a cover-2 concept where they could exploit their fast receivers against linebackers or defensive backs.

What the Raiders did well on this play was not letting the runners get open fast enough and forced and underneath throw. Abram’s job here was to make sure no one got open deep to make a run for the endzone. Speaking as a former safety, the hardest part about playing safety is what’s called recovery speed. It’s how fast can you react after realizing you’ve read the play wrong initially.

What made the Seahawks defense for formable was the safety play of Earl Thomas. He was so fast and could quite literally play in single coverage while covering the entire field. Abram is a player that I can see being developed like this. Abram has his speed with the tenacity and play-recognition of Charles Woodson.

Abram follows the receives and makes sure the ball is forced underneath the coverage for a short gain rather than being fooled by the play-action.

Abram is a special player that we haven’t seen him at his full potential yet. Safety is an extremely hard position to play in because not only are you watching the quarterback, but you’re watching everything in front of you. Abram did a good job of staying focused and not allowing the hype of the game to get to his nerves.

X-factors are hard to come by in the NFL, especially at a young age like Abram has. But elite safeties change the way the defense operates completely. Having someone like Abram on the Raiders gives a different way of approaching a pass-first team. It allows the defense to change how it approaches offenses and it gives the defensive coordinator the ability to do more blitzes and gives trust to the defensive play-callers and more variety in coverages.

Abram is one player I’m looking forward to seeing on the field again in 2020.