When a team adds a five-time Pro Bowler to its roster, it tends to create a natural order among a group of receivers -- especially when that receivers group just two years ago was unable to provide any true threat to NFL defenses. When you add a five-time Pro Bowler to the offense and use him as a slot receiver, it tends to create a natural disorder for the defense.
That's just what the Jets seem to be doing, according to the team's starting quarterback Geno Smith. "We’re doing a great job of creating matchups," Geno told reporters on Saturday. "We’re moving our receivers around. We’ve got (Brandon) Marshall in the slot, he can be outside. We’ve got sets where we do a bunch of things."
Brandon Marshall? One of the NFL's top 100 players for 2015? Taking reps in the slot?
Precisely. Under Marc Trestman, Brandon Marshall spent 49.2 percent of his snaps last year in Chicago in the slot, in 2013 it was 43.8 percent and the year before Trestman arrived in Chicago it was just 22 percent.
On scouting Marshall for the Jets, TJB's Bent wrote that "while [Marshall] plays mostly on the outside, he still plays a lot of the time in the slot. He had 23 of his 61 catches and three of his eight touchdowns from the slot last season."
The Big Slot
The larger concept is sometimes referred to the "Big Slot" as a shorthand and is becoming so prevalent that teams are now drafting players with that role specifically in mind. Former Michigan WR/TE/slot receiver Devin Funchess was just drafted in the second round by Dave Gettleman and the Carolina Panthers to fill such a role. It's the next move in the cat-and-mouse game between NFL offenses and defenses.
The Big Slot concept looks like the offense's reaction to the proliferation of Big Nickel packages that former Jets coach Rex Ryan and other defensive coordinators used to counter the spread and the wrinkles that benefitted tight ends.
The idea of the Big Nickel was a boost to traditional nickel packages that struggled to slow down the basketball-like athletes feasting on defenses. The size difference between tight ends and slot corners gave the offense a significant advantage, and so more defensive schemers began relying on three-safety defenses or hybrid defensive backs to set against long, rangy defenders against in the slot.
Putting a third safety on the field then allowed for another maneuver by offenses -- why not use the best receiver to mismatch against a third safety (worst case for the D), slot corner or a boundary corner out of his element in the slot? Even if a player like Marshall is covered with no separation, he's still open.
Moving accomplished and aging veteran receivers into the slot is a trend that's been rapidly increasing as another way to use the team's best personnel to take advantage of defenses the past two seasons. As spread offenses have proliferated the NFL, veteran receivers have been asked to extend their careers and productivity by taking on more snaps out in the slot.
A topsy-turvy world
Greg Cosell of NFL Films told SI.com back in 2013 that using a team's best receiver in the slot is an excellent way to exacerbate a mismatch against the defense. Moving the best receiver against a nickel or dime keeps the receiver away from an opponent's "best" corners, many of whom are much less comfortable in the slot.
"It becomes difficult to match up, because a lot of cornerbacks are purely outside corners -- they don't play in the slot. They're not comfortable playing "two-way gos" (option routes in which the receiver can turn inside or outside based on coverage), and you get those in the slot," Cosell said.
"A lot of cornerbacks grow up playing outside. If they're playing man, they're comfortable with the sideline as a defender, basically. They know that they can play that way, and they're comfortable with certain techniques that you can only play on the outside. There are a lot of good corners who just are not comfortable playing inside."
In short, it is easier for a star receiver to play in the slot than a star corner who's played most of his career using the boundary as an extra defender.
This then means that offenses are getting defenses coming and going. Slot corners are generally the team's third, fourth or fifth corner on the depth chart and will have their hands full against another team's top receiver. But if a boundary corner is asked to man the slot, he might be much less effective, and the quarterback can take advantage on those "two-way goes" Cosell mentions.
Blurring lines and the Spread
What's happening seems to be a confluence of two simultaneous trends. The first is the proliferation of the spread offense. Spread offenses have pushed players farther away from the ball to take advantage of recent NFL rule changes which favor passing. This then creates more mismatches and easier reads for more athletic quarterbacks that can get the ball downfield more quickly and effectively than just running the ball.
The second trend is the natural blurring of lines between receivers and tight ends over the last five years. Think of the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez pairing of the Patriots from almost five years ago and the headache mismatches that it caused. Sometimes Hernandez and Gronk would align right against the offensive linemen (a "12" formation), but then there were many times defenses were caught off-guard when they would huddle up with "12" personnel (Gronk and Hernandez) but then use an "11" formation (three wide receivers and just one running back and one tight end).
Many teams have adopted similar strategies to what the Patriots were doing but through different methods based on the talent of their personnel. Teams with more than one solid pass-catching tight end have used "12" packages similar to the Patriots, while others have chosen to use veteran receivers like Marshall or Anquan Boldin (63 percent of snaps from slot in 2014) to create the mismatch.
Chan Gailey and Marshall will change the way that Jets fans think about the term "slot receiver." Marshall is still very effective, but Gailey paid attention to how Trestman used Marshall for best effect in Chicago the last two years as a way to extend his productivity. Putting a 6-foot-4 receiver with Marshall's speed, physicality and range for extensive time in the slot this season will boost the productivity of the Jets passing game; using Marshall as a slot receiver in the red zone could work out very well for the offense.
One concern must be that Smith needs to do a better job of hiding his intent when he has Marshall in the slot. Right now in camp, defenses and offenses are playing each other straight up. There are no traps, hidden coverages and Geno is allowing himself to single read the field before throwing the ball ... often to Marshall.
On day two of camp when Marshall and Dex McDougle fought for the ball in the back of the end zone, McDougle knew what was going to happen before the play even started.
"I knew it was coming too," McDougle told SNY after practice. "I knew it was coming.”
Geno will need to work on disguising his intent with the football as more concepts get installed to the defense over the course of the preseason. Using Marshall as a Big Slot could be an excellent way for the Jets to propel their offense significantly forward this season, but it will also be about Geno not tipping his hand to opposing coordinators and getting the ball to his other targets once defenses start keying on Marshall in the slot.