MIAMI — Rashaan Melvin was in press-man coverage Sunday, shadowing Denver Broncos tight end Jake Butt, when he noticed two wide receivers who were aligned inside of Melvin’s assigned receiver take outside releases on shallow routes. The Raiders cornerback anticipated that his man would run a post route in the red zone.
With safety Erik Harris helping over the top, Melvin undercut the route.
“Through time, you understand the game more and more,” Melvin said this week. “I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been in the league for a while. I’ve seen similar routes over and over and over.”
And yet, he is still learning.
The Raiders are the sixth NFL team of which Melvin has been a member. This offseason, they became the first to require him to use the “motor” coverage technique. Growing comfortable with it, at times, has been a difficult and even humbling process, but Melvin learned to embrace the modification in his playing style.
In late August, Melvin was told he needed extra work in the preseason.
Secondary coach Derrick Ansley was first to present the Raiders coaching staff’s plan for him to play the fourth and final exhibition, which generally is reserved for non-starters, most of whom won’t make the 53-man roster. Melvin called it a “tough conversation.”
The 28-year-old said he believes he is one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks. In March, he signed a one-year contract worth up to $5.5 million so he could prove that. Suiting up against the Seattle Seahawks on Aug. 30 was a task that naturally would make such a player question whether his team believes in him the same.
“My head was kind of spinning because I didn’t know exactly how to take it,” Melvin said. “Me playing a fourth preseason game, thinking I wasn’t going to have to play, based on the situation I’m in and where I was at, I took it hard for the first day when I first found out I had to play in the game. It was pretty much a tough game. And then the game came, and it was like, ‘I’m out here. I might as well go out and play and continue to focus on the technique they want me to use and go from there.’ ”
Motor technique is applied in press-man coverage.
Essentially, a cornerback will shuffle backward with short, vertical steps, wait for a receiver to break either left or right in his release. Then, the defender will flip and angle his hips toward the direction the receiver breaks while punching with his opposite arm.
On Sept. 10, Melvin executed the concept to perfection on the Raiders’ first defensive series of the season. He took his backward steps, flipped his hips to the left when Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks released in that direction, and then used his right hand to punch and control Cooks before breaking up a third-down pass to force a punt.
“I think he’s done good,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “We really tried to change his technique some. At the beginning, he was kind of unsure because he’s played for several teams and has been coached different ways. The only way I know how to do it is what I’ve taught in the past. He’s really taken to the coaching. You can see each and every week he’s improved.
“Obviously, he had the big interception on the third down in the end zone, which was critical in (Sunday’s) game, but again, he just needs to keep progressing, just like all the other guys who are new in this system.”
Melvin was flagged in Week 1 for pass interference when he didn’t turn his head to locate a 37-yard pass.
Otherwise, with a few corrections aside, he is off to a strong start.
Thirty-two NFL cornerbacks were targeted 12 or more times in the first two games of 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. Melvin has allowed a quarterback rating of 33.6 on passes in his direction, best in the league. He has ceded six receptions for 86 yards with an interception. In 2017, the Raiders notoriously set a league record when opening their season with 10 full games without an interception. Previously, no team in NFL history managed more than six to start a season.
With help from Melvin, the secondary is motoring right along.
His strides can continue Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
“With me being before physical, hands on,” Melvin said, “just being more patient at the line of scrimmage, it’s a little different from what I’m being taught now. So it took me a little time to get that technique down because I was trying to break a habit that I thought was a good habit because it worked for me. And then, when I got here, they were like, ‘We want you to try this and do this.’
“It took me a little minute to get comfortable with it. … I think, at the end of the day, it’s a positive because anytime you can switch it up, you can keep the receiver off balance. I had to really just understand that — to put both techniques in my tool belt — and become a better football player.”