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The Dichotomy of Play: The story of Rock Ya-Sin

Can Ya-Sin turn it around in year three?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

My good friend, and former safety at Jacksonville State, Jonathan Hagler said it best when describing cornerback play in the NFL:

It is hard to play corner, especially in the NFL. You get to play super aggressive in college and that just leads to struggles at the next level.

The position of cornerback is easily one of the most difficult to play in the NFL. That is why we see young corners struggle to adjust once they get to the NFL. They have to first get acclimated to the speed while also adjusting to stricter rules and more advanced offenses. For a lot of these young corners, it is baptism by fire of sorts. That is what we saw with Rock Ya-Sin.

It was an ugly start to his career for Ya-Sin. He had a few noticeable miscues in coverage early in his rookie year, which was highlighted by an all-time bad performance against Courtland Sutton and the Denver Broncos. However, Ya-Sin finished the year on a high note as his confidence seemed to climb with each start. By the end of his rookie year, he was the best cornerback on the roster (not named Kenny Moore II).

Rather than taking that next step forward as a sophomore, it all came crashing back down for Ya-Sin. He had some good flashes but inconsistency reared its ugly head as the penalties and deep completions kept piling up. It eventually led to less playing time for the young corner and more for veteran TJ Carrie, who was having a bit of a resurgence in Indy. This past year got bad enough to where I think it is safe to say that a majority of the fan base has all but given up on him.

Today’s article will put Ya-Sin’s game into perspective. It is time to look past the “Rock Ya-Suck” nicknames and truly get to the bottom of who he is as a player. The point being that he isn’t a bad player by any means, he is basically two different players entirely. So today, we are going to break down the Jekyll and Hyde of the young cornerback that is Rock Ya-Sin.

The Persistent Issues

It is hard to talk about the dichotomy of cornerback play without starting with the bad. It is one of those positions where they make one bad mistake and it is the only thing to talk about for the next week. Corners live and die by their mistakes and Ya-Sin has a few major flaws that have persisted for two years now.

The biggest issue by far and away in Ya-Sin’s game actually isn’t how grabby he is (surprisingly). It is his confidence and lack of ball tracking. I noticed these issues on film particularly when he was in off-man or in press coverage. To verify what I saw, I reached out to the incredible analytics team at Sports Info Solutions for some numbers to back up my eyes. Unsurprisingly, the numbers correlate with what I saw.

Ya-Sin struggles mightily in off-man and press coverage looks, albeit the Colts rarely lined up in those coverages. In off man, he allowed 3 receptions on 4 targets in 17 coverage snaps. He allowed an average of 2.88 yards per coverage snap and an EPA (estimated points added) of 0.21 per coverage snap. In press man, he allowed 10 receptions on 15 targets in 47 coverage snaps. He allowed an average of 3.43 yards per coverage snap and an EPA of 0.18 per coverage snap. Essentially, teams were in the positive in yards per play and EPA whenever targeting Ya-Sin in man coverage (and this doesn’t even include penalties).

To bring it back in for football guys, the film clearly backs this up. The apex of these struggles came in the two games against the Titans, where the Colts played more man to man in an attempt to shut down Derrick Henry. These clips showcase the major struggles in press, along with his lack of confidence in phase down the field. He is grabby, doesn’t get his head around, and the result is multiple penalties. Also, look at his body language after each play. Just reeks of a player who lost his confidence.

These aren’t minor issues that should be overlooked either. Can a corner actually be successful if they struggle in any form of man coverage? Absolutely not. I do want to make my concerns clear on this before transitioning to the next part of the article.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

While you may be reading this and thinking that Ya-Sin is toast, here is where the contrast really comes in. He is actually an outstanding zone cornerback, the coverage that the Colts run most frequently. The guys at Sports Info Solutions charted Ya-Sin as allowing 19 receptions on 33 targets in 263 coverage snaps in zone. He allowed just 0.80 yards per coverage snap and actually had a negative EPA of -0.04 per coverage snap in zone. Essentially meaning that opposing offenses were hurting themselves by targeting Ya-Sin in zone coverage.

This also lines up with film as the confidence issues in his game seem to magically go away when he is in zone. He has excellent zone eyes in coverage, which was highlighted by his insane interception against the Green Bay Packers in week 11. He also just plays at a much faster pace when he is reacting to the quarterback, rather than reacting to the receiver. In zone responsibilities, he is a more than capable starting corner that can be trusted to be a starter in this league.

So... What Next?

This is where the real discourse comes becomes the stark contrast between play makes this a difficult conversation. On one hand, Ya-Sin is an outstanding zone corner, which is a defense that the Colts utilize a majority of the time. However, a cornerback who is a complete liability in man coverage isn’t very useful to your defense.

For me it comes down to what Ya-Sin can improve upon and honestly, I think there is something to work with. He may never be a dominant man corner due to his athletic limitations but if the Colts can get him at least to an adequate level, then he can succeed in this scheme.

The rough list of the steps Ya-Sin has to take, in my eyes, to improve his play:

  • Work endlessly with new Cornerbacks Coach James Rowe. Rowe has been a massive success in every stop in his career and can hopefully work on Ya-Sin’s technique.
  • Speaking of technique, his press work needs to be completely revamped. An easier fix/suggestion would be to focus on one technique first and try to excel at that one to give a good baseline for how to attack. Since Ya-Sin is a physical corner, he should likely go the motor-mirror or step-kick route with his technique.
  • Lastly, CONFIDENCE. The biggest issue in his game. He is not using his eyes or trusting his positioning when in phase. I don’t know if this is something that can be coached out of him but if he can’t fix his confidence issue in man, he won’t last long in this league.

Obviously, these are just the opinions of one rather inexperienced writer but the last point is monumental for Ya-Sin’s development. Luckily, I feel confident in Coach James Rowe devoting time to improving Ya-Sin’s game in the offseason. Here is a quick summary of my thoughts on Ya-Sin from a live stream I did last week on YouTube:

Closing Thoughts

Rock Ya-Sin is a highly scrutinized corner for the Colts, and honestly, it is within good reason. The leash is very short for NFL cornerbacks and struggles like his are hard to overcome. However, when you look at the full picture of his game, he is not a terrible corner. He is just two different corners in one body. An outstanding zone player who has major confidence and technical issues in man coverage.

Can he be fixed? I’d like to think so. The fact that he is in a zone system with a great cornerbacks coach is promising. However, it all comes down to the head game with him. If he can learn to trust his positioning and build on his technique, he will be a good starting cornerback in this league. If the confidence issues continue, he will be out of the league sooner rather than later.

Year three is a pivotal season for the young cornerback. It is officially sink or swim season for him and he can’t afford to have another bad season. I firmly believe that he can turn this around, he just needs to produce on the field.