The NFL’s divisional playoff round featured some great defensive performances and one stunning defensive collapse in Kansas City. Let’s unpack the action and see how mental performance impacted the games.
With insights from Lawrence Barnett (defensive back trainer at Traction AP and Eclipse DB Training), aka ‘LB,’ we’ll filter through the aftermath to look at how defensive backs got things right and wrong last weekend – and how their play impacted playoff storylines.
- The Texans couldn’t keep up and weren’t able to adjust
Let’s start with the track meet in Kansas City. After going up 24-0 via a few weird plays (a blocked punt and a Tyreek Hill fumble on his second punt return of the season), the Texans proceeded to get decimated by Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes and company, giving up seven straight touchdown drives.
What happened? One major factor was that they weren’t able to hold up for the length of time they needed to in coverage.
Usually, defensive backs have to cover for 3-4 seconds before the pass rush gets home. With mobile quarterbacks, though, that time can be significantly increased. (Deshaun Watson and Mahomes both averaged 2.82 seconds time to throw this year, an above-league-average mark that highlights their tendency to extend plays). On longer plays, the Texans, especially, suffered.
Take a look at what happened on Travis Kelce’s second touchdown of the day. As Mahomes rolls out to extend the play, Kareem Jackson is forced to chase Kelce for close to five seconds. Kelce uses the extra time to settle into a window, leaving Jackson in the dust for an easy catch.
It’s a big task for any defense to keep up with the Chiefs, but it was clear in Kansas City that the Texans weren’t able to lock in for long enough – and they weren’t able to adjust to that reality.
- The Titans had belief in their fundamentals
The Titans may have put on the weekend’s most impressive defensive showing in Baltimore, where they held presumed MVP Lamar Jackson to one late touchdown in a dominating performance.
The key was that their secondary was able to fill the dual roles of pass coverage and run defense that are needed to contend with Jackson. Watch these highlights and you’ll see an example of DC Adoree Jackson holding up in man coverage and DC Logan Ryan securing the edge to keep Jackson from getting loose on an option.
Plays like these were the story of the game. Over and over, the Titans DBs held the edge. And over and over, they made big plays on balls in the air, totaling an impressive eight pass breakups. The Titans had belief in their fundamentals and their mental performance never wavered over the course of the game. The end result was a four-quarter clinic.
- Richard Sherman showcased his knowledge of the game
Finally, there may not be a better corner to watch (or a better corner, period) than the 49ers’ Richard Sherman. He proved it again against the Vikings.
Take a look at his game-changing interception in man coverage against Adam Thielen. Thielen’s been a top-tier receiver, but Sherman is at another level. He stymies him at the line, runs the route for him, and ends up with the ball against his chest. He’s done things like this every week he’s been on the field for nearly a decade.
How does he do it? Sherman’s the perfect example of an elite mental performer at the cornerback position: he’s able to be hyped up and calmly intelligent at once.
From a scientific perspective, he’s tapping into the kind of functioning that allows Navy SEALS to perform at elite levels. This is only possible when the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls fight or flight) and the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls rational decision-making) are activated simultaneously. In the vast majority of the population, when the amygdala gets activated, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and you fight or flee. You don’t think.
Elite warriors, though, are different; they’re able to use the increased intensity while also thinking analytically. Sherman is doing the same thing. After the game, he described how he diagnosed the route to make the pick, making it sound like he was calmly picking up a tell in a poker game. Even in his press conferences, he operates at a high level of intensity while simultaneously making rational, thought-through arguments.
It’s how the best corners function. It’s impressive and it’s fun to watch.
- Defense wins championships; mental performance makes champions
High-level skill and high-level mental performance make great defensive players. I help athletes maximize the mental side of their games, and I’m honored to work with consultants like LB, who’s a nationally recognized expert at teaching tactical skills.
The combination is what makes championship-level performance possible. It’s what Sherman put on display last weekend – and what will likely impact who advances to the Superbowl this week.
This week’s post is the latest in a series of guest columns by Donovan Martin, who heads Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Donovan Mental Performance. Donovan and his team are doing exciting things to help athletes bring their very best to the court, diamond or gridiron. We introduced Donovan in November on our Friday Wrap, and he’s addressed topics like the mental side of being a kicker, how two great teams prepare for a showdown, why some teams always win and others always lose and the pros and cons of perfectionism in this space.