Buffalo Bills rookie Tre’davious White was billed as a polished cornerback prospect from the moment he began training for the 2017 NFL Draft. When he joined the Bills, the coaching staff raved about his maturity, both on and off the field. Early in the season, White’s played like a veteran, and he’s an early candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
White leads the entire NFL in passes defended, with seven breakups in his first three games. He also leads NFL rookies in solo tackles and total tackles, and added his first interception against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
White seemed to start Sunday’s game on the wrong foot before turning things around in the second half. Did he make an adjustment to improve his game? I went to the tape to look at his play, and I saw that, aside from a few mental mistakes, White had a strong game from start to finish.
We’ll start with a play that highlights White’s ability to tackle in space. He’s a very well-balanced cornerback who doesn’t usually get caught flat-footed. Dropping into coverage, he notices a short pass to the tight end, navigates around a blocker, and drags the player down.
Tre' White had a great game for the Bills on Sunday. Started strong reading this short pass and making the tackle in space. pic.twitter.com/5m9r95bAq4— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
The Bills traded away an excellent tackling cornerback in Ronald Darby, but White’s proficiency helps soften that blow, and it makes him a reliable cog in this defense.
White did have a few mistakes in this one, almost all in the first half of the game. Upon a re-watch, I don’t think that first half was as bad for White as it originally looked. Here, though, is probably his worst play from the day. He gets fooled by a double move, leaving plenty of room for Trevor Siemian’s throw.
This was White's clearest mistake on the day. Bit on a double move, left space for the deep completion. pic.twitter.com/FP0pXQbThx— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
White’s lucky that safety help arrived so quickly, because that could’ve been a touchdown in a Cover-1 playcall.
Here’s another weak play from White. He gets beaten deep in man coverage, though I have to give him credit for keeping up with the receiver on the run and reducing the margin of error for Siemian’s throw, which couldn’t find the target.
White, in man, lets his guy get behind him. Limits the separation. Looks like C1, though Poyer seems to notice he's 1-on-1 and moves late. pic.twitter.com/28I63BCDYQ— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
As I said above, a mistake on deep man coverage against Cover-1 equals a touchdown. The Bills started with a two-deep coverage shell presnap, but Jordan Poyer drops down into a robber look as the play begins. Poyer, for what it’s worth, seems to recognize that White got beat and turns around to chase the player, but he’s already out of position to contribute. Siemian did a good job diagnosing the coverage and finding a favorable matchup.
Here’s a play from White’s “bad first half” that most have no issue with. White was flagged with pass interference on this play, which just doesn’t hold up to further review.
This was penalized but is clearly legal, within 5 yards. Textbook press coverage on a slant. White gets a pass breakup. pic.twitter.com/Fyn5np1hdW— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
Within five yards, you can get as physical as you’d like. White lines up in press coverage and locks down his target, with a pass breakup to boot. That should not have been flagged.
On this play, White ostensibly gave up a first down catch. But I don’t put this one on him.
White's in position here, but Humber gets caught in the play action before dropping into coverage, opening a passing lane. pic.twitter.com/sQi61NahPJ— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
The Broncos use play action, and it catches both linebackers. Ramon Humber’s job is to buzz to the defensive left, but he cheats toward the line when he sees the run action. He’s late to return to coverage, and that makes a window where Siemian can fit a throw. White, playing in cover-3, does the right thing to limit the damage and make a sure tackle.
Now we come to the most controversial pass play of the day. Was it a catch or wasn’t it? I won’t argue with these referees, especially when they were throwing out questionable calls all day. What I want you to watch is that pre-snap, White and Micah Hyde are pointing and talking with each other. There’s clearly some confusion about who gets which assignments against this trips formation.
This is the big noncatch. I think it's actually on Hyde. You see talking presnap, looks like Hyde should've dropped deep. Good "PBU", White. pic.twitter.com/ONWqiBzo2N— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
Now, who’s fault is this play? It’s impossible to know for sure, because we don’t know the play call. But we have a few hints that help us identify the coverage.
First hint is Poyer’s position. He’s outside the hashes and drops back deep while staying outside the hash. That signals an even coverage look, like Cover-2 or Cover-4. If you see a safety between the hashes, then you are probably seeing Cover-1 or Cover-3.
The next hint is the position of the boundary cornerbacks before the throw. Both players sit at roughly the 17 yard line, two yards beyond the sticks. That includes White. If we were seeing Cover-3 or Cover-4, then you’d have seen those players dropping further downfield to defend deeper zones.
We also see the middle linebacker drop deep in the middle of the field, That suggests that the Bills might’ve called a Tampa-2 look, which spreads out two deep safeties, has cornerbacks play underneath, and drops a linebacker into the deep-middle.
If that’s the case, then Hyde is out of position. He should’ve dropped into deep coverage (which seems to be what White was expecting), which would’ve taken away the deep throw.
Like I said, we don’t know for sure. The Bills could’ve played a combination coverage, going up against an uneven 3x1 formation of receivers. Maybe White was supposed to play man coverage against the receiver running the go route. This is what makes the job so difficult for the people who work for places like Pro Football Focus. You can examine the play as much as you want, and still possibly be wrong.
One more mistake from White before we step into his highlights. Again, you can see him communicating with his safety pre-snap, trying to check the coverage.
Here's Tre's last real mistake in the game. Peeks in the backfield, leaves a wide window for Siemian's throw. More presnap comms for the D. pic.twitter.com/gPRMfG4gsm— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
I think White was expecting a zone read here. After seeing the motion from the tight end, he gambles on peeking in the backfield and sticking to the edge of the line. White has safety help deep, but he leaves far too large of a window to prevent a pass.
The next play highlights the difficulty of playing cornerback in the NFL. White did just about everything right, but a perfect back-shoulder throw from Siemian negates that coverage.
Sometimes a CB does everything right but it doesn't matter. Great jam, great positioning, but a perfect back shoulder throw from Siemian. pic.twitter.com/uBcAH4Ut2d— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
He had the press coverage, he had positioning, he limited separation, and he even tried attacking the ball. When the pass is well-placed, you just can’t win.
Now is where White’s confidence began to grow. For the rest of the game, he was unstoppable.
Late in the game, White really locked in. In off coverage, stays balanced, mirrors the cut and erases separation. QB throws the ball away. pic.twitter.com/BxjONbVs2U— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
Off coverage is not an easy task. You give a large cushion to the receiver, and that gives him plenty of untouched room to work. White tracks his target, identifies the cut, and closes quickly. He sticks to the receiver and forces a throwaway on third down.
Now we start seeing where White’s confidence and intelligence plays a factor. At the top of the screen, White’s in man coverage against the receiver who gave the team so much trouble in the first half, Emmanuel Sanders.
This is the same WR who picked on White earlier. Great mirroring in man coverage makes a tight window that Siemian can't reach. pic.twitter.com/f7ueosr7tF— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
Again, White does a great job mirroring his opponent, and again, White covers whatever throwing window the Broncos were hoping for. Siemian can’t complete his throw.
The Broncos tried picking on White again with an in-breaking route. More textbook coverage from Buffalo’s rookie cornerback:
More man coverage. WR makes it easy for White with little deception. White reads the stem and closes for a textbook PBU. pic.twitter.com/Dxdxt6rePD— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
The receiver could’ve run his route with a stronger initial drive and added some head fakes to buy some room against White. He doesn’t, and that made it simple. White mirrors the route and delivers a perfectly timed pass breakup.
By this point, the Broncos had pretty much given up on throwing to White’s side. They spent a lot of time trying E.J. Gaines, who had his own side locked down and eventually delivered an interception. Late in the game, the Broncos had a third-and-three and badly needed the conversion. They tried having a boundary receiver run an arrow route against White. This route starts with a short 3-5 yard slant to the inside, then the receiver turns like he plans to “sit”, but if he’s facing man coverage, he instead tries to run back the other direction and find space near the sideline.
More late game White. Right side, WR tries an arrow route on 3rd & short. White tracks it the whole way, tackles him short of the sticks. pic.twitter.com/fZm3FZanyZ— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
White, who starts the play off-camera, plays it beautifully. He stays balanced, reacts to the receiver’s route, allows the throw to be made, then tackles him behind the first down marker.
The Broncos continued trying to pass as the clock ran down, but Buffalo’s defense stymied their efforts. Eventually, White put the nail in the coffin:
Finally, the cherry on top: White jumps a bad throwaway from Siemian for his first career pick. Nice days work from the rookie. pic.twitter.com/ud9ZY1Rmg5— Dan Lavoie (@DanRLavoie) September 27, 2017
White may have had a few mistakes against the Broncos, but for 90 percent of the game, he was a reliable, balanced, playmaking cornerback. There’s a reason he started 49 games for the LSU Tigers - his ball skills, footwork, mirroring, and intelligence are all strong traits, and that makes him a valuable asset for the Buffalo Bills.