The Houston Texans got a steal when they traded for CB Gareon Conley. Breaking down his film shows Conley's elite press man coverage, ability to recover when beaten, and skills to break up the ball at the catch point. If they use him to his strengths, his ceiling is limitless and he will be a true CB1 for the rest of his bright future.
Gareon Conley is the Best Texans CB in Recent Memory
Let's start by quickly talking about Conley's situation, what he has dealt with, and how that shines a light on his play with the Texans. A top prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft Class, Conley was known for his man coverage ability coming out of Ohio State. When he was drafted to the Raiders he impressed in limited time but unfortunately only played 2 games due to a series of injuries that placed him on IR. Former Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie had this to say about Conley "He came in hitting the ground running. We felt really good about him during the offseason until he got kicked. That’s the way it is. He’s a good football player and he’ll have a great career". McKenzie was right, he WILL have a great career, just not for the Raiders.
As a new era started and Jon Gruden took over, the Raiders changed from a man to zone scheme, and Conley was forced into a massive change he wasn't expecting. There's a big difference between playing man or zone, schematically, technically and mentally. It put Conley in a position that didn't highlight his strengths. Thus, his play wasn't what most wanted out of a 1st round pick, and the Raiders traded him midseason for a 3rd round pick, to our Houston Texans. At the time, it was seen as a risk and an overpay by the Texans, but by now, most don't see it that way. In fact, I would say we got a steal, and this film breakdown will help prove why.
Sticky Press Man Coverage
Gareon Conley's biggest strength is his press man coverage, where he blankets WRs and leaves minimal space for a catch. He wins with quick fluid hips, subtle physicality allowing him to feel for breaks, and maximizing his length at the catch point.
I tracked every single Conley snap last year with the Texans and recorded the following stats in this table below.
Now, you might be worried about the large percentage of targets that came while in press man, but that is simply because majority of his snaps came in press man. Therefore, he is bound to get targeted eventually. To put it in perspective, Conley played 412 snaps for the Texans last year. To only be targeted 23 times while in press man is absurd. The numbers that should stick out to you are the minuscule 6 catches allowed, 26% completion percentage allowed, and 9 PBUs in press man. Those are absurd numbers that show just how talented Conley is in press. I'm not a big numbers guy though, I'm a film guy. Numbers are great, but they have to match what I see on field, and trust me, with Conley, they do.
Let's finally get into the film with this first play coming against Courtland Sutton (#14) at the bottom of the screen. Sutton fakes outside and takes off inside and upfield. Conley mirrors Sutton's movements, taking one step outside, but not overreacting. He stays step for step, remaining in the hip pocket and when it comes time to make a cut, this is where Conley really shows off. As Sutton breaks outside Conley is able to flip his hips and in one fluid step, completely turn around and follow Sutton. This is rare and special ability by Conley. No, he doesn't get an INT, PBU, or even targeted on this play, but he completely blankets the Broncos WR1 and was in perfect position if the ball was thrown his way. It's plays like these that you just can't see and appreciate from the normal broadcast view. Give me All-22 on gameday! Conley balled out vs the Broncos as he was only targeted 3 times, giving up 2 catches for 16 yards, but none of those came when in press man.
Conley is also amazing at knowing and feeling exactly when a WR is making their break. Up against another WR1 in Titans AJ Brown (#1), at the bottom of the screen. Conley follows Brown up field, remaining in his hip pocket and back shoulder. If you look closely, you can see Conley has a hand on Brown ever so slightly. This subtle holding won't be called for DPI, but allows him to feel when Brown is going to break, and break with him. When Brown sticks his foot in the ground and breaks on his out route, Conley quickly follows suit, and runs the route for him. These past two plays showed how Conley can win when he's on the outside shoulder of the WR and needs to flip his hips (vs Sutton), or when he's on the inside shoulder of the WR and needs to feel the break (vs Brown). The ability to play either technique is reserved for the top man cover CBs, and Conley deserves that respect too.
Up against AJ Brown again at the bottom of the screen, Conley locks him up and isn't even targeted. Tannehill never even looks his way, knowing that's Conley's side, and ends up getting sacked. Conley is patient at the LOS, then follows Brown upfield. He plays the inside shoulder again and you can see clearer now, how he tries to hold onto Brown and feel the break. He does great to keep inside leverage and undercuts the route, so even if it was thrown, he would be in perfect position. In 2 games against the Titans, Conley was targeted 12 times, only giving up 5 catches for 55 yards, and had 3 PBUs. But how much of that came in press man? Just 1 catch for 9 yards. That's insane when going up against AJ Brown and Corey Davis.
Everyone knows we need to beat the Chiefs, and luckily our CBs matchup well against their WRs. Roby has shown he can slow down Tyreek Hill as well as anyone, and Conley has shown he can completely take Sammy Watkins out of the game. He absolutely smothers him on this route. Conley is again patient at the LOS, not buying any of Watkins' (#14) head fakes. Then he expertly gets hands on Sammy's chest and back. The key here is that Conley keeps his feet moving and everything is in sync from his hands, to arms, to hips, to feet. Nothing is clunky, everything is smooth. At the top of the route, Watkins breaks inside and Conley can feel the break and be right in the hip pocket.
Again versus Watkins here and it's the same result. Watkins takes an inside release and Conley follows suit, right in the hip pocket. He holds onto Watkins' chest and waist, because a WR's hips don't lie, they tell Conley exactly where he needs to go. As Watkins cuts inside, Conley is right there running the route for him. Look back at this and the previous play, Patrick Mahomes doesn't even look in Watkins' direction. Conley was doing this all day long and Mahomes was clearly tired of even trying to see if Watkins was open. Conley had a DAY against the Chiefs in the playoffs, only being targeted twice and giving up just 1 catch for 2 yards. Which happened in off coverage and when switched onto Travis Kelce by the way.
One last play against Sammy Watkins here, and what I wanted to highlight is how physical Conley jams Watkins at the LOS. Although Conley is elite in press, he rarely jams like this. Since he is in the end zone, he can be more aggressive and he takes out his likely frustration from this game on poor Watkins. He punches Watkins in the chest and grabs hold of the shoulder pad. He completely messes up Watkins release and timing, taking him out of the play. You can even see Demarcus Robinson (#11) try and run a rub route and pick off Conley to get Watkins free. Conley is having none of it though, and locks down Watkins yet again. I would love to see him jam like this more often, taking his press game to another level.
At the bottom of the screen, Conley takes one outside step, mirroring the WR, then he looks to jam Duke Williams (#82), just like I want him to. Conley punches him in the chest with his right arm and this allows him to flip his hips smoothly like I've mentioned before, and stick with Williams on the route. As Williams works upfield, Conley gets a second hand on his hips now, and has him locked up. Josh Allen is looking in his direction finally, but he wisely doesn't throw it Conley's way. Again, on all these plays Conley isn't even targeted and it's this tight coverage that we just can't appreciate while watching the games live. But don't let that deter you from understanding just how good Conley is.
This was an extremely impressive play by Conley, and really speaks to his IQ and ability to stop on a dime. Conley is all over this play from start to finish. The WR takes off downfield and at the 40 yard line he takes a quick look back to the QB, trying to cause Conley to do the same. But Conley expertly doesn't bite, and continues running with the WR. At the top of the route, the WR stops on a dime (although tripping in the process). Conley does the same and this is extremely tough to do when running full speed. That becomes even more impressive when you think about it from Conley's POV.
Imagine you are a CB and the WR you are covering just ran that route, where he looked back to the QB and stuttered, but continued downfield. That tells the CB that the WR is likely running a stop and go. So the CB needs to haul ass and run downfield to keep up. When you're running full speed like that and aren't expecting the WR to suddenly stop, it becomes infinitely harder for you to stop on a dime like Conley did. But he remained patient, didn't guess on the route, and ran the curl FOR the WR. Just beautiful. That Ravens game was ugly for us, but Conley was not to blame. He was only targeted twice and gave up 1 catch for 14 yards, albeit for a TD.
No CB is perfect, there are going to be times where you get beat. Once beaten, you can stay beaten and give up a catch, or recover and prevent a catch. Conley is a master of the latter. He showed time and time again the prowess to keep fighting, get back into a play, and force an incompletion. Let me show you just how valuable this skill can be.
As I mentioned, Conley's quick and fluid hips are what help him out the most while in coverage. Here's another example of that. At the bottom of the screen, in off man coverage, Conley is put in a position that he's not great in. As I showed, he's amazing when he's allowed to play close to a WR and feel any breaks. But here, he doesn't have that ability, and so he flips his hips outside a bit early. This gets him in trouble as John Brown (#15) is running a post inside. Luckily, Conley is athletically gifted enough to smoothly flip his hips back inside, get back into the play and jump to break up the ball. Most CBs would be burnt in this same position, not being blessed with loose hips, they would be too many steps behind and would've given up a TD. Not Conley though, he had himself a day against the Bills, and saved two TDs that game.
Conley is at the top of the screen against a super underrated WR in Tyrell Williams (#16). As Tyrell fakes inside, Conley takes a step with him, this leaves him a bit stunned and late to follow upfield. Every step matters as a CB, and if this were Lonnie, he would have a harder time getting back into the play. However, Conley shows great burst to accelerate back into the hip pocket and then he shows great eye discipline. Tyrell looks back to the ball a bit early, and is still running forward. Instead of Conley looking back exactly when Tyrell did, he waits until Tyrell slows down and basically stops running. Then, Conley knows the ball is coming, so he turns around at the last second and smacks the ball out of Tyrell's hands. Picture perfect recovery and win at the catch point.
This recovery comes in zone, but the principles are the same. At the bottom of the screen, Conley has trouble transitioning from his backpedal to his turn, and this allows speedster Breshad Perriman to gain a step on him. Conley doesn't give up though, he keeps fighting and is never out of a play. The ball is slightly underthrown but Conley still closes the space between him and Perriman. Again he shows great eye discipline to turn his head at the very last second, and get his hands up to make this a difficult catch. While this play came in zone, against the Bucs Conley was targeted 4 times in press man and only gave up 1 catch, while having 2 PBUs.
Against AJ Brown again, at the bottom of the screen, he uses a really nice double move release and hits Conley, gaining some space. Conley is behind Brown with a couple yards to catch up. He keeps fighting and undercuts the route, beating Brown to his spot and being in great position for the PBU. He jumps with Brown and extends his arms, using his great length to break up the ball. Especially against the top WRs, you're bound to get beat eventually, but being able to recover like this is a luxury.
Winning at the Catch Point
Conley's length is really a weapon, measuring in the combine with an absurd 33' arms, he knows exactly how to use them to his advantage. This play really encapsulates everything I've been talking about with Conley. At the top of the screen, Conley bites on the outside fake, this leaves him a step behind but he uses his fluid hips to recover back inside. He gets back into the hip pocket and feels the WR break inside. He's in perfect position and uses his length to break up the pass, timing it perfectly. Just beautiful coverage here.
This play came on the crucial last drive of the 4th quarter for the Bills and Conley did his absolute best to stop them. At the bottom of the screen, Josh Allen decides to test Conley, but he is unsuccessful. Conley is all over WR Duke WIlliams (#82) and stacks his inside shoulder. The throw is outside and in a pretty good position that makes it tough for Conley to make a play. He turns his head at the last moment to find the ball, and wraps his arms around Dukes'. Conley's right arm goes into the middle of the catch point, and his left arm goes around Duke's left arm. He plays this with the perfect level of physicality to avoid DPI but still get the PBU.
This play encapsulates basically everything I have said about Conley. At the top of the screen, he bites on the outside fake but has the fluid hips to turn back inside and recover to the WR. Then he gets his hands around the WR's hips and feels the break inside. At the top of the route Conley finds the ball and extends his right arm out to break up the pass and win at the catch point. You can't ask for much better coverage than this. Conley is just so technically sound in press man coverage.
Where he can improve
As elite as Conley is in press man, he's not great in off coverage. I showed how Conley is at his best when he can be close and physical with a WR, to feel any breaks. Well, when he is forced to play with these 10 yard cushions, he can't play to his strengths and is put in an awful position to succeed. Some of this is on him, but some of this is on the scheme. He's not Johnathan Joseph, who excelled in off coverage all his career, he's a different mold, and that's fine, we just have to play to his strengths.
On this play, Conley has a 10 yard cushion, and Perriman is simply running a 10 yard out route. Conley shows a solid backpedal but when it's time to break on the route, he isn't that smooth. It's this transition from his backpedal to turning and running that hurts Conley in off coverage. He can get lower in his backpedal so that he can really explode on his break.
Same idea here. Conley is giving a huge cushion in off coverage and the offense makes him pay. Again, he can get lower in his backpedal here to make it easier on himself. Nonetheless, he doesn't break too bad on the ball, it's just well timed and he would've had to anticipate this route to get a better jump on it. At least he gets back into the play, and makes the tackle to limit YAC.
Conley isn't helpless here, he showed flashes of getting lower in his backpedal and being quicker in his transitions. At the bottom of the screen here, Conley is up against DJ Chark who runs a corner post route. Conley does great to get low in his backpedal and you can really see the importance of that on this play. He bites on the corner fake but because he is low, he can explode back up field and stay close enough on the post route. Conley locked up during this Jaguars game by the way. He was targeted 8 times, only giving up 1 catch for 12 yards (in zone), and amassing 2 PBUs. He helped hold Chark to just 4 catches for 32 yards, none of which came against Conley.
Let's circle back to the beginning of this article, where I talked about Conley's struggles when Oakland moved to a zone scheme. It was a tough transition for Conley, and while he's still not perfect in zone, he's made good strides. On this play I'll show his main struggle. At the top of the screen in Cover 4, Conley transitions from his backpedal to turning and running too quickly. He has such a large cushion on the WR he should never be turning this early. He needs to trust his speed and recovery skills and be more patient. At the exact moment he turns his hips and starts running, the WR makes his break. Conley tries to stop himself but is just a second too late. This is something that can be easily seen on film and adjustments can be made in practice.
As I mentioned, Conley has made big strides in zone coverage. He has gotten better at recognizing the routes in front of him and breaking quicker. Here he's at the top of the screen, tasked with a deep third zone in Cover 3. He stays with the vertical route and then passes it off to the safety when he notices TE Darren Waller coming open. This play is designed to give Conley a conflict of assignment, but he reads it well, communicates properly and takes the right assignment in Waller. He uses his fluid hips to flip back outside and exploding off his back foot, he is able to drive on the ball and break it up beautifully. Making these plays on a consistent basis will go a long way to making Conley a more complete CB.
CB is one of the hardest positions to play in the NFL, and it is impacted extremely by situation and scheme. Now that Conley is with the Texans and playing primarily man coverage, he is thriving. We can play Conley in press man even more, and he will continue to showcase why he is an elite CB. The film and the numbers back up the fact that he is a legit CB1, who has shown the ability to be sticky in coverage, recover when beat and win at the catch point. He faced plenty of talent in AJ Brown, DJ Chark, Courtland Sutton, Sammy Watkins and more, always coming away on top.
It's easy to forget Conley is still young and hasn't even reached the peak of his game. He can still make improvements in off man coverage and in zone. At just 24 years old, his prime is still ahead of him. If Conley keeps up this level of play he's going to demand a large contract. I understand and agree with why the Texans declined his 5th year option, we need a bigger sample size. But if the same Conley shows up to training camp and the first couple games of the season, he NEEDS to be extended ASAP, don't let him hit the open market.
I'm extremely excited to see the further growth in Conley's career. While you can't see all of his brilliance from the broadcast view on game day, watching the film was a fun experience and truly made me appreciate his game. In my honest opinion, he is the best CB we've had since a younger Jonathan Joseph, and I think he will be the best CB we have for the next 5 years.