Article Ross Jackson

A Shot at the Slot: P.J.’s Suspension Opens the Door for a Pair of Saints

This past offseason, Saints slot corner P.J. Williams was arrested for driving while under the influence. He was later demoted to a wreck less endangerment charge but the NFL did still took action this past week suspending him for two games. The delay comes from a lengthy appeal process and the change in charges. Good news for the Saints is that he’ll only be suspended for two games instead of the typical four, think back to Willie Snead in 2017.

With Williams off the field for these next games at the Bears and vs. the Cardinals, it’s a great opportunity for someone to step again against a pair of offenses still figuring themselves out. The question is, who gets the shot?

Veteran Patrick “P-Rob” Robinson might seem like the most logical choice as he returned to the Saints last year to play specifically as their slot corner. Although he was the number one PFF-rated corner that year, his impact was cut short when he was injured in the third game of the season, subsequently missing the rest of 2018. P.J. Williams then stepped into the slot and showed that he could be effective for the Saints secondary from that position, and even though Robinson looked healthy this offseason, P.J.’s been in the slot ever since. It makes perfect sense that with Williams suspended, Robinson would stake his rightful claim at the position he once held.

Enter rookie defensive back Chauncey “CJGJ” Gardner-Johnson. The Saints drafted this athletic, versatile, and confident chess piece in the fourth round. He spent much of his winter and spring falling in the first or second round of mock drafts. CJGJ has stolen hearts of many in the Who Dat Nation thanks to him fiery playstyle and ability to play all over the defense.

He and P-Rob now split the argument for who should get their shot in the slot over these next two games. The nickel role is not unfamiliar to Gardner-Johnson as he played a similar role in his collegiate defense as a Florida Gator; the STAR role. One for which his former Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham has become known.

The STAR role is often occupied by a hybrid-type linebacker/defensive beck who would sub for SAM linebackers to allow the defense a piece that can rush the passer, tackle in the run game, and cover in the slot as well as in-line Tight Ends. CJGJ excelled in that role totaling 71 tackles, 9 for a loss, four interceptions, and two touchdowns his final season as a Gator.

With his success in that position, it might make sense that his youth, attitude, and experience are enough to get him a start over Patrick Robinson at the nickel corner position. But the argument can be made otherwise. Keeping Robinson in the nickel allows Gardner-Johnson to continue to serve his hybrid role he popularized in Florida while simultaneously serving the multiple roles he’s filled for the Saints this season. Here are his defensive snaps by position with STAR-like roles identified:

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson Snap Counts (68)
BASE Linebacker*: 8
Nickel Linebacker*: 25
Slot Corner*: 19
Boundary Corner: 1
Free Safety: 15

That’s not even counting his additional 100 snaps from all over special teams. From those positions, CJGJ hasn’t totaled a ton when it comes to stats; four tackles and one hit on the QB as a pass rusher – a role he plays very well. But it is undeniable his contribution as a play that’s looked elite in pursuit so far while also only allowing 22 yards on four targets and 51 pass coverage snaps according to PFF. He may play too well all-around to be pigeon-holed into a single role.

Some Saints fans may have an understandable bad taste in their mouths after watching Robinson get burnt for 131 yards, a touchdown, and a perfect passer rating over the preseason. But it’s worth noting that of P-Rob’s 123 total defensive snaps, 94 were played on the boundary while only 23 were played in the slot. That is a formula we know from Robinson first stint in New Orleans, simply doesn’t work.

Last year, when Robinson played in the slot over his three contents the regular season, he played 103 snaps from the slot with only five out wide. During that time he allowed only 54 yards on seven targets as opposed to his 131 on eight this preseason on the boundary. He was easily the Saints’ most consistent corner to start the year in 2018 until they made the move for Eli Apple and the defense fell into its rhythm.

Starting Gardner-Johnson in the slot might be tempting and who knows, it could pay dividends. But to start, there should be no blame on allowing Robinson the opportunity to pick up where he left off last year while CJGJ continues to roam the defense and contribute from multiple positions as opposed to being locked down to one.