What does Minnesota CB Benjamin St-Juste bring to the Washington Football Team?
What is Washington with its third-round pick?
With the first of its two third-round picks, the Washington Football Team selected cornerback Benjamin St-Juste from Minnesota. He’s somewhat of a low profile prospect that not many fans had heard of, but while his profile is low, his frame and play style is not. St-Juste stands at 6-foot-3, 202 pounds and has long arms that reach nearly 33 inches. With Washington’s primary need in the secondary being at free safety as opposed to corner, many wondered, myself included, if Washington drafted St-Juste to convert him to free safety. But after watching him, I’d be surprised if that’s the plan, at least in the short term.
The size and length St-Juste possesses is his best attribute. When he’s allowed to work up on the line of scrimmage and play physical press coverage, he can be very disruptive.
On this play from the 2019 season, St-Juste aligns over a stacked set to the right side of the offensive formation. Stacked sets can be difficult to play press against because receivers can use each other’s routes to work free releases and confuse the defenders in coverage with switch releases. But St-Juste isn’t worried about that. Off the snap, he uses his length to get his hands on the first receiver. He strikes with his outside hand first and then latches on, riding the receiver inside to disrupt the timing of his route and force him off his intended path. He then sticks to the hip of the receiver as the receiver breaks inside, allowing him the opportunity to undercut and contest any throw coming his way, but the ball had already been thrown elsewhere.
This is where St-Juste excels. When he’s allowed to work up on the line of scrimmage and be physical with receivers, he can make the most of that frame and those long arms to get his hands on receivers and disrupt their releases and routes. A lot of teams will try to counter a press corner by using stacked sets and motions. As we saw on that play, he’s comfortable working over a stacked set and this next play is no different.
This time, St-Juste starts outside but soon follows the outside receiver as he motions into a stacked set. The ball is snapped just as the receiver sets, giving St-Juste little time to think and react to the motion, but he instinctively transitions his coverage to the receiver on the line of scrimmage at the point of the stacked set. He instantly looks to jam him and does so effectively. He forces the receiver to work inside and continues with the physical coverage as the receiver attempts to get back outside and work vertically. By that time, the quarterback lost his opportunity to throw and was sacked.
His size and length, along with his willingness to press makes St-Juste a good defender down near the goal line, particularly against fade routes.
Here we see two different goal line fades that St-Juste broke up in the 2019 season. On the first play of the clip, St-Juste plays with heavy inside leverage as the receiver slow-plays the route. His sudden burst outside takes St-Juste by surprise a little bit and has him on the back foot, but St-Juste reacts perfectly to the situation. He doesn’t panic and get caught looking for the ball. Instead, he locks his eyes onto the receivers hands and works to make up lost ground. As the receiver slows down and looks to jump for the ball, St-Juste makes up the ground and only then begins to turn back to try and locate the football. However, he doesn’t just look for the ball, he ensures he knows where the receivers hands are and gets his own hands up into the catch point to disrupt any potential catch. He never finds the ball with his eyes, but because his hands were in at the catch point, he was able to knock the ball away from the receiver to break up the pass.
On the second play, St-Juste plays the route a little bit better from the start. The receiver isn’t able to slow-play the route so much because they’re working from the short side of the field. That allows St-Just to get his hands on the receiver the whole way, ensuring the route is secured. With the route secured, St-Juste spots the receiver looking back for the ball and knows he is safe to do the same. This time he’s able to locate the ball and punch his hands through the catch point to once again break up the pass.
This physical style of play is clearly what St-Juste does best, but he will have to be careful to not be overly physical in the NFL. He’s only allowed to make that type of strong physical jam on the receiver within the first five yards of the route in the NFL, so he’ll need to be weary of that. In college, he was occasionally guilty of being too physical and being called for pass interference.
On third and eight, St-Juste aligns in press coverage an isolated receiver to the right of the formation. He plays with inside leverage and off the snap allows the receiver a free release outside. St-Juste does well to close the gap and for the receiver as wide as he can to narrow any potential throwing window. However, as the receiver looks to break back to the ball at the top of the route, St-Juste grabs on and prevents him from coming back to the ball. The pass falls incomplete, but the flag gets thrown and St-Juste is called for a pass interference penalty that moves the chains.
As he enters the NFL, St-Juste will need to clean up his technique with regards to pressing at the line of scrimmage. But with some work and refinement in that area, his frame and length gives him strong potential as a press corner in a man coverage scheme. This is where his fit with Washington is interesting. The team was predominantly a zone-based defense last year, operating out of primarily Cover-3 and quarters. Starting cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby played most of the season in off coverage with vision on the quarterback in zone coverage. When Washington St-Juste, he struggles both playing off coverage and playing in zone coverage.
Here are two examples of St-Juste playing off coverage against Penn State in 2019. The first play comes against receiver K.J. Hamler, a second-round pick of the Broncos in 2020. Hamler motions a few steps wider from the initial tight alignment to create some space before the ball is snapped. Once the play starts, Hamler angles his route to St-Juste’s outside shoulder. As the gap closes between the two, St-Juste commits to an outside release and opens his hips to the sideline. As soon as he does that, Hamler breaks across his face and works inside, running wide open across the middle for a big gain.
On the second play of the clip, St-Juste plays off coverage with heavy inside leverage against a receiver running a deep post route on the outside. This position should allow him to take away the post route. However, the receiver is able to eat up the cushion from the off coverage quickly, forcing St-Juste to commit to turning and running vertically. Once again, he opens his hips to the sideline to turn and run, only for the receiver to cut across his face and get inside. Fortunately for St-Juste, the ball was thrown elsewhere on this occasion, but it could easily have been a touchdown against him with a good throw.
Off coverage is clearly not a natural fit for St-Juste and frankly, neither is zone coverage. Man coverage is hard to execute but simple mentally. In man coverage, the corner has a designated receiver that he is responsible for covering wherever he goes. It’s simple, but tough to execute against quality receivers. Zone coverage protects defenders a bit because they have to cover a zone and react to receivers and routes that enter their area, rather than necessarily trying to run across the middle of the field with a receiver that is faster than them. However, to play zone coverage, you have to understand route combinations and be able to read and feel multiple receivers at the same time. This is something St-Juste struggles with.
These three plays are all examples of St-Juste being caught between routes. He doesn’t have a natural feel for the different types of route combinations that offenses will throw at him. He was routinely caught between receivers trying to figure out if he should be sinking back with one receiver or stepping up to cover the other, which often resulted in him covering neither receiver, as visible in this clip.
This is where his fit in Washington is most intriguing. Ron Rivera has typically favored zone coverage schemes in the past and used them last season. However, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio used more man coverage schemes the last time he was a defensive coordinator, back in 2014 with the Broncos. Two of Washington’s biggest additions to the secondary this offseason have been physical cornerbacks best suited to press coverage. Free agent cornerback William Jackson was one of Washington’s biggest additions in free agency and now they’ve added a third-round cornerback that fits a similar style of play. However, 2020 free agent signing Kendall Fuller is better suited to zone coverage, which raises more questions.
Perhaps Rivera trusts his coaching staff to develop talent and fit it to the simpler zone coverage systems that he’s routinely used in the past. After all, Rivera has had plenty of success with drafting and developing cornerbacks during his time in Carolina, with Josh Norman and James Bradberry being the recent stand outs, though there have been plenty of others. But maybe this is a signal of a change of philosophy defensively, with the intent to play some more physical man coverage up at the line of scrimmage. If that’s the case, then St-Juste fits the profile of a physical press corner with the traits to develop at the next level. If however, Washington intends to play him in off coverage as a zone corner, I think he’ll have his share of struggles adjusting to the next level.