Safety Tony Jefferson learns to cover tight ends to earn playing time

TEMPE, Ariz. – There’s little doubt safety Tony Jefferson will earn playing time in his third season with the Arizona Cardinals.

It’s just a matter of what his role will be and how much he’ll see the field.

With Tyrann Mathieu’s return to full health, the Cardinals’ secondary is stocked with safeties: Rashad Johnson, Deone Bucannon, Chris Clemons, Mathieu and Jefferson.

The more options first-year defensive coordinator James Bettcher has to choose from, the more Jefferson’s playing time will decrease. Just look at last season: When Jefferson replaced Mathieu in the lineup as Mathieu continued to recover from ACL and LCL surgery, Jefferson played 93.1 percent of the defensive snaps in Weeks 1-5. After Mathieu returned, Jefferson’s action decreased to 53.9 percent of the snaps.

With the third week of Arizona’s organized team activities beginning Monday, Jefferson doesn’t know what his role will be in 2015.

“We’re just trying to find our fit wherever we are,” Jefferson said.

But Jefferson has worked on carving a niche for himself.

During the last two seasons, covering tight ends has been one of Arizona’s main defensive liabilities. Last season, tight ends accounted for 24.7 percent of all receiving yards against the Cardinals; they caught eight of 22 touchdowns. Those numbers are down from 2013, when tight ends were responsible for 30.2 percent of receiving yards and had 17 of 29 touchdowns.

Jefferson spent his offseason focused on how to better cover tight ends, which will become a higher priority in the division now that Seattle has Jimmy Graham. Jefferson worked on his man coverage against receivers who were stronger and taller than him.

“A lot of it’s technique,” Jefferson said. “You got to keep your technique. A lot of times watching film, I got out of my technique. I had bad eyes. I was looking at the quarterback. I wasn’t staying squared. I was just opening up and giving the guy a lane to run.

“I’m going to work on getting my hands on the tight ends and playing together.”

Entering his third season, Jefferson doesn’t believe he needs a niche to earn more playing time, but it would help, especially when second-year safety Bucannon, who was drafted to defend tight ends, will likely spend another year at nickel linebacker.

Waiting to play is nothing new for Jefferson, either. He’s been through the same ordeal the last two seasons and will rely on that experience to help him get through it again. But the 23-year-old isn’t worry about getting pushed out of the rotation.

“Just got to do exactly what I did last year,” Jefferson said. “Stay ready, regardless of where I am. I can’t do anything about it. All I can do is just go out and play, practice with good etiquette and try to make as many plays as I can.

“I know I’ll see the field, but how much? I don’t know.”