Saints' cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste is learning the hard way in NFL

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Stanley Jean-Baptiste got beat.

Nick Toon has a knack for making cornerbacks look bad in practice, but it’s hard to know if Stanley Jean-Baptiste was added to that list Tuesday.

The coverage was there. Jean-Baptiste was is position to make a play, but he failed even to raise an arm or swat at the ball. Did he know Ryan Griffin’s pass was dropping over his shoulder into the hands of Toon? It’s impossible to know the answer, but one fan in attendance at The Greenbrier spoke for everyone by saying “turn your head” as the play concluded.

It seems like an easy solution, but would it have been the right move? The answer is complicated. There are times when the New Orleans Saints’ cornerbacks are instructed to turn around and go after the football. There are also times when they are told to read the receiver and play his hands.

Which way they are asked to defend depends on what happens during the route, and the answer usually emerges seconds after the ball is snapped. If the cornerback sticks with the receiver, he is supposed to turn around and attempt to receive the ball at the top of the route. If he is even a step behind — or out of phase — then he is asked to play the receiver.

“If they make a mistake within the first 5 yards,” defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff said, “99 percent of the time they’re going to get beat, because they’re out of phase.”

On the play in question, Jean-Baptiste, a second-round pick out of Nebraska, was slow to turn his hips and had to chase Toon down. If Jean-Baptiste had turned around to locate the ball — as those in attendance suggested he should have — he likely would have taken himself out of position by breaking stride, which would have allowed Toon to break free.

Jean-Baptiste made the right decision, but only because he was beat by the receiver early in the route. The problem is that Jean-Baptiste never had the opportunity to play the receiver’s hands because Griffin delivered a perfect pass.

So how can cornerbacks avoid falling out of phase and know where to expect the ball if they do? By studying the opposition and knowing all of their tendencies.

“You almost got to study so hard that you know what kind of shoe strings they’re wearing,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “That’s how much film study you have to put in. It’s mandatory. If it’s not, you’ll never get the feel of the receivers.”

Lewis continued: “You got to get the feel of the route. Those guys like Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green — they are taller guys, so they like to go up and get it. You might face a smaller guy like Brandin Cooks (or) Golden Tate who likes the back shoulder. You just got to know.”

But what happens if teams change up their tendencies?

“You’ll know. Teams don’t change,” Lewis said. “They feel like their guys are the best. You just got to understand it.”

During Friday’s preseason win over the St. Louis Rams, Jean-Baptiste was able to stay in phase when he gave up a 24-yard touchdown to Steadman Bailey.

Despite remaining in lockstep with Bailey and being in position to make a play on the ball, Jean-Baptiste played Bailey’s hands as the pass arrived. It wasn’t what the coaching staff wanted to see.

“The common error that a lot of defensive backs make: They get to the top of the route and they want to stay in defensive mode,” McGriff said. “That defensive back that doesn’t turn and look for the ball and continues to play defensive back and never turns in to the receiver, it’s going to be hard for him to take the football away on a deep ball.”

McGriff has already talked to Jean-Baptiste about the touchdown reception and what he could do better. The play during Tuesday’s practice will likely come up in the next film session.

These are viewed as good mistakes. It’s still early in the preseason and Jean-Baptiste, who is considered a raw prospect, has demonstrated hunger for improvement. McGriff is impressed with how far he’s come along in such a short period of time, and noted that Jean-Baptiste’s instincts are starting to show up as he gains more confidence.

“He’s becoming more and more aware every session,” McGriff said. “You can see his instincts coming out. ... It’s a marathon. It’s not something that is going to happen right away. At some point, we’re going to get to the finish line.”

The Saints hope that Jean-Baptiste arrives in phase. And you’ll know if he was successful because his head will be turned as he crosses the finish line.