Rookie Damon Arnette trying to get up to speed at cornerback for Raiders

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Christopher DeVargas

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (11) gets tackled by Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Damon Arnette (20) during the second half of their game at Allegiant Stadium Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020.

Tue, Nov 24, 2020 (2 a.m.)

Las Vegas rookie cornerback Damon Arnette was in the spotlight on Sunday night, and that’s mostly because the Chiefs wanted him there.

Defending champion Kansas City made a point of going after the young defensive back, who was playing in just his fifth NFL game, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes had success targeting him in the Chiefs’ 35-31 win. But that doesn’t necessarily speak poorly of Arnette, as Mahomes has put up numbers against just about every defense he has ever faced.

Still, Arnette took to social media to defend his performance.

After Pro Football Focus reported that Arnette allowed nine catches for 110 yards in the game, Arnette voiced his skepticism of those figures:

Charting NFL coverage stats is difficult because only the coaches and the players know the exact play calls and responsibilities on each snap. A defensive back can give up a catch in zone coverage through no fault of his own but still get tagged for allowing a completed pass, for example. It’s difficult to assign blame, and Arnette may have a case against those particular numbers.  

Arnette probably took issue with plays like this. He’s technically in man coverage on Tyreek Hill at the top of the screen, but as Johnathan Abram is blitzing (No. 24), that leaves only one safety deep. Arnette has no help behind him and a lot of space to defend, meaning his first and most important responsibility is to not allow Hill to get behind him — at any cost.

So Arnette gives a sizable cushion, and Hill runs underneath for a pretty easy completion on 3rd-and-1:

That catch isn’t on Arnette. The Raiders got aggressive on 3rd-and-short with the blitz call and Arnette did his job. The onus was on Hill and Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes to execute, and they did.

Not to excuse all of Arnette’s poor plays, but there were also times he was asked to hold up against physical mismatches and struggled with the assignment.

Arnette logged 71 snaps on the night, nearly all of them lined up at right cornerback. The Raiders called a variety of coverages, switching between zone and man, but Arnette’s permanent positioning on the right side allowed Kansas City to dictate matchups against him.

The Chiefs took advantage in the first half by lining up Kelce wide to Arnette’s side and forcing the 6-foot, 195-pound corner to cover him. Kelce is fast and quick enough that a cornerback has to respect his ability to win with route-running, and at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, he had an obvious tale-of-the-tape advantage over Arnette.

On this play, Kelce ran a quick slant against Arnette in man coverage. Arnette is unable to make the tackle in space, allowing Kelce to spin toward the sideline for an additional 11 yards after the catch:

The area where the Raiders need Arnette to make his biggest strides are in the experience department. The rookie was playing in his fifth career game and it showed; he missed five games due to a thumb injury before returning last week, and Kansas City preyed on his lack of guile.

Late in the first half, Kelce ran a double move against Arnette in an attempt to  create a big play down the field. Arnette does a good job of reading it and not committing to the first juke; he stays close to Kelce on the deep route, but that’s when Kelce’s eight years of experience kicked in:

You can see in that clip that Kelce realizes the double move isn’t going to work and he’s not going to get open. Instead of giving up on the play and tipping his cap to the DB, he adjusts his angle and runs into Arnette to initiate contact; the rookie wasn’t expecting that, and since the ball was in the air, that contact was flagged as pass interference on Arnette. The ball was spotted at the goal line and the Chiefs scored two plays later.

That’s a veteran trick and Kelce is a star player who will get those kinds of calls. Arnette is a rookie cornerback who isn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt from officials. But it will come with experience.

Despite the mistakes, Arnette did flash the potential that prompted the Raiders to take him in the first round.

Here he is tasked with playing press man coverage against Hill, who is, again, the best deep threat in the league. Arnette gets his hands on Hill and steers him to the outside while turning and accelerating alongside the receiver. Mahomes throws a good ball, but Arnette is in phase for the pass breakup:

That was Arnette’s best play of the night, and it proved that concerns about his speed — which hindered his draft stock in the eyes of every franchise except Las Vegas — are probably overblown. If he can go stride for stride with Hill down the sideline and win, he’s fast enough to play cornerback in the NFL.

The Raiders need their much maligned defense to step up over the final six games, and Arnette is going to be vital to those efforts. The key for Arnette will be eliminating the bad plays — the missed tackles, the penalties, etc. — while turning out good plays with more consistency.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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