What Lewis Cine Brings To the Vikings’ Defense

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, the Vikings selected Harrison Smith at the tail end of the first round of the draft. Reknowned for his toughness, smarts, and hard hitting, Smith may not have been the first safety taken in the draft, but the six-time Pro Bowler (and counting!) wound up as one of the best defensive backs in football over the past 10 years.

Fast forward a decade later, and the Vikings have again drafted a safety at the tail end of the first round. Again that safety is reknowned for his toughness, smarts, and hard-hitting. And again the Vikings are hoping that safety can live up to his potential as an all-world defensive back.

In drafting Lewis Cine with his first pick, Vikings’ general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah put his stamp on the franchise: This is a defense built from the top down, where three of the first five picks are invested in the secondary. It’s a defense that hopes to diagnose quickly, close even quicker, and hit like a freight train. Most of all, it’s a defense that aims to win championships.

Here is what the Vikings are getting in Cine:

Legalized VIolence

When asked what he loves about playing safety in his introductory Vikings presser, Cine was candid:

The fact that I can be all-out physical. …Football’s a violent game. A lot of things you do in football you can’t do in the outside world. …I love that fact.

That level of bloodlust will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Cine’s film.

Playing from a two-high alignment in the National Championship, Cine quickly reads the stretch run, comes screaming down into the fit, and levels the running back, mean-mugging him as he gets back on his feet.

Those hits are littered all throughout his tape. This is a heat-seeking missle of a man who revels in the violence of the sport.

Of the thousand-plus plays I watched that Cine was involved in, that first play might be my favorite, because it demonstrates (1) just how quick Cine is to read concepts and trigger downhill — he begins bursting towards the flat before the quarterback even begins to start looking at the intended receiver, (2) how much grass Cine can cover, making a tackle in the flat despite start 15 yards deep as a single-high safety and (3) just what an enforcer he is. When he triggers downhill, he makes sure opposing offenses will feel it. Literally.

And as Cine’s celebration on that last play above shows, this is a player who relishes contact. Against a pulling tackle with more than 100 lbs. on him, he will still eagerly and maniacally lower his shoulder into contact — and shove them afterwards for good measure. Against a pulling center barrelling upfield, he will still try to tackle the ballcarrier by running right through the offensive line.

But don’t mistake Cine’s quick trigger and explosive closing speed for recklessness: He’s a homing missile, not Andrew Sendejo. Legality is half of “legalized violence,” and Cine makes sure he hits the right way. To that end, his tackling was not penalized once last year, despite leading the Georgia defense in tackles as a safety.

Explosive Range

And that same explosive closing burst also translates into explosive sideline-to-sideline range. Just take this play from the National Championship:

On 3rd and 3, Alabama runs a split-motion play-action crosser. Against most college defenses and most defenders, this would be an automatic first down, as the backers have to respect the run given the down and distance, which creates easy space for the wide receiver slicing across the grain backside. And at the same time, the defenders have to weave through a lot of traffic across the formation to catch up to the receiver with a head start.

But Georgia was no normal college defense, and Cine is no normal defender. Cine instantly reads the third-down play, likely recognizing it from his tape study, immediately triggers across the field to carry the receiver, then homes in and wraps up to tackle the receiver — not just short of the first down marker, but behind the line of scrimmage. Plays like that are exactly why Cine stood out even on a star-studded defense to earn defensive MVP at the National Championship.

Although Cine primarily lined up as the boundary safety in Kirby Smart and Dan Lenning’s scheme, don’t let that fool you — he’s more than capable of playing center fielder, with all the range of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

On the first play, Cine makes the tackle on the swing pass despite starting all the way from the far hash. On the next two plays, he is able to minimize potential yards after the catch by covering a ton of ground in a flash. The final play is a reverse screen, where Cine goes all the way to the near hash to cover the rollout, yet still is able to reverse course and make it all the way to the far sideline in the blink of an eye to prevent the touchdown.

Speaking of the blink of an eye, Cine ran his 10-yard split (the first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash) in 1.45 seconds — the fastest of any player in the draft this year, and tied for the fastest of any safety since at least 1999. While Cine also ran a blazing-fast 4.38-second 40-yard dash, it’s those first 10 yards that matter on the field the most. Those measurements help explain how Cine covers so much ground so fast, and why he hits so hard despite weighing just 200 lbs.

But that elite burst isn’t the only reason Cine can cover so much ground. The fastest bullet won’t matter if you aren’t the first to pull the trigger, but Cine combines that shot-out-of-a-cannon speed with great play recognition and a quick trigger:

Each of these plays show just how explosive Cine is coming downhill, but equally impressive is how quickly he reads the screen concept on the first pass or how quickly he reads the route break on the second and third plays. When you combine that elite athleticism with great instincts, you have the recipe for what could become a very special player.

Film Junkie, Problem Solver

When Cine was asked about the prospect of teaming up with Harrison Smith, he said, “He’s a film junkie, and I see the same in myself. So I think we’re going to get along real well.” Then when asked about how he was able to line up all over the field in Georgia, Cine added:

I watched a whole lot of film. I took care of my craft the right way, and it showed on the football field. …In terms of the versatility that I brought UGA, that came with me being smart and watching a whole lot of film and being a student of the game.

Take this play from a regular-season game against Alabama, where Cine is lined up as the Cover 2 boundary safety:

Alabama is running a nefarious variation of Yankee (a shot play featuring a deep post and crosser underneath), while Georgia is running a man-match Cover 2 (you can tell it’s man coverage because the weak hook linebacker green dogs while the nickel carries the slot receiver across the formation into the flat). What makes this Yankee variation so tricky is that it combines the typical deep crossing route with a post-corner route instead of the typical post route. Essentially, it sets the defensive backs up to worry about giving up that deep post route, while instead running a double move designed to clear space for the crosser underneath.

The boundary corner takes the cheese, as you can see him peel off the crossing route on the bottom to take a post route that never arrives, leaving him in no man’s land. But Cine is not fooled, having studied not just Yankee but all its permutations, so he drives on the crossing route to take away the primary read and force an errant checkdown from the QB, covering up for his teammate’s mistake.

At his introductory presser, Cine described himself as “a problem solver.” The play above is one example. Here’s another:

Arkansas is trying to take a deep shot here on the rollout smash concept (quick hitch with a vertical route over the top). Georgia is defending with a Cover 6 play call: The field-side safety should carry the No. 2 receiver vertically, while the boundary corner on the playside should recognize the quick hitch and look to help on the vertical route over the top.

The only problem is neither defender recognizes any of that. Luckily for Georgia, Cine does. And as soon as he sees the Arkansas quarterback roll out, he’s free to abandon his deep-half responsibility to cover for his teammates’ mistakes. But Cine still has to turn around and get from his half-field landmark between the numbers and near hash all the way across the far hash upfield to catch a receiver with a running start.

There aren’t many safeties with both the play recognition and elite range to take away that route. But Cine is one of them. As a result, what should have been a wide-open 65-yard touchdown winds up as just a six-yard catch as the quarterback is forced to come off his primary read. That’s what a problem solver like Cine can do for your defense.

Cine’s dedication in the film room also shows by just how quickly he reads routes and concepts.

The first play was a big third-down stop caused both by how quickly Cine reads the mesh concept and by how quickly Cine explodes to the receiver to stop them in their tracks. The second play is in off-man coverage, where Cine immediately reads the receiver’s rounded route and triggers downhill, earning a big pass breakup. The third play comes from a Cover 2 alignment where the quarterback wants to hit the dig route in the middle of the field, but Cine is able to read the route and immediately close in on it, forcing the QB off his read to instead settle for an errant checkdown pass. And the last play similarly features Cine breaking on a receiver’s route simultaneously with the receiver’s break, enabling him to clamp down on the receiver.

Cine’s tape study also shows by how well he communicates to his teammates on the field. Take this next play:

When Tennesse motions the tight end across the formation, Cine energetically signals to the field-side safety that he has to come over to cover that No. 3 receiver vertically or else Tennessee will have a wide open touchdown. The field-side safety eventually gets the message, covering the No. 3 receiver just long enough for the QB to test Cine in coverage, who undercuts the route and walks away with an incompletion.

And as smart as Cine is in coverage, his intelligence equally shines through on run plays.

For such an explosive player, Cine can be uncommonly patient in run defense, dutifully filling his gap and reading his keys — as he does on the first play, plugging the big hole that opens up on the split zone run, and as he does on the second play, filling his gap while also being ready to catch the back when he tries to bounce the run outside. Contrast that patience with the third play, where Cine triggers downhill from quarters, reading and inserting outside the pulling center, or the fourth play, where Cine steals a run stop by bursting behind and inside the offensive line.

Cine also knows how to take on blocks: at 6’2¼”, with 32½” arms — well above average for a safety — he is able to stack many would-be blockers and shed them with ease to make the tackle.

All that run defense is particularly important for Ed Donatell’s scheme, where safeties are most often deployed in split safety configurations where they need to process run action and trigger downhill fast enough to fill gaps despite lining 12-plus yards off the ball. When a safety can instantly and reliably fill their gaps from deep like Cine can, it enables the defense to pour more resources into coverage to stop the pass.

Playmaking Potential

Cine led Georgia’s star-studded championship defense last year with 10 pass breakups. And given his plus instrincts, elite range, and long arms, his talent at the catch point should come as no surprise.

As these plays demonstrate, Cine is fantastic at locating and attacking the ball in the air. His quick trigger, elite recovery, and closing speed help him contest catches, and his size and length allow him to rip the ball out at the catch point.

Cine has been knocked for not producing more as a playmaker, with only one interception over the last two years (which came gift-wrapped on this arm punt). But the truth is Cine doesn’t leave many plays on the field. After watching every snap Cine played last year, the only play that stood out as a potential dropped interception was the play below:

And even here, it’s just impressive Cine was able to drive into the passing lane and get his hands on the high fade.

Cine has all the tools you would want in a ballhawk: burst, range, instincts, savvy, length. Cine didn’t always get to put those tools to best use at Georgia, where he was so often covering for his teammates’ mistakes or rallying to underneath throws as a boundary safety, so his playmaking ability may have gone underrated in the draft. But he’ll get much more opportunity to make plays at the NFL level, particularly in Donatell’s scheme where safeties are designed to jump routes and create turnovers.

And speaking of Cine’s potential: As much as he has the traits to be a great zone defender in the NFL with his play recognition and range, Cine also has seriously underrated potential as a future man-coverage defender.

You could make a good case that this was Cine’s most impressive play in coverage all of last year. The five-man blitz leaves Cine one-on-one against the Alabama wide receiver running a smash concept to the boundary — except Cine’s defender isn’t running a corner route but a corner-comeback route. Starting with some cusion helps, but Cine still easily flips his hips upfield to carry the receiver vertically. And Cine is savvy enough to notice his receiver turning his head back early, which tips Cine off to the potential comeback — so when the receiver starts gearing down towards the ball, Cine is mirroring him right in lockstep. For the coup de grâce, Cine is able to use his length to punch the ball right out of the receiver’s bread basket at the catch point.

And it’s not just that one play, either. Last year Cine showed flashes of being able to man up against receivers and tight ends at a high level.

Cine’s ability to mirror the tight end’s two-way go in the first play before punching the ball out at the catch point is particularly impressive for a safety. The next few plays prove Cine is capable of matching up with tight ends in the slot, with the speed and fluidity to blanket both vertical routes up the seam and Y-cross routes breaking across the field. On the final play, Cine is tasked with defending a slot fade against a wide receiver who ran a verified 4.31 40-yard dash. Though Cine looks to be initially beat, he’s still able to recover, get his head back, and get his hand on the ball to force the incompletion.

Some scouts have described Cine’s hips as a little stiff and rigid — and his occasional late breaks on the ball do sometimes give off that impression — but closer inspection reveals Cine has surprisingly fluid hips.

Both of these plays showcase a particularly impressive speed turn Cine is able to make while having to defend a post route with zero inside help. Thanks in large part to that hip fluidity, Cine is able to recover and make a play on the ball to force the incompletion on both plays. Cine may still need a lot of refining before he’s ready to man up against the NFL’s best receivers, but with hips like that, he at least has the tools to potentially develop into a solid defender in man coverage.

As primarily a deep safety for Georgia, Cine didn’t get many opportunities to play press-man coverage. But when he did, the results were pretty impressive.

Cine’s patient ability to mirror the release in the first play is particularly impressive. His feet are light, rapid, and active; his hips are square to the receiver without opening up prematurely; and he even punches well with his opposite hand as he opens his hips to carry the receiver upfield. For a player who didn’t get to deploy it much, Cine’s few reps in press look surprisingly advanced. He may have the opportunity to put that technique to much more use in the NFL, perhaps as a big nickel safety matching up against tight ends.

And so long as we are talking about Cine’s potential, it’s worth noting that while Cine didn’t get to blitz much at Georgia, he made the most of every time he got to.

That same burst that makes him so explosive when coming downhill and so rangy in coverage also gives him an opportunity to get after the quarterback. Add in his size, length, and savvy, and Cine will have an opportunity to be a much more productive blitzer in Minnesota than he was in college.

Room for Improvement

All that praise and potential notwithstanding, there is a reason Cine lasted until the end of the first round — even if the Vikings and at least one other team had a mid-first-round grade on him.

The first and most obvious weakness is that Cine is pretty lanky. Despite having a 6’2¼” height, ranking in the 93rd percentile among NFL safeties, Cine weighed in at the combine at just 200 lbs., which ranks in just the 20th percentile. The height and length may help at the catch point or when stacking blockers, but without the corresponding bulk, Cine can often struggle to bring bigger bodies down. Compounding the issue is Cine’s occasional bad habit of tackling too high, which enables ballcarriers to lower their shoulder and drag Cine along for the ride.

Also, a skinnier frame can often spell trouble for staying healthy down the road — though that concern is alleviated by the fact that Cine never missed a game at Georgia despite his aggressive tackling style.

Other than that skinny frame, Cine’s main weaknesses all stem from occasional overaggression. Cine’s aggresiveness serves him very well when triggering downhill against the run or clicking and closing on a receiver, but it can also get him in trouble — particularly when he overestimates his own speed in his angles coming downhill.

As fast as Cine is, he will often write checks with his pursuit angles that his body can’t cash, leaving him without enough runway to make the tackle. The good angles Cine takes still greatly outnumber the overly confident angles, and it’s an issue that can be coached out. But for a player with a very well-rounded game, it’s perhaps his most common vice.

That overweening aggression also frequently results in Cine biting too hard on play action or jumping the wrong route. Cine is smart enough to be right much more often than he is wrong. But when he’s wrong, he’s really wrong.

Cine’s elite recovery speed can sometimes bail him out of misreads, and his coverage instincts should get better with more experience, but it’s a dangerous weakness to have in a player designed to be his team’s last line of defense.

On the flip side of the coin, Cine’s main issue, particularly in man coverage but also occasionally in zone, is that he can be too timid to react to the route break:

On first glance, these plays might look like an issue of hip tightness. But while Cine does sometimes show slight tightness in his hips and backpedal, he has demonstrated ability to flip his hips on a swivel. What’s really happening here is Cine is often just late to respond to route breaks. He’ll flip his hips too late to carry a receiver vertically, bite on a jab step, or just react to a route break a split second late, allowing his man to get open.

The good news with those issues is they are coachable, given that Cine has plenty of traits to be a good defender in certain man-coverage situations. The bad news is learning to confidently, correctly, and instinctively read routes at the NFL level is incredibly difficult, even for boundary corners where it’s their primary job. Cine may be a diligent worker and a student of the game, but he has a long way to go to iron out his hesitant route recognition in man coverage.

You Ain’t Cine Nothing Yet

Lewis Cine introduced himself to Minnesota at his presser with the exact same confidence he demonstrates on film:

I’m a problem solver. I can do a whole lot of things. …I can run. I’ve got the size. I’m smart. I can do everything — the whole nine yards.

And Cine is right. Sure, he’ll get cocky with his angles or occasionally tackle high, his hips and backpedal can look stiff at times, and he’s often slow to break on routes in man coverage.

But at over 6’2″, with an athletic profile in the 99th percentile and the fastest 10-yard split of any safety on record, and with developing coverage techniques and instincts, Cine is just getting started.

He’ll outrun you and outsmart you. He’ll spear you into the ground one play, then beat you with his erudition the next play. He brings an infectious, violent edge that the Vikings’ defense has been sorely missing the last two years. He’s a playmaker who always finds a way to the ball. He’s a homing missile who packs a wallop.

And he’s only going to get better at the next level.

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