Colts' Rock Ya-Sin has gone from fearful to fierce when the ball is in the air
INDIANAPOLIS — Rock Ya-Sin used to live in fear of the ball flying over his head.
This year, he's learning to let go.
Take Sunday in Buffalo. The Colts were playing the Bills, with Josh Allen throwing to Stefon Diggs in their building as they've terrorized the league with since the beginning of last season.
On Buffalo's first drive, Ya-Sin dropped back in coverage on 3rd-and-18 as the Colts sold out to keep Allen in the pocket. The goal was to make him throw, and he did, on a laser to the man Ya-Sin was guarding.
Ya-Sin had such skin-tight coverage, though, that it allowed something special to happen: Colts safety George Odum charged downhill from his safety spot and jumped in front of the pass for an interception.
Soon after that, a 41-15 rout of the Bills was on. Odum was beaming at the post-game news conference, as he knew what freed him to make such a play.
"I don't think you should throw it his way in man coverage, honestly," Odum said of Ya-Sin. "I feel like Rock has developed a lot from the first game to now in becoming an elite player."
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Ya-Sin has come a long way from when he was the quiet kid who rose from Presbyterian to Temple to the Colts in three years, back when the game was moving so fast. NFL quarterbacks love to get in the heads of young cornerbacks, and the ones who faced Ya-Sin did that and stayed there for a little while.
As a second-round draft pick in 2019, Ya-Sin started 13 of 15 games and gave up completions on 68% of his targets, according to Sports Info Solutions. He gave up 10.6 yards per target, meaning on the average throw to the man he was guarding, opponents gained a first down.
The Colts play lots of zone coverage built on tackling underneath, so a higher completion rate is not the end of the world. Big plays are, though, and that 10.6-yard average started to do something to his psyche.
He started to struggle with penalties, panicking when the ball was in the air. In college, that led to 15-yard penalties a team could sometimes live with. In the NFL, pass interference is a spot foul. As a rookie, he was responsible for 11.4% of the Colts' penalties, the highest share of any cornerback in the NFL.
But the Colts continued to believe in his 6-foot length and physical traits from when he was a state champion wrestler in high school. He's been their only cornerback drafted on Day 1 or 2 since 2019.
He just needed to start believing in himself.
"It’s the same thing playing quarterback: You really have to believe so much that even after you throw that bad interception or have a bad game, that you just have to be able to line up and put the last play, last game behind you," Colts coach Frank Reich said.
"I think Rock has developed really well like that. As you all know, there are few players in the league that work harder than Rock. He’s a really gritty, tough competitor."
This year, it's coming together. Through eight games played, he already has five breakups, tying a career high. His completion rate allowed has dipped to 53.6%, a low mark in a league where the top 22 passers are all completing at least 61% of theirs.
Ya-Sin is still looking for his first interception of the season, but he's eliminated the penalties and the big plays allowed. When the ball comes near, he isn't reaching for jersey but instead waits for his time to punch at the football.
He's finally seeing in himself what the Colts saw from the beginning.
"A lot of times (in the past) I’ll be in good spots and then the ball will come, and I’ll be worried about getting beat," Ya-Sin said. "I feel like this year, I’m just not worried about getting beat.
"I’m just playing football. Competing.”
Ya-Sin's ascension has come at an ideal time. As the Colts have risen to 6-5 and in the AFC playoff mix, the secondary has struggled on the whole, allowing the most touchdowns of any team in the NFL this season. It's been a war of attrition, with Xavier Rhodes battling a nagging calf injury and starting safeties Julian Blackmon and Khari Willis both going on injured reserve.
When Rhodes isn't able to play, the burden at boundary corner has fallen on 2020 sixth-round pick Isaiah Rodgers, 31-year-old journeyman T.J. Carrie and Ya-Sin. Against the Jaguars, that meant playing Ya-Sin on all but one snap in the game and holding Trevor Lawrence to 16 of 35.
On Sunday, he rotated more with Rhodes back but was a cog in holding Diggs to four catches for 23 yards and two touchdowns, just fractions of his standard production.
It took two years, but Ya-Sin's mindset has shifted from defense to attack mode.
A kid named Rock has become the rock.
Contact Nate Atkins at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.