As we work our way back from the line of scrimmage, things only get more complicated. In an attempt to counter offenses that have had things go ever more their way in recent years, new and more complex coverages have been devised, often involving intricate disguises and split-field concepts. This makes it more challenging for quarterbacks to key in on what is happening and know where and when to deliver the football, but also makes the job of profiling players in any given scheme a tougher task.
Despite all of these complexities, most defenses in the NFL can still be broadly narrowed down to Cover-2/Cover-4-based zone schemes and Cover-1/Cover-3-based man coverage schemes. Obviously there are a myriad of other variances, but to keep things simple, these are the prototypes we will be focusing on, while touching on a few other things as we go.
Cover-2 CB – Charles ‘Peanut’ Tillman
The Chicago Bears are one of the most vanilla defenses in the NFL. They have stuck with the same scheme for years because it works and because they are very good at running it. The personnel they have managed to acquire and keep hold of allows them to run a base Tampa-2 defense. The fundamental principle of this defense is dividing up the field into zones of coverage, making it tough for opposing quarterbacks to fit the ball into tight windows.
Brian Urlacher may be the best MLB in football at dropping deep down the middle, and he allows the safeties to split wider than in a regular Cover-2, making them more able to help the cornerbacks over the top. Cornerbacks in this type of system need to be physical, tough, and able to help out in the run game in addition to the coverage responsibilities. Playing zone defense means that corners will often have their eyes in the backfield and be able to recognize and react to run plays far quicker than a corner playing man coverage with his back to the quarterback.
Charles Tillman has been one of the best at this for years, but he’s also a far better cover corner than many give him credit for. He enjoyed some success against Randy Moss when he was virtually uncoverable for the Vikings, and was one of the few corners to give Calvin Johnson problems last season. Over two games against Megatron, Tillman was targeted 25 times but allowed only nine completions for 130 yards, and no touchdowns, while managing to pick off a pass himself and break up another. He has the kind of physical ability to keep on receivers and contest catches throughout his zone.
Alternative Prototypes: Brandon Flowers, Brent Grimes, and Champ Bailey
Cover-1 CB – Darrelle Revis
While cornerbacks playing zone will usually have their eyes in the backfield and be able to break on the ball by anticipating routes and throws, guys playing in a man scheme have a far tougher job. They primarily play the receiver rather than the quarterback and will often have their back to the ball; relying on their ability to read the moves of the receiver to get a tell on when the ball will arrive and make a play on it. This is especially tough on deep routes, when corners have to match the receiver’s release, run with him downfield, and then turn to locate the football and make a play on it without losing the player they are covering in the process. There is no better player in the game at this than Darrelle Revis, who has mastered the art of maintaining contact on his receiver as he looks for the ball.
There aren’t many (maybe not any) players that can play as close to the receiver in order to maintain this contact as Revis can without consistently being flagged. He has the ability to shadow a receiver exactly and keep a hand on him, enabling him to feel the receiver make a break before he would see it without the contact, and that puts him in excellent position to influence the pass if and when it is thrown. Revis’ ability to shut down players in this man coverage allows the Jets to track an opponent’s best receiver with him, forces offenses to continue to target him, and frees up the rest of the Jets’ secondary to run more exotic split coverages.
Alternative Prototypes: Joe Haden, Johnathan Joseph, and Lardarius Webb
Cover-2 Safety – Eric Weddle
The single biggest attribute a Cover-2 safety needs to have is discipline. In almost every instance their job is the same: man a deep half of the field, slightly less in the case of Tampa-2 schemes. With rigidly defined coverage zones, the entire defense hinges on every player sticking to their assignment and not being drawn out by anything the offense runs. Maintaining the zones makes it extremely tough for quarterbacks to make plays by fitting the ball into tight windows. The longer a defense can keep the quarterback forcing throws into those tight windows, the better the chance is that the offense will eventually fail and have to kick the ball away, or that the defense will get a break on the football and pick it off. The Cover-2 safety doesn’t have to have any special physical traits, but is good at all aspects of the game. Their best attribute will come on that one square foot of real estate inside their heads.
With that in mind, the prototype for this comes in the form of one of the smartest safeties in the game: the Chargers’ Eric Weddle. Though San Diego runs a multitude of defenses, Weddle is exactly what a team running the Cover-2 would look for: athletic, disciplined, strong against the run, and smart enough to stick to his assignment and trust in the defense. He is also a very good Cover-1 safety, but he is perfect for the Cover-2.
Alternative Prototype: Kenny Phillips
Cover-1 Strong Safety – Tyvon Branch
Teams that run man coverage schemes primarily also divide their safeties’ responsibilities, using one as an in-the-box safety and one single-high free safety responsible for the coverage over the top. There are exceptions to that rule, and there are coverages such as 2 man-under, which assigns man coverage underneath two safeties, each of whom have coverage responsibility for a deep half of the field, much like the Cover-2 zone schemes. When teams split their safeties up and back, they’ll usually chase players with differing attributes rather than simply using similar players interchangeably. There are teams that will allow either safety to be the strong or free safety from play to play, but most that play with a recognized difference between their safeties have players who are better suited to one role or the other.
The strong safety becomes more like a linebacker than a defensive back, able to bring a presence in the run game in the box against large blockers, but the best ones have mastered a short-area coverage ability to shut down passes to tight ends and backs underneath. Those plays move the chains and can kill defenses, and the best strong safeties have worked at eliminating them. Tyvon Branch is an expert at this, and while he has been exposed at times when he has been asked by the Raiders to play in the slot and simply man up against wide receivers, he has been excellent against backs and tight ends, and may have been the only player to legitimately shut down the unstoppable juggernaut that was Rob Gronkowski last season.
Alternative Prototypes: Bernard Pollard, Kam Chancellor, and Adrian Wilson
Cover-1 Free Safety – Ed Reed
While the strong safety in Cover-1/Cover-3 schemes is a big, tough linebacker type that can still cover underneath, the free safety in these schemes needs one thing above all: range. Range is the buzzword for outright speed and closing ability with the ball in the air, but also encompasses anticipation and play diagnosis because the shorter the thinking time, the quicker these players can move to the right spot and influence the play. Because these players can at times have deep coverage responsibility for the whole of the field, the quicker they can read the play and take off, the better the chance they can get near the throw.
These safeties need to have the athletic ability to run down the ball while it is in the air, but they also need to be smart enough to read route combinations, read the quarterback (especially to avoid taking mis-steps), and anticipate where the ball is going to be thrown. This is the reason why Michael Griffin and Reggie Nelson have never become the studs their athleticism suggests they should be. At free safety in this scheme, raw measurable is not enough, you also need the ability to diagnose the play correctly and quickly, and not take yourself out of it by failing to do so.
The prototype for this in today’s NFL is Ed Reed, and there may not be a better player in the game’s history at doing it. Reed may have the best range of anybody, but that doesn’t mean he is the fastest safety ever to play. His coverage instincts are unmatched, and it allows him to set off quicker than anyone else and get involved in plays that few other safeties can think about.
Alternative Prototypes: Jairus Byrd, Danieal Manning
Slot Cornerback – Charles Woodson
With the league using more and more multiple-receiver sets, the value of the slot cornerback is only increasing. Once seen as a ‘sub-package’ player, many slot corners are playing far more snaps than the ‘two-down’ linebacker or nose tackle, and are routinely starting games as offenses open up with three-wide formations. The slot corner was also once a place to put defensive backs that couldn’t necessarily live with the speed of playing out on the perimeter, but more and more it’s becoming a place where a team’s better coverage player will move to in sub-packages. Slot corner may be the toughest coverage responsibility in a secondary because of the multiple roles that player must be good at.
Because they are in closer to the line of scrimmage and the meat of the formation, slot players have to be able to defend the run, and make tackles to prevent yards after the catch. Unlike perimeter players who can often dictate the release of the receiver by their leverage (essentially how far inside or outside of the receiver they line up, forcing them to release one way), slot corners need to be quick enough to react to a “two-way go” from the guy they are covering. That takes a special kind of quickness and reaction speed that few possess.
Since becoming the Packers’ joker on defense, there might not be a better slot corner in the league than Charles Woodson. Despite his size, Woodson has been able to live with the quickness of slot receivers and become a major factor in the run game and as a blitzer for the Packers. Rather than relying on quickness to defend the two-way go, Woodson uses his size to his advantage to slow the receiver’s release. In the slot last season, he allowed a QB rating of just 40.3 on the throws he was targeted on, and picked-off four passes from his 37 targets.
Alternative Prototypes: Cortland Finnegan, Antoine Winfield