Shaping the Slot: Defense

| June 4, 2012

After last week’s article breaking down slot receiver prototypes, it’s time to look at the players who line up across from them as the nickel and dime cornerbacks.

With the slot receiver no longer an afterthought for offensive coordinators, their defensive counterparts must choose wisely when selecting a nickel back. He not only has to worry about covering the different types of slot receivers around the league, but must also take on added run stopping and blitz responsibilities. When you add it all up, the slot cornerback needs to be quick enough to handle great receivers and tough enough to stick his nose into the thick of the action.

Let’s take a look at the different style of slot cornerbacks that defensive coordinators are employing to stop the ever increasing spread formations around the league.  

 

Tough, Quick Guy

Examples: Antoine Winfield, Cortland Finnegan, Ronde Barber (in his prime), Ladarius Webb

The tough, quick guy is the answer to the Wes Welker-type slot receiver. He must be quick enough to handle the “two-way go”, but the best way to slow the Welkers of the NFL is to press them at the line–so there’s also a certain amount of aggressiveness associated with the position. It’s no surprise that the best slot corners generally also excel in run support as the skill sets overlap.

For years, Antoine Winfield has played much bigger than his 5’ 9” 180 lb. frame suggests. He loves mixing it up against the run and he’s often labeled as the best tackling cornerback in the league. His fearlessness makes him an ideal blitzer from the slot and he was at the center of the game plan that finally slowed down Michael Vick in Week 16 of 2010. The Vikings sent Winfield on blitzes 17 times in that game and Vick had no answer as he registered the worst game of his near-MVP season. Winfield is strong in all three phases of the game and may be the most well-rounded cornerback in football.

Ronde Barber’s fall from prototype to liability has him moving to safety for 2012. His 22 missed tackles easily lead all cornerbacks last year and the abnormally high total was very uncharacteristic of Barber’s game. In his prime, he was a perfect fit for the Bucs’ nickel package and like Winfield, he provided run support comparable to a linebacker. Perhaps he’s on his last legs, but at the end of his career, he’ll be remembered as a versatile slot defender.

Quietly sneaking onto this list is Lardarius Webb. His coverage grade ranked second in the league behind Darrelle Revis and he did a great job of limiting yards after the catch when covering the slot. It’s a tough task when matched up against players who specialize in making things happen with the ball in their hands, but Webb did a nice job of keeping plays in front of himself and making the sure tackle.

After spending the majority of his career playing exclusively on the outside, Cortland Finnegan found a home in the slot in 2011. He did a great job of using his quickness to break on short passes and he had his best year in run support since we started grading in 2008. We all remember his battles with Andre Johnson on the outside and it’s that same tenacity that helped Finnegan when he was asked to get dirty in the slot.

 

Big Nickel (Safety Covering Slot)

Examples: Antrel Rolle, Tyvon Branch, Patrick Chung (2010), Eric Berry

The “big nickel” package is the defensive coordinator’s answer to the more physical slot receivers, particularly the Anquan Bolin-types or tight ends. It takes a special safety to be able to slide down and cover top notch receivers, even though they usually struggle against the shiftier Welkers. The advantage is having a player who is generally more able to support the run, while being able to match the physicality of the bigger receivers. Despite the pass-first nature of the league, coaches still hate to give up yards on the ground and the big nickel allows some versatility when matched up against balanced offensive attacks.

The New York Giants love the big nickel so much they’ve made it their base defense. As Mike Clay points out, the nickel is becoming more common on all downs and the Giants are at the forefront of the move. In fact, with the past two Super Bowl champions employing exclusively five-defensive back packages during their championship run, I’d expect even more teams to give it a shot in this copycat league. Regardless of the Super Bowl title, Antrel Rolle last season showed just how difficult it is to play the hybrid role on all downs. He’s normally a capable run defender, but when forced to hold his own against heavier formations, it’s proven a bit more difficult. On passing downs, Rolle has to transition from playing like a linebacker to covering the slot. Again, it’s a tall order and Rolle’s poor season in coverage was one of the Giants’ weaknesses.

Perhaps the Oakland Raiders were desperate to replicate this prototype as they tried Tyvon Branch in the slot after CB Stanford Routt excelled in the role in 2010, but the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha to free agency necessitated his move back to the outside.  Desperate or not, Branch took to the new position fairly well while providing the expected strong play against the run. He drew Rob Gronkowski in man coverage in Week 4 and more than held his own, sending Gronkowski home with his worst receiving game of the season. Branch’s only blunders occurred when he got caught looking into the backfield on play action, perhaps not surprising for a player expected to contribute so heavily against the run. Despite the big plays, Branch showed the necessary speed, quickness, and toughness to become a slot fixture in the coming years.

It’s unfortunate that Eric Berry’s 2011 season lasted all of five snaps, as he may be in line to take the safety position to the next level. He appears to be well-equipped to join our final, most impressive prototype, but I’ll list him here until that spot is earned. Berry has the ability to play as a run-stopping strong safety or a centerfield-patrolling free safety, but his ultimate value may be playing close to the line of scrimmage covering the slot and making plays against the run. If he is given the opportunity and takes to the role, we may see the Chiefs become the next team that uses the nickel as its base defense.

 

The “Woodson”

Example: Charles Woodson; Failed Example: Nnamdi Asomugha

Mix one part cornerback, one part safety, one part linebacker and you have the “Woodson”. The Woodson is aptly named for Charles Woodson, whose unique skill set makes it work, and he has become the key cog in Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 2-4-5 defense. The Packers run the 2-4-5 as their base and it all hinges upon Woodson’s ability to blitz, take on blocks, and cover. He’s not the first player Capers has coached with that type of ability, as he used Carnell Lake in a similar manner when coaching in Pittsburgh and Jacksonville in the 1990s. Lake played linebacker in college while doubling up as a cornerback and safety in the NFL. Like Woodson, he often played the slot where his coverage ability, smarts, and toughness made him a perfect fit. Perhaps Lake was the inspiration for Woodson’s new role, though Capers’ use of five defensive backs on every down was certainly new territory for the NFL.

For Woodson, covering has always been a strength and in his best years, he was acknowledged as the best cover-cornerback in the league. As he has aged, instead of playing on an island, he has moved closer to the action and redefined the slot cornerback position. Season 2009 proved the pinnacle as he graded at +19.4 in coverage and +15.4 against the run. He successfully added “run-stopping linebacker” to his resume that year and 2009 should remain the standard for all aspiring “Woodsons”.

Seeing the success of the Packers, the Philadelphia Eagles tried to create a Woodson. Hoping to  duplicate Woodson’s outstanding run in 2009 and 2010, they signed the top free agent cornerback in Nnamdi Asomugha and square-pegged him into the slot.

Asomugha was a fixture at right cornerback (RCB) with the Raiders for years, rarely coming off his perch and almost never following the other team’s top receiver, a la Darrelle Revis. The scheme was simple, as Oakland played a lot of press man coverage to play to Asomugha’s greatest strength. Whether it was his predetermined location, outstanding cover skills or simply reputation, opposing teams rarely threw the ball his way. It was not until we started charting targets that we realized just how little action Asomugha was involved in on a given Sunday. While the great Revis was targeted 194 times in 2009-10, Asomugha saw a mere 57 passes thrown his way. Whichever team won the Asomugha sweepstakes was expected to use him in the same role: “go play RCB, and we’ll cover the rest”.

Instead, the Eagles put Asomugha in the slot and asked him to play a variety of combo coverages while forcing him to get into the action against the run. Perhaps his struggles were overblown, as he still had some value in coverage, but it was his poor tackling that was alarming and unacceptable for a cornerback playing on the inside. Asomugha’s 12 missed tackles on only 50 attempts ranked last among cornerbacks, and the first half of the season was particularly poor.

Perhaps he’s only a one-trick pony, though his one trick is very, very valuable in the NFL. If the Eagles are smart, they’ll let Asomugha go back to his more comfortable right cornerback position and find someone else to do the dirty work on the inside.

 

Conclusion

Run the ball, stop the run. The old adage has taken a backseat to “pass the ball, stop the pass,” but coaches are greedy enough to want it all. That’s where the value of the slot cornerback comes into play. As the league spreads out each year, the search will continue for athletes who are versatile enough to cover while not embarrassing themselves in run support.

 

Next up: The evolution of nickel packages around the league.

 

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