As we go back, things aren’t getting any less complicated on defense. In an effort to counter ever more complex and sophisticated offenses, defenses have had to go deep into the box of tricks to try and peg back the advantage. This has resulted in intricate coverages often involving split-field concepts, involved disguises, and route-specific assignments, making it every-more challenging for a quarterback to read what is happening and where to deliver the football. Of course, it makes the job of profiling specific positions in the secondary tougher too.
Most defenses in the NFL can still be broadly separated into Cover-2/Cover-4 based zone schemes and Cover-1/Cover-3 based man coverage schemes. There are a plethora of other variances, and many teams run a full spectrum of coverages during a season, but we’re going to try and keep things simple, and these are the prototypes we will focus on:
Cover-2 CB – Charles Tillman
For years, the Bears ran the same defensive system under Lovie Smith, even as the rest of the NFL was moving away from it. The Tampa-2 is a system with holes that can be picked apart by modern offenses, but the Bears had a few special players that enabled them to run it expertly and overcome its schematic shortcomings. One of those players is Charles Tillman.
The basic principles of the Cover-2 or Tampa-2 defense is to divide the field into zones of coverage, with the corners responsible for the flats and shallow area on either side of the field and the safeties responsible for the deep. If corners don’t have to worry about getting beat deep down the field they can play shorter pass patterns much more aggressively and get physical where other corners can’t afford to risk that style of play. Charles Tillman is a master at this physical style of play and he brings it to bear on the run game as well as in the passing game. Corners in this type of system need to be able to play a style like Tillman does, relying on being physical and disrupting the short passing game, forcing teams to try to beat them over the top where safeties lie in wait.
Tillman is a master at disrupting short routes and punishing players with the football, with the ability to time a punch directly on the football as he tackles them and force a fumble almost at will. He is also better in coverage than people want to give him credit for — as one of the few players to give Randy Moss trouble in his first stint with the Vikings, Tillman has also limited Calvin Johnson better than anybody. Charles Tillman embodies the physical Cover-2 corner.
Alternate Prototypes: Tim Jennings, Brandon Flowers
Cover-1 CB – Darrelle Revis
The crown of ‘Shutdown Corner’ remains in the possession of Darrelle Revis until we see otherwise, but he has a very real contender in the form of Richard Sherman. Both players have an ability to track receivers one-on-one and blanket them in coverage. While corners playing zone will usually have their eyes in the backfield, corners playing man coverage need to read the receiver, and often have their backs to the quarterback, only reacting to the football when they see the receiver adjust and only playing the ball at the last possible moment.
This is especially tough on deep patterns, when these corners have to match a receiver’s release, run with him downfield, turn and locate the ball and make a play on it all without losing touch with the player they are covering or allowing him to adjust to the ball first. There is no better player at this than Darrelle Revis, but with him out injured last year, Richard Sherman played every bit as well in just his second season.
Both players have mastered the art of maintaining physical contact with receivers but staying shy of the level of contact that will draw a flag from officials. This might be the most difficult aspect of this area of play, because in today’s NFL receivers are open if they don’t have a body draped all over them, so being within reaching distance is critical for a corner. Both Revis and Sherman are able to read receivers and feel when they make their breaks, allowing them to get their hands to passes and prevent completions.
Alternate Prototypes: Richard Sherman, Lardarius Webb, Stephon Gilmore
Cover-2 Safety – Eric Weddle
The most important attributes you need from a Cover-2 safety isn’t incredible speed or ball skills, it is discipline and intelligence – the ability to read his keys correctly and get to the right spot on the field. On most snaps their job is the same: get to and patrol a deep half of the field, a little less in the case of Tampa-2 schemes that will have the MLB dropping into the deep middle. In zone schemes the entire field should be accounted for, but the safety needs to be able to recognize the danger coming into his zone and react to it, rather than simply allowing it to unfold in front of him. A combination of route recognition and reading the quarterback will help these players make plays once they have gotten themselves into position with their drops. The Cover-2 safety doesn’t need the blazing speed or the linebacker hitting ability, their biggest advantage comes from their mental skills and ability to be in the right place at the right time.
The prototype for this player therefore comes in the form of one of the smartest safeties in the game, Eric Weddle from the Chargers. Though his team runs a full spectrum of coverages, and is not strictly a Cover-2 team, Weddle is exactly what a team playing that defense would look for. He is athletic, disciplined, strong against the run, and smart enough to stick to his assignment and trust the scheme. He makes more plays by being in the right place at the right time than by freelancing and trusting his athleticism.
Alternate Prototypes: Harrison Smith, Devin McCourty
Cover-1 Strong Safety – T.J. Ward
Teams that run man coverage schemes primarily also divide the responsibilities of their safeties. If you are trusting your corners to maintain man coverage then you don’t need to assign two safeties to helping them out over the top when you could use just one and employ the other closer to the line of scrimmage. There are obviously exceptions to that, and many teams run a coverage called ‘two man-under’ or some variant of that in which the underneath man coverage is supported by a pair of safeties controlling a deep half each, but that is at least the theory. When teams split the responsibilities of their safeties the job requirement and therefore the desired skillset of both players changes slightly. Teams tend not to have an in-the-box SS and a deep FS as interchangeable players, rather specialists who will do one or the other, with occasional crossover.
The SS becomes more like a linebacker than a defensive back, able to bring a presence against the run that needs to be respected, but the best strong safeties have mastered the ability to cover players in short areas underneath to shut down passes to tight ends, running backs, and receivers on quick passes. Those are the plays that move the chains and can kill a defense by a thousand paper cuts, and having an extra defender to shut them down can improve a defense massively. T.J. Ward is a real force against the run but he has also shown well in coverage at times in these situations, forcing teams to try and attack deeper on lower percentage attempts.
Alternate Prototypes: Tyvon Branch, Kam Chancellor
Cover-1 Free Safety – Jairus Byrd
While the SS in man schemes is a big, strong force against the run, the free safety is all about range and the ability to cover ground. The prototype for this position was for years Ed Reed, but now that he is in decline we’re forced to look elsewhere for a new one. Reed had the ability to bait quarterbacks into attempting passes that looked open, before covering ground with the ball in the air and breaking up a pass that was never really on in the first place. These players are usually tasked with dealing only with the deepest of passes. They don’t come along too frequently, but they can be game-changers in either direction depending on the safety.
Speed alone won’t get it done, and it was the smarts and ability to diagnose the play quickly that made Reed an All-Pro in this role for so many years. Even fast guys can only make up so much ground, so the earlier they see it, the quicker they can set off running to the right spot on the field, often the sideline from the deep middle, which is a long way to travel. There are plenty of players in the NFL with the same kind of athleticism of Reed, but they didn’t have the ability to correctly read and react, often taking false steps and nullifying their athletic edge.
The new prototype for this position is Jairus Byrd from the Bills. Byrd has exceptional range but also the ability to correctly read and react and take off to the right spot without wasting time on decoy movements. He has exceptional coverage instincts, and that is what separated him from the pack.
Alternate Prototypes: Kerry Rhodes, Danieal Manning
Slot Cornerback – Antoine Winfield
The slot corner has become a starter in the NFL. The more the league passes the more the fifth defensive back is playing and is now on the field for far more than 50 percent of snaps. The slot corner was once a place to hide corners who couldn’t hold up on the outside against the fastest receivers, but they have developed into something else. More often you will see teams move their best cover guys to the slot when they go to nickel, rather than putting their weakest link there. Darrelle Revis among others will track receivers into the slot rather than allow them an easier time against a weaker defensive back with a clean release. Slot corner might be the toughest coverage responsibility in the defense because of the range of things they need to be able to contend with.
As they’re closer to the line of scrimmage and the traffic of the business end of the formation, slot players need to be able to defend the run, make tackles, and stop yards after the catch. Slot corners aren’t able to control the release of their receiver by their alignment or by the jam often, instead they have to contend with a “two-way go” from receivers who can run routes breaking to the in or outside of them. That requires a quickness and ability to react that few possess.
Antoine Winfield is the prototype for this new breed of corner and even as he advances in years he is playing some of his best football. Winfield can practically shut down runs, screens, and trick plays to his side of the field, reading them like lightning and cutting below and around blockers to make tackles in the backfield. He plays the run better than any other corner in football, by a distance, but is still quick and talented enough in coverage to limit receivers in what they can gain in his coverage.
Alternate Prototypes: Casey Hayward, Chris Harris Jr.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam