Tillman: Trapped Within, Not Made by Zone Scheme

Sam Monson dives into the tape and comes away thinking Charles Tillman might be the perfect Cover-2 corner, but he is not a corner made by the system by any ...

| 4 years ago

Tillman: Trapped Within, Not Made by Zone Scheme

Charles Tillman isn’t just the best Cover-2 corner in football; he is one of the best corners in the NFL, period.

Whenever people talk about Charles ‘Peanut’ Tillman, it’s always with some kind of caveat attached, or with a backhanded slight. Nobody wants to just give the guy his due without referencing the Bears’ system or his ability to force fumbles. “He’s the perfect Cover-2 corner”, “he forces fumbles like no other corner”, “he’s a tackling machine” are the kind of things you’ll hear. Well, let’s throw all that out of the window and look at the tape and his coverage skills, both within and independent of the Chicago defensive scheme.

In this article we’re going to evaluate Charles Tillman without mentioning the word ‘fumble’ from this point on.

One of the first thing scouts do when they start watching tape on a player is go straight to his toughest opponent. If he can hang with the best guys out there, the chances are he can play against everybody else as well. It doesn’t always work like that, and plenty of players are capable of showing up against good opponents and then stinking up the joint against theoretically ‘easier’ matchups, but it does at least establish a potential ceiling, and sets the bar for the kind of performance people expect.

Tillman made a name for himself among a certain section of fans in his rookie year when he took down Randy Moss, at the time playing for the Vikings at a practically unstoppable level, on an end zone fade route. Tillman was in good position all the way, didn’t lose the battle physically, and while Moss jumped higher and got to the ball first, Tillman refused to get beaten, kept one hand in there and ripped the ball away, earning himself an interception when most corners give up a routine touchdown.

That play was Tillman in a nutshell (sorry), and in truth very little has changed in the years between then and now. He still displays great positioning, footwork, physicality, and the ability to go toe-to-toe with guys too physically dominant for anybody else to handle.

When I started watching Tillman tape I started to realize that he was much better than I was giving him credit for, and I went into it thinking he was pretty damn good to begin with. What was clear immediately is that most of the receptions he was giving up were as a result of the scheme far more than his coverage.


People tend to think of the Bears as a Cover-2 team, one of the few still clinging to the Tampa-2 system by their fingernails under Lovie Smith, but in truth they ran far more Cover-3 than I would have imaged, and those were the plays that were getting Tillman in trouble, not because he couldn’t play like that, but because when quarterbacks recognized that coverage they simply threw short passes and picked up what that bail technique was giving them.

I decided to go back and look at every target thrown Tillman’s way in 2012 in an attempt to separate the plays that the Bears were gifting opposing offenses from those where Tillman was allowed to play aggressive coverage, and the results were interesting.

Of the 581 receiving yards he gave up last season, Tillman surrendered 327 of them when playing soft in a Cover-3 shell, usually with a bail technique as the Bears rotated to that coverage late. On 22 more targets, he gave up just 254 yards when playing either Cover-2, or man coverage.

As much as people talk about how perfect he is for the system the Chicago Bears have been running for years, the Bears were actually hurting his coverage numbers far more than helping them. When they rotated to their Cover-3 looks, which seemed to be as much about hiding the safety play of Major Wright as anything else – getting him in the box and away from coverage zones where he could do damage – Tillman was unable to get physical with receivers in the way that maximizes his strengths, and the way you see top corners like Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman do.

Not only does it remove the physicality from his game, but those Cover-3 looks also removed his ability to mirror receivers, especially when he was using bail technique having been lined up close to the line of scrimmage initially. Instead of squaring his feet to the receiver and reading his movements, Tillman was forced to turn and get depth, practically inviting easy completions on hitch routes or comebacks.

When Chicago did play to his strengths however, we saw something extremely impressive. His game isn’t quite the same as a guy like Revis or Sherman in that he still allows a greater completion percentage than they do, but the trade-off is that he just doesn’t get beaten over the top. Initially I thought that was because the Bears played such a large volume of Cover-2 that Tillman was simply never the primary coverage defender on deep passes, but re-watching his targets that really isn’t the case.

What Cover-2  they do run protects him in that fashion, but he was thrown at more than enough when playing Quarters, Cover-3 or straight up Man coverage, with or without a single-high free safety to help out to have been tested deep. In 2011, his last full-season of play, the longest reception Revis allowed was 53 yards. Richard Sherman was beaten for a long of 56 yards this season, but the longest pass to get past Tillman was just 28 yards.

I don’t want to hang my hat on that number, because there was at least one pass where he was in man coverage and did allow his receiver to get a step on him, and any single freak play can screw those stats for anybody, but it highlights the point that is born out elsewhere in those numbers. When playing in Cover-2 or Man coverage Tillman surrendered just 7.5 yards per reception.

He may give up receptions, but he is so quick to come up and challenge short routes that they rarely amount to anything. Of the 59 targets in Cover-2 and Man coverage, which I shall call ‘Aggressive Coverage’ from here on for the sake of flow, Tillman allowed only 14 first downs. When he was allowed to play in aggressive coverage he surrendered a first down on less than a quarter (23.7%) of targets. When he was playing soft that number shoots to 47%.

In this aggressive coverage Tillman is able to do what he does best, challenge receivers to beat him one-on-one. Cover-2 might be zone coverage, but that doesn’t mean he sits off and reads the quarterback until the ball is thrown. Tillman plays essentially man coverage within his flat zone, making contact with his receiver early and riding him through the zone until the ball is passed or until he hands off to another defender.

The ability he has in this scenario is eerily similar to Revis or Sherman: physicality bordering on illegal contact, fantastic footwork, and the ability to read and react quickly enough that they often beat receivers to the ball.


Toughest Task

If you want to get a good view of what I’m talking about, throw on the two games against the Lions from last year, and his two matchups against the modern-day Randy Moss, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. While other teams need to put two defensive backs on Megatron as if he was a gunner on the punt team, the Bears just sent Tillman to track him with the confidence he would get the job done.

Over two games, the Lions threw at Megatron 14 times with Tillman in primary coverage. Johnson caught five passes for 70 yards. Tillman got his hands to four of them, and was in position for another but it was picked off by safety Chris Conte. He was flagged once for defensive pass interference down by the goal line on a play that didn’t look much different to half of the other physical encounters the two players engaged in over those games.

As if to highlight the point we made earlier, all but one of those catches, and 64 of the 70 yards, came when Tillman was playing loose coverage in Cover-3 looks.

Johnson broke the all-time single-season receiving record by putting up 1,964 yards over the season, but he was able to beat Tillman for only 70 over two games and 14 targets. Tillman limited him to just 5 yards per target overall, and when he was playing Aggressive Coverage he was beaten just once over two games, for 6 yards, beating Megatron at his own game – physicality.

There was a play in the second game in Detroit that highlighted the matchup perfectly. Detroit had a 1stand-10 from their own 33-yard line. Chicago lined up playing a Cover-2, putting Tillman 6-yards off Johnson at the snap. Johnson’s route was a simple 5-yard square in.

Megatron quickly ate up the cushion as Tillman squared his shoulders and waited for his move. When it came time to make his break inside, Megatron tried to shake Tillman with a head-fake and hard step to the outside, but Tillman simply never bought it. While Megaton was throwing his momentum to the outside, Tillman was already coming forward to the inside, meeting Johnson shoulder to shoulder as they fought for position with the ball in the air.

At this point Johnson would normally outmuscle any other corner, and he actually beats Tillman for strength just enough for the ball to get through, past Tillman’s outstretched hand, to a catchable position. Just like he did all those years ago to Randy Moss however, Tillman continued to fight for it through the reception, pulling away at Johnson’s arms and eventually forcing the ball to come loose by preventing Megatron from securing it.

This is a route the Lions ran with regularity last season to get the ball in the hands of their playmaker and let him do some damage. Most corners simply couldn’t live with him physically and he would shrug tight coverage aside on his way to making the catch and some yards after contact, but Tillman is a different breed entirely. Tillman has the strength to make the initial collision a 50-50 event, and even when he begins to lose the edge physically, he has the experience and guile to continue to fight for the ball and force the incompletion.


Charles Tillman might be the perfect Cover-2 corner, but he is not a corner made by the system by any stretch of the imagination. Last season he was hurt by the defensive system and coverages employed by the Bears as much as he was helped by it, and when you really look at the tape you realize that Tillman is far better than you think he is.

Charles Tillman might just be Darrelle Revis trapped in a zone defense.


Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam



| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • ItsJustWerner

    Very interesting read given the exclusion of mentions on his “Peanut Punch;” a breath of fresh air. Looking forward to seeing an update(s) of sorts for the coming season with no Lovie and no Guru Marinelli. Maybe Tucker will set Tillman free?

  • JaTerrance Dwayne Young

    Great Article!!

  • Pulyx

    Peanut is a beast.

  • SoupLibertarian

    I’m a Lions fan, and I have immense respect for Charles Tillman. He’s the only corner I’ve seen consistently make Megatron a non-factor in their games. He should be taking Optimus Prime as his nickname, not Richard Sherman. (Tillman is too humble to do that, though).

  • Johnny Hatelak

    Finally the pub he deserves. Tillman has been ignored for years. Should have been a pro bowler for every year but two. If so he’d be mentioned as a slam dunk HOFer. Its really a shame. I also think Tillman’s team attitude, and his humble nature screws himself which really shouldn’t be the case. Sucks he gets punished for being humble and unassuming and about the team instead of the annoying self promoter Richard Sherman is. Great article! The Lovie Smith defense hurt more players than just Tillman. Urlacher for all his accolades would be even more revered than he is now, and maybe even mentioned as a better LB than Ray Lewis if he had been used in a similar way instead of running away from the LOS instead of towards it stuffing ball carriers and sacking QB’s. Tucker likes to play man a lot and blitz so I expect to see an even more feared team defensively than in the past. No more 100 passer ratings from scrubs like Matt Cassel or Matt Lienart by simply completing 5 yard passes all day long. Thank the football Gods! And thank you Sam Monson.

    • Connor

      Agree with most, but it definitely has not hurt Urlacher. His speed, reaction time, agility, and experience as a safety makes him the ideal middle linebacker the cover two. The 4-3 middle linebacker usually wont get too many sacks regardless of scheme thats used.

  • joof

    great article. I have tillman on my madden dynasty team

  • Mr. Lewis

    Sighs … I shake my head at the title alone of this article, I

    • Tom Brad

      It’s simple – Man coverage gives people an easy comparison because it’s one versus one. Zone coverage (as you say) means that critics/analysts have to take into account the whole scheme, it’s about how the zones perform rather than the man. This makes it harder to highlight ‘stars’ within that scheme.

      I don’t think this article was rubbishing zone defense, though. I just think it was meant to show that Tillman can also play man as well as the rest.

  • Arif Hasan

    “If he can hang with the best guys out there, the chances are he can play against everybody else as well. It doesn’t always work like that, and plenty of players are capable of showing up against good opponents and then stinking up the joint against theoretically ‘easier’ matchups” = Chris Cook

  • LightsOut85

    GREAT read. I wonder when NFL teams will catch on that physical corners are the only ones who can regularly beat these new breads of WRs? We still see the top athletes (for the most part) being drafted higher.

  • Mr. Lewis

    Why do we glorify man coverage so much?? It’s not all about being able to follow a WR all over the field and play physical man coverage, sometimes you gotta play a little cover 3 to stuff the run game or to get better matchups vs TE’s and RB’s. When you say Peanut is ‘Trapped within a Zone scheme’ you make it sounds like he’d be utilized better in a man based scheme … when this isn’t true at all. Yeah I hear your argument that when the Bears play cover 3 they give up hitches, comebacks and slants, and I agree that Peanut’s coverage grades and overall yards gained against him would be better if he was asked to play a lot more press man or “aggressive coverages”, but personally I think it would hurt the overall effect of the entire defense, you want to know one of the main reasons Peanut does so well tracking megatron a reason that you didn’t mention in this article, it’s that yes he’ll follow him all over the field but it does’t necessarily mean it’s going to be any kind of man coverage when he’s following him so Stafford still has to read the whole defense instead of knowing pre-snap that it’s going to be man.

    See in my opinion when you play all that man coverage that you (and everybody really) clearly seems to favor so much it gives opposing offenses so much more of an advantage, this is why Aaron Rodgers throws for 6 touchdowns vs the Texans, and why Tom Brady puts up 42 and 41 respectively against all the man coverage the Texans like to play, This is why Joe Flacco could work on his deep ball game with Torrey Smith from Tuesday to Frrday in preparation for a playoffs game against the Broncos because he knows he’s going to see Champ Bailey one on one with no Safety help at some point in the game, this is why the Pats beat the Jets 49-19 in 2012 & why Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr struggled in 2012, I could give you dozens more examples like how Peyton Manning and those old Colts teams used to always torch the Broncos but the main point i’m trying to make is that when you go and play all that man coverage across the secondary you get torched by the elite passing offenses and you’re really not going to win a championship without running into an elite passing offense so what good are you doing? Yeah you get to accommodate the talents of one maybe 2 elite man coverage corners but what about the other 3 eligible recievers??

    I’m just getting frustrated by the media’s (including PFF) obsession/glorification of corners that lock up in man coverage all game, I stated this before but you guys put guys like Champ Bailey, Patrick Peterson & Antonio Cromartie in your PFF top 101 but left off guys like Tim Jennings, Sheldon Brown, Brandon Browner, Ike Taylor or Keenan Allen. It’s not only that list though this is a real problem in the football community, I remember when Sherman and Revis were having their twitter beef Deion Sanders came out with a statement “there is only one corner that could lock up in man coverage all over the field and take a guy away, so that’s why Revis is the best” I slapped my forehead with my palm so hard that it left a mark, like why is the ability to play man coverage really well the be all end all for how we rank corners?? When you say Peanut is “trapped within a zone scheme” you’re suggesting that this is an inferior scheme when it’s really not, you didn’t mention that will all that cover 3 that the Bears play they led the league in interceptions and opposing QB rating, you didn’t mention that the Bears have had a top 10 run defense the last 3 seasons with all that cover 3 (8 man front).

    I’m just saying Sam it’s not all about locking up in “aggressive coverage” all day to compete/take away elite receivers, sometime you got to play some cover 3/quarters to take away over things and hope that the pass rush forces mistakes.

    • Joe

      Yes, but if you have corners that can play man, you can bring more pressure to the quarterback without exposing yourself as much. And getting pressure on the quarterback is the best way to shut down elite passing offenses. The Bears do it with a good D-Line and can have 7 guys sitting back in their zones. Other teams play man and bring extra rushers. When you get pressure it forces the offense to keep in some or all of it’s extra blockers to keep the defense off of their qb. They run a two or one man route max protect, you have guys sitting in zones or you have shutdown corners. Which is better? Neither. Both ways work and that has been proven, it’s simply a matter of opinion and coaching preference.

      • LightsOut85

        Not to mention, it wasn’t HOU’s use of man-to-man that got them torched, it was the fact that they had a poor defense (after Cushing left) & their depth wasn’t good enough once teams spread them out. There were mis-matches that would have happened regardless of the coverage they were playing. (That was a very poor example. The post tried to come off as arguing it’s not ALL ABOUT man, but it was straight up trashing it – which is just false).

        • Mr. Lewis

          See I don’t want to come off like I’m completely bashing man coverage because I’m not, I definetly understand the importance of having atleast 2 half decent to above average man coverage corners, I could list about 10 teams in the league that have absolutely no quality man corners and they all have horrible defenses, or teams that are forced into playing 90%+ zone defense all game due to their lack of quality man corners and elite passing offenses will torch that style of defense too …. Believe me I get it.

          I just have two issues that maybe I should do a better job of explaining, First thing is whenever a team has truly special man coverage corner what ends up happening is respective the defensive coordinator sits in cover 1 or cover 0 90%+ of the game, sends little to no safety help to that corner and tries to force teams to throw at that 1 or sometimes 2 special corners, we see this is Houston and with the Jets, and we used to see this with Nnamdi in Oakland. I can’t stand that philosophy! I just feel if I’m an OC and I know before I even arrive at the stadium on sunday that I’m going to see an absurd amount of man coverage across the board it’s a little easier to create favorable matchups or design man beaters with pick plays, or even draw up some double routes. It’s just an easier gameplan especially for the elite offensive minds and the upper echelon passing attacks.

          The 2nd issue I have is our desire as football fans to crown the guys that play man coverage all game and follows around the opposing teams #1 WR as the best at the position, there’s so much more to playing corner and there’s so many good corners that due to the scheme that their teams employs only play on one side of the field (Richard Sherman, Tarrell Brown, Sam Sheilds) that ball out and teams stay away from them, yet some analyst slight these corners for not going all over the field to track a certain WR.

          Most teams don’t have the Niners front 7 where every player literally can’t be blocked 1 on 1 so they could sit in 2-man all day, so teams are forced into some kind of 8 man front to play vs the run, and you need good corners to do so.

  • [email protected]

    Its not a sleight to talk about his ability to force fumbles. Every defensive coach in the NFL should be teaching his technique.

    • LightsOut85

      I believe the reasoning behind that was to praise him for his versatile coverage abilities, as opposed to it being “Tillman’s that cover-2 guy who forces fumbles after allowing the WR to catch the ball” (which may come across as “not good in actual coverage”)

  • requan

    its a shame that it took 10 years in the league for people to catch on about charles tillman

  • Andrew

    Lions fan here, and I love Peanut. He is such a baller. He is a top 5 corner, and arguably number 1. He is the only corner I’ve seen to hold Megatron in check. I’ve never seen a corner with such violent hands, and a knack for getting his hands in the right place. All-pro, pro-bowler, and in my book, a HOFer. Sucks he’s a Bear, but giving the man the respect he deserves. Darius Slay will end up being better than him :) Well, I have to get my kool-aid comment in their somewhere, yeah?