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.
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 1st–and-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.
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