One of the most difficult positions for me to try and analyze is cornerback. In fact, before last year, I really never tried to evaluate defensive backs in general. There are a number of reasons for this. The first and most obvious is that it’s incredibly hard to see defensive backs play on broadcast television. College football broadcasts are a little better in this regard because they use fewer cameras and wider shots, but for the most part, you can only see a corner or safety in the shot for a second or two (if he even enters the picture at all). Post-snap, the camera zooms in on the ball (either the running back or quarterback), so the most you can see on most plays is how the corner plays the wide receiver off the line of scrimmage. Combine that with up-tempo, no-huddle offenses eliminating dead time (thus, choking out time for the network to show plays from different camera angles), and it can be really difficult in general to evaluate corners.
Second, it’s the only position I’ve never played or coached in my life. I have a good understanding of coverage concepts and how they affect run fits (and the overall structure of the defense). But all I had to judge from a coverage standpoint was “did he run with the receiver or not?” No knowledge of what constituted good technique or why certain players were successful what actually makes a good cornerback (or one with lesser physical abilities) successful. The good news is that football information is more readily accessible than ever. You can watch NFL All-Pros from better angles with the Game Rewind service, where you can study their movements and technique and inductively reason as to what makes them successful (this is one of the major recommendations Matt Waldman makes in his piece on teaching yourself how to evaluate, entitled Losing Your Football Innocence). Further, there are any number of current and former players and coaches with in-depth blogs, forums, video tutorials, playbooks, and clinic manuals (many of which I’ll link to at the end) to answer almost any question.
As I’ve started to really pay attention to cornerback play, I’ve been struck at how many similarities it shares with a completely unrelated position that I know fairly well – offensive tackle. Both positions are often put on an island against a superior athlete who gets to move forward and work in space, while the corner/tackle have to mirror while moving backwards. Area pass protection is similar to zone coverage – both corners and tackles have to decipher which moving piece is their responsibility, while trying to remain technically sound. The more I read and watched, the clearer the connection between these two positions became to me, and I wanted to share my thought process for bridging them coherently from a technique and skill set standpoint.
Using Space and Leverage On the Field
The first thing an offensive tackle is going to check when going up against a good edge rusher is how wide or tight the rusher’s alignment is. This affects how deep the offensive tackle will set up, with the idea being to keep the rusher on as wide a path as possible without exposing an inside rush lane by setting up too far upfield. Similarly, the defensive back needs to look at the receiver’s spacing. The general idea is to force lower-percentage throws outside, where the corner can use the sideline as help. Both positions have situations where it’s appropriate to funnel their matchup inside to help, but this is usually specific and accounted for. In a vacuum, we want the rusher to take the longest path possible to the quarterback and for the ball to have to travel the furthest distance possible to receivers.
Pad Level and Retreating
Pad level off the snap is hugely important to both tackles and corners, albeit for slightly different reasons, but the common denominator is balance. Maintaining a low center-of-gravity is important to lateral agility. Both positions need to be able to bend in the hips and knees (requiring great flexibility) as opposed to bending and raising at the waist. Bending at the waist is a naturally unbalanced position, and the body will automatically correct itself by standing up and getting more upright - leading to slower change-of-direction.
The width of the base directly ties into how many directions and a player can move and how much ground can be covered while moving at awkward angles. Remember, both tackles and corners have to be able to go any direction (forwards/backwards/sideways/diagonally) at a moment’s notice. If you stand up with your feet at a slightly wider than shoulder width, you’ll notice that you can pick either foot up and cover pretty decent ground in any direction with one step. However, if you start with a wide base (say, with your feet at double shoulders’ width), you’ll notice that you can barely move in any direction because the lower-body is already over-extended.
Staying Square, Attack the Break Shoulder
This goes hand-in-hand with Point 3 – both corners and offensive tackles have to be able to move or re-direct in any direction. This is accomplished by kick sliding (for tackles) or backpedaling (for corners) with the feet working at diagonal angles and keeping the hips square. Opening the hips defeats the player in two ways. First, it reduces his surface area; he becomes a smaller obstacle to get around and it leaves more space for his opponent to get by. This is a huge reason why it’s so important to stay square, keep the feet moving, and not open the hips when pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage. Secondly, once the hips are open and the shoulders are turned, it vastly increases the distance and number of steps the body must take in order to change directions. The “break shoulder” refers the receiver’s closest shoulder to the quarterback. Using the break shoulder as a landmark will put the corner between the receiver and the ball. Same applies for offensive tackles – using the rusher’s lead shoulder as a landmark will help keep the tackle between the defender and the quarterback.
“If he’s even, he’s leavin’.”
The above quote is actually an axiom for corners that pertains back to offensive linemen. Most corners are comfortable staying square until the receiver gets within three yards. If the receiver gets inside of that three-yard halo, the corner likely won’t be able stay with him while transferring out of his backpedal. Hence the saying, “If (the receiver) is even (with you), he’s leavin’ (you in the dust).” By that point it’s too late, and the corner will be relying on length and/or recovery speed, similar to an offensive tackle that is too slow retreating in his kickstep.
Considering how many similarities these two positions share, it only seems appropriate that the corners as a position group and uber-athletic offensive tackle Eric Fisher stole the show at Senior Bowl practices this week. The cornerbacks in particular feature a diverse cast of big and small schoolers, and it’s been called the best group ever assembled in Mobile. The group has many evaluators diving back into game film. I’m by no means an expert, and I used a lot of generalizations, but I hope I helped you better understand a position that, quite frankly, isn’t very well understood.
More on Cornerback Techniques
The Saban Shuffle (Background)
The Saban Shuffle (Technique)
The Saban Shuffle and Pattern Reading