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MHR Football University - The Cornerback Position

MHR University

A couple of weeks ago I got this comment/question from MHR member studbucket:

"I am interested in cornerbacks and how they play the game differently.

There are basic differences such as playing tight or off the line, but I've also noticed some big differences after that.  Champ often runs with the receiver the whole time looking into the backfield at the QBs eyes.  Is this taught to CBs or more of a style thing for him?"

First we'll take a look at the position of CB, and then look at the question about learned versus inherent traits.  There are different types of CBs, different types of roles, and different approaches.

Click on "read more" below to read the full story.  See you below the fold!

Roles / aggr vs conservative

First, the main role of the CB is to prevent receptions and yardage after receptions.  In this respect, CBs are coached very differently.  Some coaches like the CBs to take a little risk and go for the interceptions.  Bly was brought up this way.  Other defensive backs coaches prefer to have their DBs bat down the ball and play it safe.  The thinking is that a missed INT can be tipped into the hands of the WR, and now the CB is out of the play.

All DB coaches want their DBs to be able time hits so the WR is tackled at the moment of reception.  Too early and you get a penalty.  Too late and a good WR will pick up yards right away (Marshall).  In my experience, the hardest thing to coach for a DB (at younger ages) is this timing.

Cover vs zone types of CBs

Cornerbacks come in two more flavors.  Those that "cover" (stays with a reciever through the route) and those who zone (typicaly not as fast, but able to be in the right place at the right time to make a nasty hit and cause fumbles).  All CBs must be able to do both, but any CB is more suited for one role over the other.  Coverage safeties are valuable in systems like Denver's, where man coverage is the name of the game.  The catch is that coverage CBs cost more, but the reward is higher too.  Many zone teams (like Cover Two teams) save money on the CBs, but are more willing to give up short and medium yardage.

What is a lock down corner?

A lot of times you will hear the term "lock down corner".  This is not a real term, but a media invention.  It simply means an elite CB who can cover anyone, every time.  Champ is probably the closest thing to a lock down in the league, if you believe (like me) that such a CB is a once in a generation anomoly.

Other roles

CBs rarely blitz or assist in run defense, but may be called upon to perform these roles in infrequent plays.

Lining up, and how it affects coverage

There are three (main) types of line ups.  Terms vary, so I'll use the terms we used in our program.  The line up goes far in determining the way the CB will cover the play.  Each has advantages and disadvantages.

  • Tight
  • On
  • Off
"Tight" coverage features the CB as close to the WR as the line of scrimmage allows.  It typicaly signals that the CB will "Bump and Run" the WR.  This means the CB will "jack" or hit the WR when the WR starts to move, then cover him closely when he recovers.  The advantage to this alignment is that timed offensive plays get disrupted.  It also slows a WR who is faster than his coverage.  The disadvatages are that the CB will get locked up in a run block if the play is a run, and if the bump is not well executed the WR will leave the CB in his dust.

"On" coverage features the CB a yard or two behind scrimmage.  This allows him time to react to pass or run, but keeps him close enough to cover his assignment.  Many zone CBs line up this way (relying on SAFs for deeper coverage), and this is the most common line-up for man coverage as well.

"Off" coverage is an interesting way to go.  The CB lines up far back from the line of scrimmage, perhaps ten yards "off".  In most cases it signals that the CB is willing to give up short passes, but doesn't want the WR to get away from him.  Big mismatches favoring speed for the WR will get this line up.  It is playing very cautiously, so as not to give up the big play.  Oddly, the best CB in the NFL (Champ) prefers to line up this way.  Most elite CBs do not.

Champ has such blazing speed (and the ability to seemingly defy physics by turning on his hips without slowing) that he can afford to read the QB and the WR from a distance, and still fire in for the hit/INT on short passes.  He covers the distance in almost no time, and uses off coverage to buy a second to determine his commitment on the play.  In longer plays Champ just uses his speed to stay on his target.

CBs and the relationship with other positions

CBs rely on the front seven to hurry the QB into making mistakes.  A good pass rush makes the QB get rid of the ball faster, and makes the job of the CB easier.  Most folks know that.

What a lot of people don't know about is the relationship between CBs and safeties.  Who do you blame when a QB gets sacked?  You can blame the OL for not protecting him, or you can blame the QB for holding the ball too long, or you can blame the WRs for not getting open.  But a lot of folks don't realize that a blown play by a CB may actualy be the fault of the SAF(s).

CBs make a lot of decisions based on "situational awareness".  In other words, the CB must know where his SAFs are before deciding to go for an INT, or to commit to an expected route.  Bly may go for an INT, expecting the FS to read the play correctly and to come over to the weakside.  But if a slot receiver made the FS bite to the center of the field, Bly may not have the help he was supposed to have.

In another example, Bailey may get caught in a crossing pattern.  He commits to a streak because he sees the QB setting his feet for a pass and notices both WRs racing for the endzone.  He also expects the only safety not in the box to keep his zone in the center of the field.  But if the SAF "bites", and commits to Bailey's man (instead of keeping the center of the field), and Bailey's man cuts in for the slant, the blown play looks like Bailey screwed up.

Over vs under

While in man coverage on a WR, there are two more considerations.  Do you play "over or under".  Over means you stay between the man and the endzone, and under means you play between the man and the QB.  Playing over gives you less of a chance of a big play for the offense, and a better chance to tackle.  Playing under is high risk/high reward because you are in a great position to knock down or INT the ball.

Coaches will consider the individual matchup, the score, field position, and other considerations when making the decision on whether to play over or under.  Here again, great SAFs allow the CBs more flexibility.

A brief word on technique

studbucket asked about Bailey watching the eyes of the CB and wanted to know if this was trained or natural ability.  At the HS level we coach kids to watch the QB as much as possible, but the primary responsibility is to stay on your man.  It is rare that a player can do both effectively.

I'm only guessing here (but I'm being honest too).  My guess is that Bailey's natural talents allow him to adjust with his target (also called a principal) while being able to watch the QBs eyes.  Most players start watching the target WR at some point in the play, and are coached to watch the eyes, hands, and hips of the WR to determine when the ball is coming.  This allows for the CB to time his move.

In theory a WR could fake with his hands, eyes, or even his hips to draw a hit or distract the CB, but the effort isn't really worth it.  Faking the CB is typicaly route oriented, not oriented on when the ball is coming.  The fake on ball timing is done by the QB by pretending to throw (called a "pump"), or not looking at the target (timed plays, a specialty of the Colts), or misdirections (a Broncos thing).


As always, please submit any questions relating to the Xs and Os of football systems, player responsibilities, formations, coaching etc.  Questions about the draft, FA, or salary caps might be answered by some of the MHR contributers who have more knowledge in those areas.

Remember, you're with family.  So no question is too simple.  If we don't know the answer at MHR we'll try to find it for you.  Thanks for dropping in to the University!