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Good article on CB's...


Dirk Diggler

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Glad we have 4 of em...

Search for cover corners becoming endless

May 21, 2002

By Pete Prisco

It's third-and-7, and as defensive coordinator you are beaming because your defense has just made two impressive plays to force the opposition into this obvious passing down.

Your two shutdown corners, both guys with Pro Bowls on their resumes, have done a solid job the first two plays (both passes) mirroring the opposition's starting receivers. They have helped put the offense in a situation that all defensive coordinators relish, a chance to dictate instead of being dictated to.

A neck injury to Samari Rolle (21) was part of the Titans' CB shortage last season. (AP)

So why is this coordinator nervous? Why can't he be confident in the approach he's about to take?

Because he isn't comfortable with his extra cornerbacks.

And that's asking for big trouble. We all know how quarterbacks pick on the weak spot. You can try and hide this player, even doubling up coverage, but a weak spot will be found and usually exploited.

The quarterback will hone in on that player, fire a laser to a receiver for a 15-yard gain and get his first down. Suddenly that third-and-7, made possible by two outstanding plays by the defense, including the good play by two very good cornerbacks, is wasted because there isn't a third corner who can cover.

"It used to be one shutdown corner was considered a luxury," said Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis, a longtime defensive coordinator. "You could have him on one side and play zone on the other. And then it was a real luxury to have two, and it still is. But if you don't have more than two, you can be in big trouble. That's why you see such a saturation of young defensive backs in this league. You're always looking for the cover players."

"You have to have five corners now," said 49ers secondary coach Brett Maxie. "One or two won't cut it anymore."

With more and more offenses going to three- and four-receiver sets on early downs, it has forced defenses to stockpile players who can cover.

That's why the Eagles, who had one of the best trios last season in Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent and Al Harris, used a first-round pick on cornerback Lito Sheppard and a third-round pick on cornerback Sheldon Brown in the April draft.

Some speculated it was a case of trying to load up to defeat the Rams, the team that beat the Eagles last NFC Championship Game. Further, with Steve Spurrier and his spread formations now in Washington and many other teams moving toward spreading out defenses, the more cover people the better.

"When you look at it, all the big plays come down the field against your cover people," said Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. "You better be able to match up -- on all downs."

If teams have two good corners as their starters, it does give them a huge edge. Take the Buffalo Bills. They start Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield, two former first-round picks who are on their way to becoming one of the league's best tandems.

By having players like those two on the corners, it allows for many different options up front; a safety can come into the box for run support, which can help get a team that prefers to run on early downs off the field or into third-and-long situations.

"It does allow you to be creative," said Bills coach Gregg Williams. "Having corners like we have is a big plus."

That can also lead to more blitzing up front without fear of giving up a big play. So even for teams that don't have the great pass rushers -- and the Bills are one -- cover corners have a major impact on the pass numbers.

Rookie Aaron Schobel led the Bills in sacks last season with 6 1/2 and the team had only 34. But the Bills finished tied for 11th in the league in pass defense in large part because of their starting corners.

Yet teams are quickly finding out that even a pair of quality starters isn't enough. In San Francisco, Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster proved to be a solid duo last season. But the 49ers had major matchup problems with the other team's third receiver, especially against the Rams.

San Francisco's Ahmed Plummer is typical of elite cover corners as a high draft choice. (Allsport)

The opposition converted 37.1 percent of their third-down plays against the 49ers. When they played the Rams, the 49ers were sometimes forced to put safety Lance Schulters inside against the Rams receivers because they didn't feel comfortable with their extra corner.

That's a big reason why the 49ers used a first-round pick this year on Miami cornerback Mike Rumph. He is expected to be the third corner, which will allow Webster to move inside in the slot on passing downs -- a better matchup for him.

Several teams, in fact, move a starting corner inside in the nickel and dime packages, leaving a lesser player outside.

That lesser player usually plays man outside, which limits the qualifications for the job. Turning and running with a receiver are assignments players learn in the backyard as kids.

Now doing it is another story.

"We're all looking for them," said McGinnis. "But sometimes it takes time. You have to be able to put the player out there and let him learn. There are going to be mistakes. It's like the quarterback position. You have to live with the mistakes as they grow as players. But those mistakes are there for everyone to see. That's what makes it so tough."

Most starting cornerbacks are found through the draft, usually high picks with high expectations. Even for those players, it takes time. As for third and fourth corners, those players usually come in the later rounds or as college free agents.

Some spend a year or so learning the techniques, and then are thrust into their roles. A good showing as a nickel player could mean a move to a starter, although that isn't usually the path that is taken.

Take Harris in Philly. He's a solid nickel corner, and a decent fill-in corner, but the team obviously does not deem him a capable starter based on the draft in April.

"Third corners are third corners for a reason," said one NFC personnel director.

That isn't to say the jump to starter can't happen. A good example is in Tampa, where Brian Kelly was the team's third corner for two years and then beat out Donnie Abraham last year for the starting job.

Mostly, though, the extra corners are not starters for a reason. But that doesn't dismiss their importance. Good ones are a luxury that enables defensive coordinators to match up against the influx of spread formations, avoiding a linebacker or a slower safety on a fast receiver.

In 1999, when the Tennessee Titans went to the Super Bowl, they had a glut of cornerbacks. Coach Jeff Fisher had an outstanding pair of starters in Denard Walker and Samari Rolle and several quality reserves in Dainon Sidney and Donald Mitchell.

Three years later, cornerback is a major worry for Fisher. He lost Walker to Denver in 2001 via free agency and Rolle was slowed by a neck injury last season. Mitchell tore up a knee in 2000, while Sidney tore an ACL in the first game last season.

How quickly things can change.

"We went four-deep in 1999," said Fisher. "And there wasn't a major dropoff in production. Now our major challenge is what we do in the secondary, especially at corner. You have to line up with three or four of them who can play or it's going to be tough stopping people."

A lesson more and more teams are learning the hard way. Having a surplus of corners isn't a luxury anymore.

Just ask the teams that don't have them.

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I've read multiple artices in the Baltimore Sun where M.Lewis preaches the exact same thing. He feels his defense requires three cover corners, and considers the 3rd corner a starting job.

His prints were all over the Bauman pick, particulary when he said "we picked him because he can really cover". Bauman may not be tall at 5'8"-5'9", but at 188lbs he's our thickest DB, and they say he can cover those smaller 3rd/slot WR's.

Here's hoping for a replay of Smoot (rather than Llyod Harrison).

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