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Summer of Spags: cornerback technique

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Looking into the cornerback techniques that we could see the Chiefs implement in 2019.

NFL: New York Giants at Miami Dolphins Andrew Innerarity-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to another day in the Summer of Spags!

Last week, I took a look into some of the alignments of the cornerbacks and safeties depending upon how the offensive personnel was implemented. That helps to create a foundation to delve deeper and get into more of the tendencies and techniques that Steve Spagnuolo and his staff could apply in 2019.

This week, we’re going to focus on the cornerbacks and some of the techniques that Spagnuolo, defensive backs coach Dave Merritt and even cornerbacks coach Sam Madison have used in the past.

As always, Matt Lane will be focusing on the defensive front on a week-to-week basis. His piece on nickel alignments and personnel is another in the series building up the foundation of Spagnuolo’s defense.

Let’s get technical!

Press

Last offseason, I discussed press technique — noting that a common misconception is that handwork is more important than footwork in press. Good footwork is the biggest key to disrupting timing and staying in phase with the receiver through the route.

Spagnuolo will ask for his cornerbacks to be very patient with their footwork, sometimes with just a single jab step off the line. Rather than trying to get quick depth in the route, the cornerback attempts to reroute the receiver and then react with proper footwork to turn and stay in phase with the receiver.

The above example shows both boundary cornerbacks aligned with outside leverage — or on the “outside eye” of the receiver — and both force the receiver to reroute their release to the inside where safety and linebacker help waits. As both receivers continue their vertical routes beyond linebacker depth, the cornerbacks flip their hips and punch the receiver within 5 yards. This flip and punch allow the cornerback to carry underneath the route while still on the receiver’s hip.

It seems simple to just “be in the way” as a cornerback, especially in the example above where alignment proved to be disruptive to the route stem. That jab and patience isn’t the only way to do it, though.

Spagnuolo will implement a “feather” technique instead of a traditional backpedal. Keeping the cornerback’s feet close together and close to the ground, he can take three quick steps to gain a couple yards of depth before flipping his hips on the route.

These shallow steps allow for the cornerback to follow the receiver’s break quicker. If the receiver releases on a slant, the cornerback can plant and be at the catch point quickly. If the receiver runs a fade, the cornerback can hit the third step quickly, flip his hips, and then run with the receiver down the field. The above clip shows the cornerback do just that—hitting his third step, then flipping his hips to run and carry the receiver vertically.

These two clips show that when Spagnuolo does utilize press alignment with his cornerbacks, he asks a fair amount of them from a footwork standpoint. Quick feet with the capability to mirror the release are paramount for disrupting early timing — something players like Kendall Fuller and Mark Fields have as strengths.

However, because the depth that the cornerbacks gain off the snap is minimal — and because Spagnuolo doesn’t always utilize split-safeties — he asks for his cornerbacks to also have length and speed to stick with vertical routes. Charvarius Ward has shown that he has that length and speed to flip his hips, stay in phase, and shrink windows on fades.

Zone shuffle

One of the things that jumps off the screen when you compare Spagnuolo to Bob Sutton’s coverage calls is the amount of zone coverage that is run. Spagnuolo runs much more zone than Sutton, and the zone technique of the cornerbacks is therefore much more important.

We will get into coverage calls and route distributions against them in the coming weeks, but what jumps out is the way the cornerbacks are oriented when aligned in a half-turn. With the inside foot back and the outside foot forward, the cornerback gives 5-7 yards of space and keeps his eyes in the backfield off the snap.

Spagnuolo uses a “shuffle” technique, keeping the cornerback’s backside parallel to the sideline and gaining depth by shuffling vertically. This still keeps the cornerback’s eyes on the quarterback while watching the route distribution of the inside (No. 2) receiver and keeping the outside (No. 1) receiver in his peripheral vision. When executing match coverages, this ability to keep the “triangle” in the cornerback’s vision is paramount. During his time at South Carolina, Rashad Fenton utilized this technique often, noted by the Chiefs scouting department after the draft.

This quick shuffle — again, with light feet low to the ground — allows the cornerback to trigger and plant to drive on underneath routes, as the above clip shows. Against an empty backfield, the route distributions to the strong side of the formation — in this case, the lower part of the clip — are limited. The cornerback reads this off the snap and doesn’t get much depth on his drop. When the No. 2 receiver kicks out to the flat and the quarterback throws the bubble, the cornerback is able to trigger quickly for a tackle for loss.

Just because the cornerback is aligned with 7 yards of space doesn’t mean that the underneath routes are open for easy yardage against this type of technique. However, this shuffle technique isn’t the only zone technique that could be implemented among the Chiefs cornerbacks.

Step-replace

Merritt approached some of his zone technique in 2018 a little differently than Spagnuolo has in the past, implementing a “step-replace” technique. Rather than the cornerback turning completely parallel to the sideline, Merritt had his players gain depth diagonally through this technique.

Aligning with the inside foot back and the outside foot forward — much like the shuffle technique — the cornerback uses a short stride with a small t-step (turning the foot parallel to the line of scrimmage) on his back foot. The front foot stays perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. This allows the cornerback to gain depth without having a plant foot leave the ground for very long.

In the above example, the cornerback once again gives 5-7 yards of space and works into his step-replace drop. After the receiver clears linebacker depth and a vertical route is assessed, the cornerback flips his hips and stays in phase with the route for a breakup.

The key to most of these zone techniques is giving enough space to be able to turn and run with a vertical route while still not giving up underneath routes easily. It’s not an easy ask, but as collegiate programs implement more match-zone schemes to stop the spread, more NFL teams are able to acquire cornerbacks with the skill set to run them. It’s a delicate balance between giving up too much underneath and being able to cover deep that coordinators have to discern and implement the correct technique.

Collision technique

Just because zone turns and spacing may give a little extra space for receivers to run doesn’t mean that cornerbacks can’t get physical. New Chiefs cornerbacks coach Sam Madison wasn’t afraid to get physical with receivers in his time in the league, and the above clip shows another technique that cornerbacks utilize in zone schemes.

While the clip might not be long — and before the NFL provided regular All-22 — Madison does execute some collision technique on this play. When cornerbacks are tasked with zone coverage that assigns them with coverage on underneath routes from inside receivers, they’re not absolved of any responsibility on the outside receivers. When passing the outside receiver for deeper coverage responsibilities, cornerbacks will often run through the receiver in a “collision” technique. By getting a piece of the receiver on the way to their actual coverage responsibility, the cornerback can allow the deeper safety more time to get to the boundary to defend the receiver.

In the clip above, Madison has his eyes in the backfield while dropping with the No. 1 receiver. He is able to see the No. 2 receiver peeling off into the flat and engages the No. 1, slowing the route while working toward the No. 2 receiver coming into the flat.

This is a skill that requires good route distribution understanding. The cornerback obstructing the No. 1 receiver could be the difference between the safety getting to a vertical and not getting to a vertical route. At the same time, the cornerback can’t be screened from the play, allowing a receiver an easy reception underneath. This is one of the traits that Bashaud Breeland has exhibited — almost to a fault with some double moves — and one that Madison can help teach this young cornerback group.


Moving forward

This is just a hint of what we might expect of the cornerbacks in Spagnuolo’s scheme. The Chiefs currently have a group of players — in my opinion — that each show an aspect of what will be needed in this coverage scheme. However, very few exhibit all the techniques that this defense may ask of them. That is why it will be very interesting to see which players adapt and excel in various techniques implemented in these techniques.

In the next installment of the Summer of Spags series, we’ll look at safety and some linebacker coverage techniques that the coaching staff could implement before leaping headlong into coverage calls and responsibilities in future weeks.