How to Read and React: A College Cornerback's Guide to Pre-Snap Pass Defense
The cornerback's world is a solitary existence. They live on the edge of the defense, not just out of the hash, but outside of the numbers. They get blamed for the touchdowns, regardless of if they expected safety help.
As shutdown corners take home big dollars in the NFL and get projected high into the draft out of college, so much of the discussion of the cornerback position revolves around just one facet of the game: man-to-man coverage.
Given that most colleges play more zone than straight man, the average corner at the FBS level has to do more than just focus on tight man coverage skills. From pre-snap reads to post-snap action, the plate is full for the guys on the edge.
The pre-snap reads start with the defensive call from the sideline. The call coming from the sidelines will match the personnel group and the down and distance. That's where the processing of information begins, as the combination of fronts, stunts, pressures and coverages are signaled in from the staff. The first step of the process is understanding one's role in the initial call.
Players that do not understand the original call are already a step behind everyone else.
With the call from the sidelines comes the offense's personnel grouping. Is the offense in a run-heavy set? Is the offense in a pass-heavy set? Do they have a player in the game that is a nearly exclusive run, or pass, player?
Which brings the corners to formations, the next step in the process. Much like personnel groups help indicate tendencies, formations speak to tendencies and favorite plays. Every game defensive players get personnel groupings and formations that the opponent has shown in the past. Coaches break down tendency to run or pass, play directions the opposition favors out of given formations and personnel keys that indicate specific plays.
As the opponent lines up, the scouting reports and cutups of the game have to be processed. Situations have to be communicated. Communication is key. Linebackers getting defensive linemen pushed the right way. Safeties alerting linebackers of added in-the-box players. Everyone working to get on the same page, in the best look to combat the set.
Including corners. Cornerbacks are the farthest removed from the heart of the defense, but the perspective they can bring, especially as teams prepare to snap, is a mighty one. It is the corners' job to alert crack to the safeties, linebackers and defensive ends when a receiver takes a cut split or travels in motion.
The corner starts the sliding process when a receiver crosses the formation and the linebackers and defensive line must exchange gaps to avoid being outflanked. In man-coverage it is the corner that must alert his linebacker or defensive end to alert jet sweep as the corner tries to get through the wash to the other side of the formation.
In addition to communication with teammates, the cornerback has reads he must make on his own based upon down and distance, as well as receiver alignment. While the called coverage dictates the general concept to the corner, the down-and-distance situation should play a significant role in how the cornerback plays his responsibility.
Essentially, Cover 2 on 1st-and-10 is not the same as playing Cover 2 on 3rd-and-4. First-and-10 calls for more rules as a team's playbook is wide open. Third-and-4, the first down is job one and protecting the sticks against run and pass must happen.
Situations where corners would usually give ground to protect deeper become more about stopping the immediate receiver getting the easy pass to the sticks for the first down. Third-and-7 turns five-yard drop zones into seven-yard drop zones. Third-and-15 turns those same five-yard zones into 10-yard drops where the corner wants the short pass so he can come up to make the tackle.
The same holds true for alignment. While offenses have extensive route trees and combination routes, the quicker a corner realizes they do not have to defend every possible route, the more effective they become.
A receiver cannot run a slant or a dig or a post from a cut-split position. Receivers pushed outside of the numbers cannot run quick outs, deep outs or post corners from the edge of the field. Through film study and scouting reports, corners can also decipher the most popular routes from a given alignment.
Alignment also applies to the corner himself, depending upon the down and distance, coverage call and the receiver alignment, the cornerback has to get himself lined up, too. That means playing inside leverage or outside leverage, press coverage or off coverage, four yards off or six yards off.
Sometimes that means altering the originally dictated alignment. Other times, it means operating out of the basic look. For instance, a corner back with run-force responsibility who usually aligns with outside leverage on the receiver, must change his alignment when the receiver pushes to the sideline in alignment.
The space between the receiver and the end man on the line creates too much area for the corner to cover. The options are align inside the receiver and squeeze gap to hammer play back inside to linebackers or exchange responsibilities with the safety, giving the safety the force and the corner the deep half coverage.
No matter how it is sliced, the cornerback's job is not easy. On the large scale, these guys know their mistakes create big points and huge plays for the opposition. In the micro scale, cornerbacks are asked to do plenty before the snap to make sure they put themselves in a position to make plays.
Small mistakes in alignment or down-and-distance recognition are what help create the big plays, before the ball is even snapped.
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