Why It's Harder Than Ever Before to Play DB in the NFL

Matt Bowen NFL National Lead WriterDecember 24, 2013

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 28:   Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys makes a touchdown pass reception against Mike Jenkins #21 of the Oakland Raiders at AT&T Stadium on November 28, 2013 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The standard fade route in today’s game follows a specific pattern for NFL wide receivers: vertical stem off the line of scrimmage, initiate contact, push-off to create separation and catch the ball on the back shoulder.

No flag here. Nah, not in this league. Just more high-fives and fantasy points.

Offense sells. I get it. We all do when it comes to NFL Sundays with big plays, points and numbers that are almost ridiculous heading into the final week of the season.

There have been more than 750 touchdown passes thrown this year and over 112,000 yards through the air. Heck, Peyton Manning just threw touchdown pass No. 51 on Sunday to break Tom Brady’s record as the Broncos poured it on the Texans.

I don’t think defensive backs stand a chance.

Now, there are three reasons why defensive backs get beat in the NFL—eyes, footwork and leverage. Look at the majority of touchdown passes in the league this year and I bet you will see a breakdown in one of those three technique areas.

What gets you whipped at the pro level are eyes in the backfield, sloppy footwork at the top of the route stem or the inability to maintain leverage. It can also cost your team points when you give up the deep one.

But how are defensive backs supposed to play with a physical style at the line of scrimmage, challenge routes or deliver hits that impact receivers when the game is stacked against them? 

Oct 17, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) during the game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not talking about grabbing, holding, pulling or safeties intentionally launching themselves into defenseless receivers in order to use their head gear as a weapon.

I’m looking at the defensive back’s ability to jam, re-route, bump, play the ball and hit with controlled violence in the open field.

That’s good, clean defensive football. 

Sure, the refs will throw the secondary a bone every now and then on a questionable call down the field, and we do see defenses such as Seattle, Carolina and San Francisco play at a high level. Just go watch the tape of Richard Sherman if you want a lesson in secondary technique. 

However, in the majority of games, the flag is halfway out of the referee's pocket before a safety even delivers a hit or when there is any sort of contact down the field in coverage. 

Look at 49ers safety Donte Whitner on Monday night versus Falcons running back Steven Jackson. That's physical football. Drive downhill, drop the shoulder and put the ball-carrier on the ground. 

A penalty? Come on. I don't see it. 

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Even if a defensive back drives to the inside hip of the receiver, gets his head around and plays the pocket at the point of attack to get the ball out, the first thing we see is that wideout looking—almost begging—for a flag to be thrown.

Has the game changed since I last played in 2006? Of course it has, and NFL offensive coaches deserve a lot of credit for adjusting the way they game-plan to fit the skill sets of today’s personnel.

Pro offenses have adapted to incorporate spread formations, there are more bunch/stack alignments than I’ve ever seen and the tight-end position has advanced to the point where defensive backs are in a nightmare matchup versus players with the size and talent of a Jimmy Graham or a Rob Gronkowski.

Personnel, formation, alignment and scheme: That's video-game stuff for NFL offenses with the amount of creativity they now bring to the stadium on game days.

When I was a rookie in 2000 with the Rams, NFL offenses were just starting to use more shifts and more pre-snap movement to create matchups. That was Mike Martz’s system. Find the matchup and exploit it with the best offensive talent I’ve ever been around.

In today’s game, that's expected. Spread the field, use packaged plays and go to work on the secondary with receivers that box out defenders at the point of attack. 

Nov 24, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) runs the ball against Tampa Bay Buccaneers strong safety Mark Barron (23) during the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

You want to challenge some of the top playmakers in the game like Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant and others? Then you have to use your hands on the release and deliver a hit after the catch. Let them know that you are going to compete all day long. 

I’ve always said (and still believe) that the secondary dictates the flow of the game. That shouldn’t change, but the NFL has to let these defensive backs play.

Until that happens, get ready for more points while NFL defenses try to catch up.


Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.