Why Defensive Backs Have a Tough College-to-NFL Transition

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJune 5, 2014

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The top rookie defensive backs in the 2014 class have the speed, change-of-direction ability and ball skills to compete at the NFL level.

But why do we often see first-year cornerbacks and safeties struggle early in the season as they make the jump to the pro game?

Today, let’s talk about the difficult transition process for defensive backs with a focus on technique, offensive “ID” and the ability to match the tempo of the game.


Technique Over Talent

In college, defensive backs with legit talent can get away with poor technique at times (and still make plays on the ball) because of their transition speed, overall athletic ability and the limited route tree they see on Saturdays.

This allows defensive backs to take false steps, sit on routes, grab and play with poor eye discipline because their talent level gives them an opportunity to recover versus college competition.

JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

But poor technique doesn’t sell in the NFL versus the speed and route-running of veteran receivers along with the arm strength and ball placement of experienced quarterbacks.

The majority of rookies usually lack the necessary skill set from a technique perspective, and it starts with their inability to play off-man.

This is where defensive backs will experience multiple breaking routes, deep intermediate cuts and top-tier route-running that includes a variety of stems and release points to widen defenders at the break point.

Footwork and leverage will often be exposed, and rookies find themselves in a trail position versus receivers (or tight ends) that prevents them from recovering to the point of attack.

And that’s when panic sets in—forcing defensive backs to pull, grab, etc. while failing to find the ball.

They need the time and reps to drill the flat-foot read (no backpedal, play through the three-step release) before getting into their pedal from an off-man alignment to maintain that initial cushion.

And rookies also need to work on their transition (plant, sink the hips, drive on the ball) versus the deep dig, curl and comeback to prevent receivers from gaining inside leverage to the ball.

In a press look, it’s often the hips that are exposed versus an outside release as rookies fail to slide, mirror and punch while opting to turn and run instead (called “opening the gate”).

In both press and off-man, rookies need to develop the specific techniques to pin, stack and create leverage versus receivers and tight ends who get paid big money to play football on Sundays.

Here’s an example of pro-level technique from the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman versus the Giants on the outside 9 (fade) route.  

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With Hakeem Nicks in a plus alignment (plus three yards outside of the numbers), Sherman plays from an inside shade in a press alignment and allows an outside release to pin the Giants receiver to the sideline.

This allows Sherman to drive to the inside hip of Nicks (“in-phase”) while getting his head around to find the ball.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

As you can see, this is an excellent finish from Sherman because he climbs the ladder to high-point the ball.

However, look at how the Seahawks cornerback establishes an inside leverage position, uses the boundary as his “help” and stacks on the receiver (limits the ability to press the 9 route down the field).

The point here is simple: Talent isn’t enough in a league where everyone can run and go get the football.

Because of that, rookies must establish their technique in order to produce at a consistent level versus pro competition.

Offensive "ID"

It took me three years as a pro to learn how to study tape and utilize the pre-snap keys from NFL offenses that will eventually read like an open book based on personnel, formation and alignment.

This goes much deeper than the playbook install I talked about last week, as that’s just a starting point for rookies in terms of lining up and executing the huddle call.

The next step is the ability to identify offensive concepts, understand wide receiver splits, personnel, down and distance, etc.

And that begins with film study.

Here’s a static example of the route tree from a plus-three split using the Lions and wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Because of the split, there are only two routes Johnson can run with an outside release: fade and comeback. That’s it because of the restrictions created by the boundary.

However, look at the multiple stems on an inside release plus the break points. From that alignment (with an inside release/vertical stem) defensive backs have to play for the 6 (dig), 7 (corner) or 8 (post).

And every route (outside of the three-step passing game), breaks at a depth of 12 to 15 yards in the NFL.

From a formation perspective, a 3x1 alignment is a high alert for a backside slant, while an inside-stack look tells defensive backs to play for the Hi-Lo concept (shallow drive/dig combo).

What does a running back aligned in a “chowed” split (outside leg of the tackle) to a slot formation tell the defense inside of the red zone? What are the top three routes to play for on 3rd-and-11-plus? If a wide receiver is aligned on the top of the numbers, is it time to prep for the out route?

These are just some quick examples I am giving you right now, but they add up for rookies because they lack the experience of tape study at the professional level.

NFL offenses will consistently window-dress alignments and formations with their personnel, but the concepts won’t change.

For both safeties and cornerbacks, the ability to identify those concepts through tape study will allow them to make more plays on the field.

And with rookies in the film room, they have a lot to learn.


Matching the Tempo of the NFL 

Can rookie defensive backs slow their heart rate down, process their reads and find a way to simplify the game to match the increased tempo on the field?

From my experience, rookies can make the game much more complex than it needs to be—and that can be very overwhelming.  

Sure, there are schemes or pressure packages from coaches such as Rex Ryan and Gregg Williams that can feel like graduate-level work, but defensive backs have to remember that there is only so much you can do with 11 players on the field.

Rookies have to focus on their job, their responsibility every snap, and break the game down to a level that allows them to play fast.

Here’s an example of simplifying the game from the perspective of a safety playing the deep half in Cover 2.

Matt Bowen/Bleacher Report

For a safety in the deep half, the No. 1 wide receiver (count outside-in) will tell you everything based on his release.

An outside release? Play for the fade or comeback. An inside stem with a vertical push? That’s the 7 or dig that will break at 12 to 15 yards down the field. A hard, inside release? Here comes the slant.

And if the receiver blocks the cornerback, then get downhill and fill the alley in the run game (between the cornerback and the core of the formation).

Even if that’s Larry Fitzgerald aligned at the wide receiver position, let him tell you what to play for based on his release—and then lean on your technique.

I do believe that the game will eventually slow down for rookie defensive backs with more reps on the field as it did in 2013 with Jets cornerback Dee Milliner.

The Alabama product struggled early in the year, and his technique was exposed in certain game situations. But as the season progressed, Milliner improved with his footwork, eyes and leverage while showing positive signs of development.

Making the jump to the league as a defensive back isn’t easy, and these rookies will be targeted often (or get beaten) until they can show the ability to make plays.

But once these rookies begin to develop their technique with reps on the field and learn how to study pro tape, the game will slow down to a point where they can match up consistently versus veteran talent in the NFL. 

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


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