How to Play Cornerback

Tight end Julius Thomasis tackled by cornerback Richard Sherman.
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The two cornerbacks are the pass coverage experts on football teams’ defensive lines. Agile and quick, great cornerbacks have natural instincts for the game, specifically on how to cover, read, adjust, and break on the ball, which makes them the anchors of pass defense plays where their effectiveness greatly influences the success of the overall defensive strategy.

As with all football positions, the cornerbacks’ assignments vary depending on the play called and the defensive scheme, but all cornerbacks should be skilled in a few basic areas of play including press and man-to-man coverage, zone, and bail techniques, and understanding passing strategy for the offensive team.

Regardless of the technique, a good cornerback understands the passing game, and the timing of receivers. He has great footwork, quickness, speed, and football instincts. This type of skill set is difficult to find in a taller athlete, so most corners are shorter than the rest of the players on the field.

Coverage Techniques Every Cornerback Should Know

Every great cornerback should be skilled in both forms of defensive coverage: press coverage and man-to-man coverage. These two techniques give corners their defensive edge, allowing them to block the receiver from catching the ball, but in each, the cornerback must be careful not to get a pass interference called on the play.

In press coverage, a corner will line up close to his receiver, and try to get a jam on the line of scrimmage to slow the receiver's route. Once the jam is made, the corner will drop to his zone, as in cover 2. Jamming a receiver is extremely difficult to do well and legally. If the ball is thrown quickly, it's easy to pick up a pass interference call in press coverage. But corners that jam well save their safeties and linebackers a lot of pain by giving them time to get in position, not to mention the disruption of the receiver's route.

Man-to-man coverage is arguably the most difficult technique to do successfully on the football field, and corners play man-to-man more than anyone else. It's often said that the cornerbacks are "on an island" with their receiver because wherever the widest receiver lines up is also where the corner usually lines up.

The wide receiver always has the advantage, because he gets to make the first move, and knows where the ball is headed. Man-to-man is easy to understand, but hard to do well; find your man, cover your man, don't let him catch the ball.

The important thing to remember in man-to-man coverage is to always be aware of the receiver’s positioning, and ideally be able to think two steps ahead in case the play suddenly changes. For instance, if the cornerback is a few feet in front of the receiver, but then the receiver catches the ball, the corner would need to quickly pivot to tackle the receiver as quickly as possible.

Zone and Bail Technique and Combining the Three

Many times, a corner will disguise press coverage, and then bail into their deep zone, as in cover 3 when the ball is snapped, or immediately before. The ability to get deep quickly is an important aspect of this technique because the corner needs to travel a great distance in a short amount of time—chances are the receiver will already be lined up for a catch by the time a cornerback arrives.

This quick-paced move is a sort of fake-out on the field. Coaches and players alike will expect the cornerback to stay near the defensive line to ward off a short play, but the corner would then bail back to block a receiver deep back on the field, relying on the defensive back to block the short game.

This technique, combined with the press and man-to-man coverage will allow cornerbacks to dominate the defensive line, blocking the opposing team from moving the ball too far down the field with each successful play.

A good cornerback understands the options an opposing receiver has on the field, which in turn allows the corner to plan his move right as the ball snaps and he reads the offensive play. If the receiver is staying short, a good corner will use press coverage, but if one’s going long he can either use man-to-man or zone and bail techniques to really amp up the defense.