Chalk Talk: man-to-man coverage

Yesterday, I took a schematic approach to the Saints 38-17 win on Monday night down in New Orleans—giving you a different look at the game from an X’s and O’s point of view.

In response to that, I received some comments and e-mails about one aspect in particular: Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie’s man-to-man defense.

In particular, what “flat-foot read” is for a corner in the NFL, who they react to on the route tree and what they do in their pre-snap reads to make plays on the football like McKenzie did during the Saints victory to move to 11-0.

Let’s break it down…

In Gregg Williams’ defense down in New Orleans, or any defense in this league that plays man-to-man coverage in the backend, the corners are taught, instructed and expected to play with the techniques that allow this defense to work.

In McKenzie’s case on Monday, he played a lot of “off-man” coverage, where he aligned at a depth of 7-yards, aligned on the receiver’s outside shoulder, with his feet planted in a football position. The reason for the outside leverage is due to the safety help in the middle of the field. To give you a different perspective, in any type of Cover 0 alignment (no safety help) McKenzie would align in the inside shoulder of the receiver, using the sideline, or the boundary, as his extra defender.

Playing “off-man” coverage is the toughest thing for any defender in the NFL, much harder than aligned in a press position, where the corner can get his hands on the receiver and mirror his hips off of the line of scrimmage.

But, in both cases on Monday night, McKenzie used his flat-foot techniques and his pre-snap keys to make two big plays in the game on a slant route and on the fourth-down out route he broke up while defending Randy Moss.

Here is the idea behind the flat-foot read. Every corner is taught to read through the “3-step” before he gets in his pedal. Those 3-step routes are the slant, the hitch, the out and the smoke route (thrown immediately when a QB sees the corner playing off).

What McKenzie did is the same as what any of the great man-to-man corners in this league do—what players such as Champ Bailey, Darrelle Revis, Charles Woodson, etc. do each and every Sunday.

As a corner in this league, you know that every route outside of the 3-step game breaks at 12-15 yards. That’s it. There is nothing else, besides the 9-route (or fade route) which corners can diagnose by the receiver running at top speed and not breaking down in the 12-15 yard area.

Outside of that, there is not an intermediate-to-deep route in an NFL playbook that does not break in between the 12-to-15 yards.

So, corners are taught to read through the quarterback to the receiver on the 3-step game, and only then, once the receiver has started to take his route vertical to that 12-to-15 yard mark, does a corner start to get into his backpedal and read the route.

Against a player such as a Randy Moss, this type of discipline needs to be implemented—even in the red zone on that fourth-down play with the threat of the fade route—and McKenzie played it perfectly: holding his depth at seven yards, reading the three step drop by Brady and then driving downhill on the out route.

As always in the NFL, or at any level of football, it is technique that wins.

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