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Patrolling In the Deep: The Canes Secondary

Each Week State of the U will be looking at a different aspect of gameday strategy. In this segment we're covering the defensive secondary. How does it work? Who is the right fit per position? What will the Canes do in 2015-2016? Read on to find out!

Tracy howard looks to breakup a pass against CIN
Tracy howard looks to breakup a pass against CIN
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports


Each week State of the U will look at different aspects of strategy that go into planning offensive and defensive attacks on gameday. The first installment was on the defensive line, last week we discussed the offensive line and now this week we'll breakdown the defensive secondary. We'll specifically look at the personnel type's that fit each position and the strategies used. Lastly, we'll delve into the crystal ball and find out how the Miami Secondary stacks up heading into 2015-2016.

Position Breakdown

Cornerbacks (Boundary Corners) - Usually there are two Boundary Corners on the field at all times. These two players are prototypically the fastest players on the defensive unit and, more times than not, often the smallest. They lineup against the offensive unit's wide receivers and thus are located outside the hash marks and close to the sideline. An average college corner can weigh in anywhere from 180-190 pounds and measure 5'10" in height or a little taller. The pro game is looking for taller corners however due to the widely successful defensive philosophy used in Seattle as well as due to the fact that wide receivers are getting taller overall throughout the NFL.

A prototypical Boundary Corner if he were to be coming out today would be Antrel Rolle. Check out some of his highlights while at Miami:

Cornerbacks (Nickel and Dime Package) - Out of necessity this position has become more pertinent in today's game. The third corner on the field is called a nickel back (due to the fact that he's the fifth player in the secondary). He is tasked with guarding the slot receiver. In past seasons (about 10 or so years ago) nickel corners played primarily on third downs but as both the pro and college games have moved more to the pass attacks and less to the grind it out style of the ground game, these players have become more needed. Nickel Corners are usually smaller in height and leaner in weight when compared to the boundary corners. This is because their opponent counterpart, the slot receiver, is usually more of a shifty, agile player and has endless possibilities when it comes to route combinations in the passing attack due to being in open space.

Another example of a prototypical nickel or dime corner would be Philip Buchanon:

The dime cornerback is the fourth corner on the depth chart and is used primarily in passing downs (think third and long). The reason they're called "dime" corners is because he's the second nickel corner so... two nickels... you get it. Anyways, the nickel corner usually has the same traits as the nickel when it comes to size and weight.

Free Safety - The best description of a free safety is to imagine a centerfielder in baseball. He's tasked to sit 10,15, 20 yards back from the line of scrimmage, monitor the pass catchers on offense (wide receivers, tight ends and running backs) and make sure to not allow any big plays down the field. The optimal free safety is a little smaller than an average linebacker but is usually just as fast, if not a tick slower, than the cornerbacks.

The player who meets the standards set above for a free safety was Sean Taylor. Check out the highlights below:

Strong Safety - Now, everything we just went over about the Free Safety, reverse the responsibilities for the Strong.. The Strong Safety has to be a player that can "mix it up" at or near the line of scrimmage. Often times, in pass coverage, the Strong Safety is tasked with guarding either the tight end or the running back out of the backfield. In running sequences the Strong Safety will need to be able to provide running support. With that said, the Strong Safety is usually around 10 yards off the line of scrimmage ready to read the play and react to the situation presented. In many cases they're counted on as another linebacker.

Brandon Meriweather fits the bill for a solid strong safety, see why below:

Rover - This position is very similar to the Strong Safety in terms of responsibility as well as player attributes for the position but with one key difference: they can line up anywhere on the field. Teams use the Rover (or "Monster") to be an attacking secondary player at the line of scrimmage. More times than not a team that runs four down linemen, two linebackers and five in the secondary (a la the 4-2-5) use the Rover as a third safety and swap out the nickel back. Two college teams who've been able to utilize the Rover position to perfection over the past decade have been TCU and Virginia Tech.

Coverage Basics

The fact of the matter is, when it comes to secondary coverage packages, they can be limitless. For the sake of your time we'll delve into a few of the very basic ones and how they relate to the game we see today. We'll start with the most basic and work our way to the more exotic..

Man Coverage - Sounds just like the title states; this is when each person in the secondary is tasked with covering a pass catching option from the opponent. The secondary unit is solely focused on their assignments and not the quarterback reads.

Zone Coverage - Each person in the secondary is tasked with guarding a space on the field. If an opposing pass catcher enters the zone the defender must guard them. Once the offensive player vacates the zone the defender "releases" the opposition. Besides stepping into zones and monitoring the pass catchers, the secondary players are supposed to be reading the quarterback to see where he is supposed to be passing the ball.

Man Free Coverage - The Cornerbacks and the Strong Safety play man coverage on all the pass catchers. The Free Safety sits back behind the play, usually 15 yards or so and makes sure no offensive players gets behind him. If a pass is thrown deep the Free Safety is tasked with breaking it up or intercepting the ball.

Combo Man Coverage - This is most commonly referred to as double covering a pass catching option. If the option is a wide receiver (like, say, Calvin Johnson) then usually the Cornerback will play a little closer to the line of scrimmage with the Free Safety assisting behind him (also known as being "over the top"). If the offensive target is a tight end then usually a linebacker and the strong safety trade off responsibilities based on the route length.

Two Deep Coverage - If anyone has played EA Sports' video games for football they know what the two deep zone coverage is. This is when both safeties split the field in half. The Free Safety gets one side (usually the left side) and the Strong Safety gets the other side (the right). No offensive option is supposed to get behind their coverage and any play over the top needs to be defended with much urgency. The two deep is the main staple of the defensive front formally known as the "Tampa Two."

Three Deep Coverage - There are two types of three deep coverage. First is when the middle linebacker patrols the middle of the field in a zone. The second is when either of the safeties shifts over to the middle of the field and one corner drops into deep coverage. The play design stays the same though as the deep backfield is now split into three zones among the two safeties and the third option.

Four Deep Coverage - Commonly referred to as a type of prevent defense this type of play sees the Boundary Cornerbacks drop into a zone next to both Safeties. Thus, splitting the field into fourths. This play is usually seen on third and long or plays where a long pass needs to be made to convert.

Predicting the 2015-2016 Secondary at Miami

On paper, Miami has a lot of unknowns in the secondary. Tracy Howard could be a great Boundary Corner but for whatever reason hasn't been able to put it together in three years at Miami and over the course of that span has started to see his role shrink as each season has developed. Deon Bush has the potential to be an above average college Free Safety and a possible pro prospect but needs to stay on the field. Dallas Crawford hits hard enough to play Strong Safety or even Rover but will he have enough mental growth to be an impactful player in his final year on campus?

The biggest wild cards of all the players in the secondary though are Rayshawn Jenkins and even incoming freshman phenom Jaquan Johnson. Jenkins is coming off a season ending back surgery and Johnson, the former consensus four star recruit in last year's recruiting class is looking to potentially see playing time right away next season. If either of these players can provide depth or even start next season the competition in the back end of the defense could be ratcheted up to a level Canes fans haven't seen in quite some time. However, the outcome for this group is shrouded in mystery until then..