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In-depth look at defensive back play

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Defensive back has become the hardest position to replace on the defense, but why?

Miami v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The role of a defensive back has gotten more and more complicated over the past decade or so. Between both rule and style changes- it’s hard out here for the three to six guys that man the back of the defense. Hurry up tempos, spread formations, pick routes (both illegal and uncalled), and run-pass options put pressure on the smallest of the defenders.

An obvious advantage wide outs have over DB’s is that they know the play. Duh, right? Then there are some other less obvious advantages wide receivers have over defensive backs, too. First, typically after a fade route the WR’s will leave the field, but the cornerback will turn around and play another snap. The new WR has a fresh central nervous system, the DB doesn’t. Of course OC’s also will bait defenders into having to ‘switch’ in their coverages, causing mid-play changes to the coverage.

Throw in (pun!) pass-run options, run-pass options, pass-screen options, plus choice routes et al, and the DB’s job seems nearly impossible to succeed in. There’s a reason that analytics dudes like Bill Connelly have called the defensive back position the hardest to replace on the defense. According to Bill C’s research, DB tackles and passes defensed weigh higher than overall tackles and passes defensed by an entire defense.

Per Bill C:

Continuity in the trenches does not appear to be worth what we tend to think it’s worth. But continuity in the passing game, on both sides of the ball, means a ton.

Let’s break this conversation about these vital DB’s into three parts: acquisition, development, and deployment.


Acquisition

It’s really hard to find guys that are tall, who can run like 100M sprinters but who also have the visual-cognitive-motor skills (VCM) necessary to be an elite defensive back at the college level.

Some ACC coaches and recruiting coordinators have told me the first filter they use in recruiting is size and length, but obviously some smaller players have outplayed their measurables- like Te’Cory Couch has for Miami in 2020, or how a skinny Ed Reed did back in 2001. But when it comes to length, there’s a reason Ed Orgeron wanted to get his own measurements because the player’s 247 page isn’t accurate, much like the college website isn’t. The rule is two inches and 20 pounds.

It makes sense that according to my research into “What college coaches look for in a defensive back prospect,” for a cornerback the top three qualities are: ball judgement, plant and drive, and catch up speed; while for a safety coaches look for: key and play diagnosis, awareness and range.

I was really high on Te’Cory Couch for a number of reasons, but one was that he checks all of the boxes of athleticism that a CB needs. He has pure speed, fluidity in movement, and can re-accelerate or has ‘make up speed.’ Above- Dude comes to a damn near complete stop, re-opens his hips, re-accelerates, tracks the ball and makes a diving catch.

Above- Couch has the fluidity to turn his hips left, then right, re-accel, two hand a ball, stay up, change direction, and re-accelerate again.

Above- Absolutely textbook man play. Jab, jab, hip pocket, jump the throw. Coach Saban would be proud.

CB’s have to be able to play the ball (Miami’s biggest issue lately with D.J. Ivey and Al Blades, Jr.), have fluid hips with the VCM in order to read and react to the receivers, and of course have the make up speed to recover on the route.

A safety needs to be able to diagnose plays before and after the snap, and cover ground as a ‘centerfielder’ (oooof, an announcer cliche, gross) in the backfield. It’s all about the movement efficiency to play both the run and the pass. For a safety to be able to come downhill fast enough, but in enough control, to play the alley from the back side.


Development

So how do you develop elite defensive backfield play? It’s not stepping over bags (sup, to my P5 coaches). First, I’m going to make sure my defensive backs are the most limber players on the field. Training in all three planes will be huge for us in getting the DB’s to be able to move in every direction.

A focus in the weight room would be on speed-power when using Triphasic training methods. In other words, it’s important for this type of athlete to prioritize bar speed over load.

We’re going to train for speed using rest and recovery methods. My DB’s would have five to seven second sprint work followed by 35-60 seconds of rest. When we are plenty powerful and fast, it’s the focus on visual-cognitive-motor skills that’s the key to great DB play.

DB’s have a lot they have to digest in a short amount of time. Again, receivers of all types (WR, TE/H, RB) know where they are going, our defenders have to react to the movement of their coverage responsibility. How do you develop that? First, develop the eyes.

With every drill I run, but especially with a DB, you have to keep the drills open-ended and based on a read-and-react (agility) approach. Above- the DB will pedal back as the coach walks. When the coach takes three hard and fast steps, the DB then flips and accelerates.

Above- When the coach walks to the DB he pedals. Then the coach takes 3 hard steps and turns back (like a hitch route) and the DB breaks on him. I then incorporate this into an even better concept where I run pivot routes, speed outs, fin routes (3-5 yard dig) and slants and have the DB break on my action.

Always open-ended. Always having to use visual-cognitive-motor skills. Never just going over bags or through cones. Keep the guys guessing so that it’s like a real game.

Visual drill for WR’s and DB’s

When it comes to drills, the old Pop Warner hamburger hill drill isn’t one I love for contact. but when it comes to visual and cognitive growth, put the DB on their back facing away from the QB. On “go” (always use a cadence, not a whistle) have the DB jump up and try to find the WR the QB is throwing to. One WR can be to the right and in front of the DB, and the other can be to the left and behind the DB. Have the defender then react to the QB’s shoulder and make a play on the football.

Play the damn game

Of course in the end, the best way to get better at playing 1-on-1 is to play 1-on-1. The best way to get better communicating as DB’s when you have two or three receivers to a side is to run some concepts that require a coverage switch and to have your DB’s go through those concepts, communicate LOUDLY, and make adjustments on the fly.

Football is best learned by, gasp, playing football.


Deployment

In order to match the wide open playbooks of the modern era, defensive coordinators have also leveled up on the amount of coverages they run. In the old days, DB’s would typically be a zone or man play, and 2-high or 1-high looks. In the modern passing era, DC’s have gone to using ‘pattern-match’ coverages, and rotating between multiple types and styles of zone and man.

Miami, for instance, is running 8-9 different coverages a game, but are any of them ran well? That becomes the question as the corners struggle to shifting between styles and the safeties seem lost in deep coverage.

Then there are split-field coverage checks, like Cover 6, and DB’s have a lot more to think about than ever before. And again, all of these changes are to serve as an answer to what offenses have been doing for the better part of a decade. Not to mention having to switch coverages after shifts, motions, or even vertical switches downfield.

DC’s had to make adjustments based on the offenses of Art Briles back at Baylor, Hugh Freeze back at Ole Miss, and re the abilities of certain QB’s like Lamar Jackson, Marcus Mariotta and Johnny Manziel. When a QB can mix in a big arm with the ability to run- DC’s have to have answers.


The wrap

With all of these techniques and coverages needing to be taught in order to combat offensive variability- your DB coach/es are going to have to be master teachers.

At Alabama, Nick Saban likes to run through a ton of different coverages but he also spends a lot of time working with the DB’s himself. Coach Saban is almost 70 years old, but he’s still working hands-on with defensive backs at Alabama. Even tossing up an Easter egg (shout out Coach Dehnert) on one rep.

Want to be a great DB? Go out and lift weights like a DB should. Sprint like a DB should. Run drills a DB should. And lastly go out and play DB in realistic coverages using realistic techniques (I’m looking at you 7on7 underwear heroes).