Before breaking down Denzel Ward, I’ve included links to a few of my favorite X’s & O’s resources. Each book has greatly influenced the way in which I think about the game of football. No matter what side of the ball you are on, you will find a TON of common sense, usable information in each. Great knowledge, great writing, and great coaches!
As the fourth overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, cornerback Denzel Ward enters the NFL with sky-high expectations.
Selected (over NC State’s highly-touted pass rusher Bradley Chubb) to shore up a mediocre pass defense that finished 19th in the league in 2017, the First Team All-American selection will be expected to provide an immediate identity to a revamped Browns’ secondary.
“Ward. The reason is our need for a press cover cornerback. Denzel probably plays that position as well as anyone I’ve seen in college football in some time. We probably play the most press of any team in the league. There’s another reason. I’ve got a video of 28 snaps of Myles Garrett pass-rushes last year where he gets within two steps or less of the quarterback when the ball comes out. Basically, we aren’t covering long enough to let him get to the quarterback. Myles and others—especially [defensive end] Emmanuel Ogbah—will get more chances because of Denzel.” Ogbah, Williams said, was a major reason why the Browns went Ward over Chubb. “Ogbah’s a rising star in this league,” Williams said. “He’s got a chance to be Chubb.” High praise.
The 5’11”, 183-pound speedster – Ward recorded a blazing fast 4.32 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Combine – should slide in as a day one starter, but questions abound about his preparation. Will he be ready to step in as a day-one starter?
The cornerback position is notoriously fickle for rookies; behind quarterback, many argue it requires the most difficult transition when moving from college to the pro ranks. During their first training camp, many a young defensive back has been ill-handled by savvy, veteran NFL receivers. Confidence and refined technique is a must to play the position in today’s game.
Due to the proliferation of Spread-type concepts, limitations based on physical play in coverage, and the incredible detail at which today’s receivers execute their craft, young players enter the league playing against a stacked deck. In addition, many rookies come from defensive schemes that do not lean on NFL-style base concepts, so experience in executing what many teams consider “base” coverages is limited.
With this in mind, let’s return to Ward.
Ward (and Browns’ fans) are fortunate in that he played his college ball under the tutelage of current Ohio State coordinator Greg Schiano. In addition to his college resume, the highly-respected, 20-year veteran of the coaching circles has previous pro stints with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (head coach). Before moving into coordinator and head coach roles, Schiano served as a defensive back position coach. The man knows defense.
The direction in which Schiano would take the Ohio State defense after his 2016 hire was an unknown as he replaced National Championship-winning defensive coordinator Chris Ashe and what many consider a college style, 4-2-5 Quarters base defense. Schiano has proved to lean on an NFL-style defensive scheme that features a heavy dose of Cover 1, Cover 3, Tampa 2, and 3-deep/3-under behind blitzes.
Fortunately for Ward, Schiano’s coverage calls jive well with the primary coverages Williams ran last season: Cover 1, Cover 3, Tampa 2, and 3-deep, 3-under.
Let’s look at Ward executing the aforementioned coverages with a focus on SEART (Stance, Eyes, Alignment, Responsibility, Technique) in order to gain an understanding of why the Browns’ front office and coaching staff pulled the trigger on Ward so early in the draft.
When most fans think about “man” coverage, Cover 1 is generally the concept they have in mind. Man-verse-man across the board with a single deep safety. It is important to note that Cover 1 (known in coaching jargon as “one-hi”) has several distinguishing characteristics that separate it from today’s popular “hybrid” coverages that start as zone, but convert to man based on the wide receiver’s patterns. What many see as Cover 1 is in fact often a Cover 4-variant that utilize safety rotation to give the appearance of a psuedo one-hi coverage.
Cover 1 can be played in a variety of ways. Think about the numbers.
The offense has five eligible receivers. In a standard four-man rush, the defense is left with seven players. Subtract one of those seven to provide deep, middle of the field help and the defense still maintains a one-man number’s advantage.
This extra player can be used in a variety of ways.
Provide inside help to the other pass defenders by “robbing” the short/middle hole.
Spy a running quarterback.
Double-team the offense’s most dangerous threat.
While most coaches that run a Cover 1-heavy scheme utilize both press and off-man coverage, Schiano rarely aligned his cornerback’s more than a yard or two off the line of scrimmage.
The former NFL head coach preaches a philosophy of aggression. Challenge the receivers at the line of scrimmage. Make them earn their release and hold them up to disrupt the route’s timing. Put the defensive back in the best position possible to stay “in phase” (on the receivers’ hip) throughout the route.
Saying you want to accomplish these things and actually executing on the field are two very different things. Let’s look at exactly how Ohio State coaches up their cornerbacks to play press coverage using the SEART acronym.
Effective press coverage is built off a solid stance, and a solid stance always starts with the feet. It is built from the ground-up.
The feet should be shoulder width apart, with the knees bent and the hips sunk (apologies for the analogy but like sitting on the toilet) to create a low center of gravity. Most of the body’s weight will rest on the balls of the feet (the shoelaces), resulting in a slight lean forward. The back should be straight and the shoulders should be square. The arms should be up and in a ready position to strike, although coaching points for arm position vary program-to-program. Many coaches teach the body position using the phrase “Eyes/nose over the toes” as this position creates an athletic stance and balance.
In man coverage, the eyes MUST stay on the receiver’s hips. Many coaches (including former Ohio State and current Tennessee Titan cornerback coach Kerry Coombs) take this coaching point a step further by teaching the defensive back to focus on the receiver’s thighs, as young players have a tendency to raise their eye level as the play progresses.
The defender must keep sight of his man at all times as he is tasked with following him everywhere he goes. If he loses sight for even a moment the receiver could disappear, leading to an easy completion. The eyes are always on the hips because pass-catchers will use a variety of releases that involve the shoulders both at the line of scrimmage and at the route’s breakpoints. Mechanically the shoulders can point in a direction away from the route’s break, the hips cannot. It’s that simple. The hips don’t lie.
Cover 1 alignment can vary based on landmarks (the hash and numbers) and splits (what is the receiver’s proximity to the core of the formation, the sideline, and other receivers), but generally cornerbacks will align with an inside “shade”. Field zones, landmarks, and splits can be incredibly detailed. Take a look at a few diagrams from Nick Saban’s playbook:
The general coaching point here is split the crotch of the would-be pass catcher with the outside foot. This alignment puts the defensive back in position to challenge inside-breaking routes because the receiver must cross his face, while using the sideline as an extra defender to squeeze outside-breaking routes.
Responsibility is as straightforward as it gets. Your man is your man. No one else’s. Follow him wherever he goes. The Olentangy River? You had better be doggy paddling alongside him.
Technique is the fun part.
There are a variety of techniques in use today across all levels of football. The two most popular are likely “shuffle” or “foot fire”, in which the DB slides along the line of scrimmage with the receiver as he releases, much like a defender slides playing basketball.
The second, “motor-mirror” is Schiano’s go-to.
The clips below is a great example of the motor-mirror technique in action.
- Strong base, stance, and start at the line of scrimmage
- “Motor” the feet at the snap. These are six-inch steps used to gain depth and time. The corner must maintain a tight tuck with the eyes and nose over the toes. He must fight the tendency to slowly rise up as he retreats in order to keep the body coiled and in an ideal position to break at any moment.
- At some point the receiver must “declare” his release. Simply put, he must release inside or outside the defender’s body. When this happens the corner will use a kick-step to open his hips. He MUST NOT open his hips completely because the receiver is still in position to cut back across his face. The hips should open at 45ish-degree angle in case the DB needs to “switch back”, or flip his hips in the opposite direction.
- As the corner kick steps, he should deliver a hard, one-handed jam to the chest plate of the receiver using his opposite hand. The fingers should be up, the thumb out, and the heel should be used to strike. The tighter the DB can keep his strike-side elbow to his body, the stronger the punch. The opposite hand is used because it keeps the corner’s hips and shoulders in alignment. So if the receiver releases to the right, use the left hand and vice versa. Ohio State specifically coaches their DB’s to aim for the bottom of the chest plate because DB’s have a tendency to aim too high with their punch. This aiming point helps keep the hand in the strike zone. The DB is also coached to punch and reload the hands, rather than punching and maintaining contact. DB’s have a tendency to stop their feet and/or lean forward after the strike. Either will cause the DB to lose his base and raise his center of gravity.
- After delivering a blow the corner will completely open his hips in order to turn and run with the receiver with the goal of staying on the hips throughout the route. This is a particularly dangerous area for DB’s that do not possess above-average hip flexibility. Many receivers create their initial separation at this point, so sound technique is a must. As the CB pivots, he should throw the same-side elbow violently backward. This helps turn the hips quicker and put the corner in position to run downfield.
- After flipping the hips, the corner must “squeeze” the receiver towards the sideline (always use the sideline as an extra defender) by leaning into his body. This is the point where much of the unseen hand-fighting occurs. If you can get away with an armbar, swipe, or a simple grab, go for it. Just don’t get caught. The corner’s eyes MUST remain on the receiver’s hips and legs looking for the feet to stutter, indicating a break is coming. The corner will mirror the receiver’s stutter steps.
- If the receiver is still in-phase at this point, many coaches teach the DB to look back and locate the ball. Ohio State (and other programs) do it differently here. Their philosophy is that the head should never turn to locate the ball. They believe that when the defender turns his head he risks losing track of the receiver, wastes time locating the ball, and often contorts the body into unfavorable positions when the ball is not where the defender expects it to be. They are taught to read the receiver’s eyes (they will get VERY big as the ball approaches) and arms (they will move up as the receiver prepares to catch the ball). The corner should react to the arms by aggressively swatting down through the receiver, known as “raking the pocket”. This technique will lead to PBU’s but few interceptions as the DB just does not have time to react to the ball. As the DB rakes the pocket he needs to make a token attempt to get his head around. Face guarding his technically legal if the defender does not make contact, but in practice, the ref will throw a flag if an attempt is not made.
- Note that Ward looked back for the ball in the clip above. He is not coached to do this and heard about it during Monday film. He likely looked back for the ball once he noticed the receiver had run himself at of bounds. At this point, he can’t touch the ball without re-establishing himself in bounds. That was not happening so Ward probably assumed he had a freebie here (like a quarterback taking a deep shot he wouldn’t normally take on an offside penalty) so why not try for a pick?
Let’s check out a nice PBU below:
Start with the stance. Tight feet, good knee bend, flat back, and square shoulders.
On to alignment. An inside shade (split the crotch with the outside foot) to protect against in-breaking routes.
Eyes are focused on the thighs per Ohio State’s coaching points.
Ward’s responsibility is the pass-catcher he aligns across from. Follow him wherever he goes.
Ward hops a bit at the release, rather than motoring his feet, but overall not bad. Good job not clicking his heels together as he opens. Focus on the punch. It does not appear to be a knock-out blow, but you can see the receiver slow just enough to allow Ward to hug the hip. The punch also widens the receiver towards the sideline so Ward does not need to rely on a “hard” lean. The receiver is running himself out of the play.
Ward clearly reads the receiver’s eyes/arms because his reaction is timed perfectly. Watch his left arm rack through and swipe down the would-be pass-catchers arm.
Good rep, good result.
Cover 3 is a 3-deep, 4-under zone defense. Cover 3 styles will vary from coach to coach. Some will landmark drop the underneath defenders to a certain width and depth while eyeballing the quarterback, while others will combine the drops with reads on the #1 and #2 receiver. Reaction and technique is then contingent on what the receiver does (vertical, inside, or outside release).
Let’s work through the SEART of a Cover 3 cornerback in Schiano’s system.
Several stances can be used based on the coordinator’s preference for disguise and the secondary’s ability to get where it needs to be (a slow secondary cannot disguise much because lack of speed prevents them from getting to their landmarks post snap ). Some teams will press-bail (think Seattle). Other’s will align from 5-8 yards off the ball and use a variety of techniques to work downfield including a true bail or shuffle steps (often referred to as the “Saban shuffle”). Most coaches prefer their corners to make a zone turn by flipping their back to the sideline in order to read the quarterback and receivers. Others will allow the corner to backpedal from his 5-8 yard starting point and turn if a receiver threatens his deep zone with a vertical route.
Schiano is big on disguising his coverage shell on early downs. The image below shows two deep safeties at 10 yards with both cornerbacks in a press position one yard off the ball. Looks like a 2-high i.e. Cover 2 or Cover 4 right?
Watch the post-snap rotation.
Williams does not place the high premium on disguise we see from Schiano, so Ward will spend some time learning to start the play further off the ball with his back pointed towards the sideline like the image below.
Because Ward already has the well-earned reputation as a technician and student of the game, making the transition to an alignment further off the ball should not present any significant challenges. He will become more and more comfortable through practice reps this Summer.
Cornerbacks are taught to make a “2-1 read” on the pass threats to their side. At the snap the eyes should snap between the #1 and #2 receivers. From there the corner’s reaction will vary based on the receiver’s release and the specific match-up rules (all Cover 3’s are not created equal). The important point is that the corner must identify what both receivers to his side are doing and execute his “if, then…” rules.
The cornerback will generally align with “outside leverage” over the #1 receiver, although leverage can change based on how tight or wide the receiver’s split is. As a general rule, assume outside leverage in Cover 3.
In most Cover 3 shells the corner is responsible for a deep, outside third of the field. If a man enters his zone, cover him. The cardinal sin a Cover 3 corner can commit is getting beat deep. He has underneath help, so he must not be beat by vertical routes. These rules are generalized but should provide a good rule of thumb.
Because Schiano aligns his corners so close to the line of scrimmage, at the snap they must immediately open and bail. The outside foot will pivot to open the hips and point the back towards the sideline. The corner will then shuffle downfield, ensuring that he does not click the heels together while making his reads. When the corner sees the ball come out (read the quarterback’s elbow or shoulders) he must “plant and drive” by sticking his upfield foot in the ground, maintaining his coiled tuck, and exploding back towards the ball.
Let’s watch Ward execute the pivot, shuffle, plant, and drive. Note that this is a 3-deep, 3-under coverage. For simplicity’s sake, assume the same Cover 3 rules.
Three items stand out here. First, notice how quickly Ward transitions from his parallel stance to his shuffle and gains depth. A Cover 3 corner wants to maintain his cushion as long as possible to avoid time-consuming transitions. The outside receiver has no chance of “stacking” (getting overtop) Ward. Second, watch his plant and break when he recognizes the wheel route from the #2 receiver. Great eyes and solid break. Finally, the physicality jumps out. Keep in mind this is a tight end that outweighs Ward by 50-60 pounds. It takes a certain mentality to throw the body into a player going full speed. Players can learn to be physical up to a point, but if they don’t have that instinct (Ward does) there will be limits to what they can do defending the run and tackling.
Let’s look at what is likely Wards’ defining play of the 2017 season, his jarring hit the resulted in a questionable ejection against the Maryland Terps.
Like the previous clip, the Buckeyes are in a 3-deep, 3-under look behind a blitz.
Focus on Ward’s lean as he plants and breaks on the ball. The low hips and feet pointed perpendicular to the target allow Ward to drive on the ball. The finish is outstanding. He does not leave his feet and delivers a blow in the target zone with the shoulder. Clean hit.
Clips of Ward defending the pass in Cover 3 are virtually nonexistent simply because teams were not willing to challenge him vertically as a deep-third defender and he rarely allowed the #1 or #2 receiver to gain an advantageous position. This is a testament to his technique, speed, and eye discipline. Schiano’s play calling played a role as well. Cover 3 was generally used as a run-down coverage to gain an extra box defender from the drop safety.
Our final example looks at the Tampa 2 coverage, popularized by Tony Dungy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Let’s look at the SEART. Note that like the previous coverages, there are a variety of ways to play Tampa 2 so coaching points will differ system to system. The following are rules consistent with what Schiano shows on tape.
In Schiano’s system, a Tampa 2 cornerback’s stance will generally mirror his man-press stance.
The cornerback’s eyes should alternate between the receivers to his side of the field and the quarterback. Eye discipline is a must to avoid creating holes in the coverage.
Alignment is generally contingent on landmarks. As a general rule the cornerback will align with inside leverage. Although the cornerback is aligned to cut off in-breaking routes, he MUST prevent a free outside release. More on that later.
The corner is responsible for the flat, an area 10-15 yards deep along the sideline. Many coaches designate the first five yards as a “no cover zone”. If a receiver runs into this area, continue scanning and break only when the ball comes out. Do not break on the route!
If the wide receiver releases downfield, the corner wants to get in a “trail” position on the low hip. Because the half-field safety is playing vertical routes from the top down, this creates an effective hi-lo on the receiver, forcing the quarterback to make a perfect throw. This also puts the corner in position to break on the ball if a short route is thrown. Remember, Cover 3 corners break on balls, not routes.
A variety of techniques can be used in Tampa 2 based on how the safeties and linebackers are coached to read and react (Kathy, Squat, Palms, etc). Many systems utilize a “jam sink” technique in which the corner will align like in press and jam the receiver before sinking. Others use a “cliff technique” in which the corner aligns at five-yards depth and buzzes his feet without gaining depth (like his heels are on the edge of a cliff). He will collision the receiver as he approaches at five yards then sink behind him.
In Schiano’s version, the cornerback will pivot into a zone turn at the snap. This pivot serves two purposes. First, it puts the defender’s body in the path of the receiver if he wants to release outside (think a fade route). Second, it turns the eyes inside so the cornerback can read the routes and quarterback’s intention. Schiano does not appear to place a premium on a true jam, so it is unlikely that he devouts major chunks of practice time to the technique.
The following clips should give you an idea of what a jam/sink looks like against an inside and outside release. All were taken in 2015 during the Chris Ashe-era.
In the clips below Ward demonstrates outstanding eyes, awareness, and athleticism to help create an interception out of Tampa 2.
Ward’s pivot is seamless and his eyes immediate move inside while simultaneously “feeling” the outside receiver’s route. His footwork is very deliberate (smooth and does not click the heels together). He allows the receiver to work past him while holding the low hip, creating hi-lo coverage on any route along the sideline. He is in perfect position to challenge a throw if the quarterback attacks the Cover 2 “honey hole” (an area 15-25 yards along the sideline).
Nebraska’s quarterback does target the sideline hole, but this throw is never happening due to the coverage. Ward makes an outstanding play on the ball and current Colt Malik Hooker does the rest.
As a final addendum to this breakdown, I would like to add that another factor that likely influenced Ward’s selection is his ability to run-blitz and tackle.
Gregg Williams aggressively blitzes his corners on favorable down and distances. When he does not blitz his corners, he tasks them as “run first” force defenders by aligning them with heavy inside leverage on the line of scrimmage.
Ward has shown the ability, toughness, and willingness to fill this role.
Watch the corner on the left side of the formation blitz outside the EMLOS as part of a full line run slant. This is dirty work that requires physicality and a junkyard dog mentality. The question of how Ward’s size will affect his ability to mix it up in the run game remains to be answered. His straight-line speed, ability to get skinny, and willingness to throw his body around will contribute to his effectiveness, but can he stay healthy as his current size/weight?
Denzel Ward’s selection does carry some controversy, as many felt he was over drafted. In light of the opportunity cost (Bradley Chubb among others), Ward will need to produce sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, cornerback is not a plug and play position in which a rookie can have an immediate impact (like tailback). With that said, Ward’s outstanding technique and experience in an NFL-style defense coached by a former NFL head coach should put him ahead of the curve. How far ahead of the curve, time will tell.