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Todd Bowles: Why Are Cornerbacks So Important in His Defense?

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The Jets spent a substantial sum of money during the offseason bringing in three free agent cornerbacks. By now, you have probably heard people say cornerbacks are an important position in Todd Bowles' defense. Let's take a look at why this is so. This article will by no means show every single way in which corners are critical in the defense the Jets will run, but hopefully it provide some understanding.

The story begins with how frequently Bowles likes to blitz. Pro Football Focus studied how frequently teams blitzed in 2014. The Arizona defense Bowles ran had a blitz rate of 42.5%. That was the second highest rate in the league. That was actually down from Bowles' first season in charge of the Arizona defense in 2013. That season, the Cardinals topped the league with a 49.2% blitz rate.

This type of blitzing impacts the type of coverage a team runs on the back end of the defense.

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This isn't exactly the prettiest drawing in the world. It also isn't drawn to scale. This was a coverage look the Jets used last October in a game against New England. On this particular play, they rushed three men and dropped everybody else into zone coverage. Zone is a viable option when rushing three or four. There are enough bodies that defenders only have a small portion of the field to cover.

The defense has enough bodies dropping into coverage to clog passing lanes. The areas on the field are so small that it is relatively difficult to get two receivers into the same zone against one defender. It is possible, but it requires execution at a high level. There also is a degree of safety running zone. Every player is assigned a part of the field to defend. If somebody blows an assignment, there is likely to be another defender near by who can come in and prevent a good play for the offense from turning into a catastrophe for the defense.

Zone schemes tend to make the cornerback position less important. Now I'm not saying cornerback means zero in zone based defenses. It just typically is not at a premium. That is part of the appeal. It is typically difficult to find a cornerback capable of covering a small chunk of the field than it is to find a cornerback who can cover another player man to man across the whole field for the duration of a play. The NFL is a league with a salary cap. Teams that play a lot of zone can save money at the cornerback position as a result. The difference between finding a corner who can do a decent job and one who can do a great job over a small area of the field isn't that large. (This is an oversimplification. There are great zone corners who are worth a lot so don't take this to an extreme.)

That was why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' trade for Darrelle Revis two years ago made so little sense. For whatever reason, they stuck with a heavy zone defense. They also blitzed 22nd most in the league per PFF. Was Revis better than the alternatives they could have added instead to improve at cornerback? Sure. Was it such a pronounced difference that it was worth trading a top 15 pick and paying Revis $16 million? It wasn't even close. Thinking like this is why then Bucs general manager Mark Dominik is currently at ESPN, and then head coach Greg Schiano has not coached since that season.

Things get different when the head coach wants to attack.

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For example, here is a play where the Cardinals bring six pass rushers. That only leaves five defenders. That would leave an awfully big zone for each defender to cover.

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Showing a look like that every so often isn't a bad idea. You do have to mix coverages to keep the offense honest and maybe trick a quarterback who is expecting a specific look. Utilizing zone heavily when blitzing, though, is tough to pull off. There is much less traffic, and the defenders are forced to cover a bigger area. It is also easier to fit two receivers into a zone. One guy cannot cover two receivers over a large chunk of area. Here is an example.

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With so few defenders back, there are more openings to complete passes against zone coverage. To stop the offense, there has to be a heavy dose of man to man. That is the only real way to prevent receivers from creating big passing windows. It also requires the corners to be able to stick with the receivers over the entire field. It has to start at the snap.

Notice how tight the outside corners are.

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One of the ways to beat a blitz is to throw the ball quickly before the blitzers get there. This is made easier if the coverage provides a cushion.

nelson

Corners playing close can get physical and prevent those receivers from getting into their routes. On quick passing plays, the quarterback frequently expects the receiver to be in a precise place at a precise time. These can be blitz beaters. A cornerback getting physical can throw the receiver off his route.

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There is risk involved, though. When the corner plays off, one of the effects of the cushion is that the defender gets a bit of a head start on the receiver on downfield routes. That effect is gone when the cornerback starts at the line. The corner has to run stride for stride down the entire field.

Hopefully this shows why the cornerback is so important. For whatever it is worth, this also shows why it was crazy for John Idzik to not invest in the position a year ago since Rex Ryan liked to run a similar style of defense. The degree to which Mike Maccagnan invested in the position for Todd Bowles at the very least suggests the coaching staff and front office are on the same page. That's a good thing.