Sometimes players need to take on roles that go beyond their natural listed position.
Take this play against Denver.
Michael Carter II is nominally a slot corner, but he essentially plays a linebacker role. He is close to the middle of the field.
He also has to play sideline to sideline, get off a block, and make a tackle against the run here.
One notable thing about this play is the Broncos have 1 back, 2 tight ends, and 2 wide receivers while Carter is the third corner for the Jets. Generally speaking a defense has as many cornerbacks as wide receivers on the field.
Wide receivers are the most skilled pass catchers on the field. Cornerbacks are the most skilled in coverage. A cornerback against a tight end in coverage is a benefit for the defense, but many are not particularly adept at playing the run.
Having a player like Carter succeed against the run can be a big advantage for the Jets defense. That could especially important against opponents with athletic tight ends like Atlanta’s Kyle Pitts this weekend. Pitts is too fast for most linebackers to handle, and a corner like Carter could give the Jets a fighting chance if he can also hold up against the run.
Having a slot corner play like this is only natural. After all when the defense puts a third corner on the field, it is typically a linebacker who he replaces. The slot corner also lines up in the middle of the field, near the run action and is frequently called upon in run support.
A few years back Tim Rohan of Sports Illustrated offered an insightful look at the history of the slot corner position and how the Buccaneers began the trend of a hybrid slot corner-linebacker with Ronde Barber.
The modern slot corner may have been born out of a meeting between Ronde Barber and Lovie Smith at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers facility sometime around 1999. The Bucs had been trying Barber in a new role: starting him at outside corner in their base defense and sliding him inside in the nickel package. They found, though, that offenses were still able to run effectively when Tampa had three corners on the field and one fewer man in the box.
The Bucs’ defensive coaches, led by the visionary Monte Kiffin, decided that, in response, they would teach Barber to play the slot corner like a linebacker. Lovie Smith, the linebackers coach, met with Barber and taught him the terminology the linebackers used, the visual keys they looked for, how to read a developing run play...
Even outside corners must step into this role at times nowadays.
Take a look at this play from last week’s victory over Tennessee. Bryce Hall is lined up on the left side of the defensive formation even though the wide receivers are both lined up on the right side.
This is a giveaway that the Jets would be running some sort of zone coverage if it is a passing play. Hall as an outside corner is in that zone no matter who lines up against him.
However, the fact the Titans put two tight ends on his side of the field turns him into a strongside linebacker for all intents and purposes at least on this play. If it is a passing play, he’ll have a tight end come into his zone as a linebacker might in coverage.
Against the run, putting two tight ends on his side of the field leaves so many gaps that Hall has be responsible for one. There’s no choice. The Jets don’t have enough bodies to avoid it.
Whether by design or by read, John Franklin-Myers goes outside on this play, and Hall is left to fill a gap inside.
He holds up impressively against Derrick Henry.
You can bet the Titans knew their formation and the play design could leave Henry one on one against a corner. That was probably the goal. They just might not have counted on Hall being able to take on one of the league’s premier backs.
Similar to Carter, Hall’s abilities in run support can provide a boost. If a corner can’t tackle in this situation, the rest of the league will notice and draw up plays like this. A defense that gets punished enough will at some point need to change its coverages to get its corner away from these matchups.
On the flip side, when the corner tackles the defense can maintain the coverages it wants to run on its own terms.
Corners who can step into linebacker-type roles here and here add a lot of flexibility to a defense.