Man-to-man pass coverage also has its risks. If a defender makes a mistake on coverage and fails to pick up his man, the receiver will be wide open. In addition, if a defender is mismatched against a fast or elusive receiver, the receiver might break away from that defender and be open. For that reason, many defenses play man coverage with a free safety who is not assigned to a man but plays deep as an extra defender to help prevent long completions.
Keying the Quarterback
Defensive backs in man-to-man coverage should key the quarterback on the first two steps of their backpedal so that they can break on short, three-step-drop passes. If the quarterback stops his drop after only three steps, the defensive backs must settle their feet, interrupting their backpedal, and recognize the receiver’s route. After recognizing the route, the defensive back must break to the interception point and try to get there just as the ball arrives. If the quarterback’s drop goes beyond three steps, the defensive back turns his attention to the receiver and settles into the techniques described next.
Understanding the Assignment
Defenders covering tight ends, slots, wingbacks or running backs must first know for sure which man they are covering. Then, at the snap, they must focus their total attention on that player’s release. If he runs a pass route, regardless of any other keys or indicators of what the offensive play might be, the defender must cover the offensive player, assuming that the play is a pass.
Maintaining Proper Cushion and Leverage
When covering a player who releases to run a pass route, the defender must settle into a comfortable backpedal, maintaining a forward lean with the shoulders over the toes and taking short, quick steps backward. For as long as possible, the defender should try to maintain at least a 3-yard cushion between himself and the receiver while at the same time angling his backpedal to give himself proper leverage (inside or outside position) on the receiver. The defender should maintain inside leverage position against the receiver unless he has help from the free safety to the inside, in which case he should maintain outside leverage.
Adjusting to the Route
If the receiver tries to run a deep route, the defender must rotate his hips toward the receiver, turning to run with him. The defender must execute this turn before the receiver eliminates the 3-yard cushion. The defender must keep his center of gravity and his hips low on the turn, driving the elbow that is closer to the receiver and punching the opposite knee into a tight, quick turn—-commonly called a “man turn”—at the angle of the route that the receiver is running. If the receiver breaks off a short route, the defender must plant his back foot, point his front foot and drive immediately downhill to the route. The defender must waste no movement and take no extra steps; his footwork must always be plant, point and drive.
Closing the Gap
After recognizing the route, the defender must concentrate on closing the gap to the receiver before trying to find and play the ball. Against deep routes, the defender should establish inside leverage position at the receiver’s hip, running smoothly with him and being sure that he does not fade away and gain separation. Against intermediate and shallow routes, the defender must break to the receiver’s upfield shoulder, closing any separation and making any play on the ball through the receiver, not in front of him.
As the defender closes the gap, he should key the receiver’s hands and eyes to learn whether the ball is on the way. Only then should the defender look in the direction of the throw to make a play on the ball.
As a coach, it is often cause for concern to see your athletes performing skills well in practice but struggling in the game. Coaching Football Technical and Tactical Skills focuses on the situational decisions players and coaches make that often determine the outcome of games. Written by the American Sport Education Program (ASEP) in conjunction with Rob Ash, the former head football coach at Drake University, Juniata College and Montana State University, this book allows players to gain valuable gamelike playing experience in practice by putting them in key tactical situations like the scramble, man-to-man and zone pass coverage, and onside kick.
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