Revis Island has become a popular destination
Revis Island has become a popular destination.
Ignoring Richard Sherman, Josh Norman, Patrick Peterson and Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. is a thing of the past.
Opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators no longer are sacrificing the portion of the field patrolled by star cornerbacks. And we’re not only talking about teams with outstanding receivers such as the Falcons (Julio Jones), Bengals (A.J. Green) and Giants (Odell Beckham Jr.).
Just about everyone is willing to attack the “shutdown” guys these days, though in a limited capacity.
“There are only certain routes you are going to throw against these guys,” says former standout defensive back Herm Edwards, who also was a successful coach before heading to the ESPN studios. “Sometimes you get the matchup of the best receivers on a guy you can’t stay away from, the No 1 guy. You can’t ignore that side (of the field) all day long.
“The rules of the game really have given the offense an advantage, especially with pass interference. Now, with the back-shoulder throw that has become a staple of the passing game, you have something to use against them. If they play a lot of bump-and-run coverage, and you go at these guys, you can attack them in a technique they might be vulnerable at.
“But you have to find certain situations and plays where there are opportunities. You’re not going to make a steady diet of it.”
Although the rock-star CBs certainly want you to come their way.
“I welcome it. I welcome every challenge,” says Norman, 2015 All-Pro who has struggled with penalties and has been kept plenty busy this season, his first with Washington. “If you throw the ball (at me) you’re only feeding the beast. I enjoy those challenges because I get excited. I’m playing the game. Sitting over there and not playing the game is boring. I don’t like it. ... Not throwing the ball, I’ve got to find something else to do.”
No boredom this year. According to Football Outsiders, which tracks how often defenders are targeted — although the numbers can’t fully account for zone defenses or for passes behind the line of scrimmage — Norman has been targeted 42 times in eight games. Revis, once the measuring stick for cornerbacks but clearly on the decline now, has been thrown at 33 times in eight games. For Sherman, it’s 39, and for the Denver pair: 39 for Harris, 36 for Talib.
Tennessee CB Jason McCourty has been challenged the most, 50 times.
Against the Broncos, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid testing Harris or Talib, unless teams want to simply throw to the backs and tight ends all day. Does anyone think the Raiders this Sunday will shut down Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in their aerial games so they can avoid Harris and Talib?
One strategy, relatively but not entirely new in the NFL that teams employ to throw off cornerbacks is the back-shoulder throw. Edwards says that has become a dynamic weapon when performed accurately.
“It used to be that the hardest thing to cover was underthrown balls,” Edwards explains. “Then coaches began to think, ‘So why not start throwing back-shoulder fades?’ When the quarterback and the receiver have that chemistry going, this is that option can’t be stopped.”
Edwards notes that the best cornerbacks also can move inside to cover a slot receiver, which is especially useful when Beckham or Larry Fitzgerald lines up in that spot. So an offense can’t necessarily get away from a Sherman or Harris by moving around a Green or a Jones.
But it’s a different world inside, even for the top coverage guys.
“In Tampa, we had Ronde Barber,” says Edwards, an assistant with the Bucs under Tony Dungy. “I told him, ‘We’re going to train you as a nickel guy, which is the most difficult position for a guy used to being outside to play.’ You’ve got to be a really good tackler; you become a linebacker in a sense in the run game. You not only play man to man but also play zone and have to be able to blitz. If all you ever play with a cornerback in there is man to man, it is a disadvantage.
“Remember, a receiver can motion wherever, run wherever he wants to on the field, you can’t get your hands on the guy and there is a lot of room. When you are a corner, you are playing to the boundary, which is your friend.”
Edwards points to Charles Woodson and Ronnie Lott as two greats who made the transition from cornerback to safety, something he could see 10-year veteran Revis doing at some point.
For now, Revis, who has allowed 12.4 yards per completion, second-highest in the NFL behind Buffalo’s Stephon Gilmore’s 12.5, is staying put. So are Sherman, Norman, et al.
Talib would have it no other way.
“I’ve been in the league for nine years,” he says. “It’s nothing new, I’ve been getting interceptions and I still get balls thrown at me. That’s just the NFL.”
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton and Sports Writers Josh Dubow and Stephen Whyno contributed.