Categories: X & O

Zone vs Man Corners

No team in the NFL runs zone or man concepts exclusively. While there’s tendencies and sometimes heavy tendencies, every defensive coordinator implements both man and zone schemes, and most times in today’s day in age, a mix of both.

With pattern matching principles so prevalent in today’s game, zone corners are better at man-coverage than ever before, shrinking the gap of requirements for each type of player. With that being said, some corners happen to be scheme specific players due to lacking certain traits required for playing man or zone respectively. They might be great at either one but struggle mightily in the other.

The poster child for such a case might be Nnamdi Asomugha, who was one of the more dominant man-cover corners at one point in the game. When he signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles, his play dropped off significantly. He absolutely fell off a cliff when being asked to play zone principles. He just didn’t possess the instincts and the feel for the game making mistakes and blowing coverages on a routine basis. Always a few steps late, overwhelmed by what the offense was throwing at him concept wise. Taking way too long to recognize route combinations and reacting rather than anticipating, if at all. Proof for one of the absolute must-haves for a zone corner: football IQ and instincts. Proof that you can be a dominant (cover) corner in this game without possessing said traits.


Zone-coverage corners: Zone corners are prototypically the less gifted athletes but have to be far better football players. They need to possess a high football IQ as their eyes are always on the QB, they have to be able to process information quickly, recognize route combinations/concepts, understand and realize the conflicts the offense wants to put them in, their assigned zones and how to correctly play them (inside out, when to pass a receiver off etc.), both offensive and defensive schemes, what calls work against which coverage and when to make adjustments based on that.

In today’s NFL, zone coverages where you just drop to a certain spot or landmark are basically extinct given the high profile offenses in the game these days. Gaps between the zones are too big in order to make spot dropping zones effective in today’s game. Due to that fact, zone coverage corners have to be able to play man as well as they have to lock onto a receiver entering their zone until he leaves it, then passing him off and focusing on other threats that may enter their responsibility area.

Another vital trait and part of the football IQ, is discipline. Understanding coverages and zones. Not following a receiver whose only job is to pull you out of your zone for the purpose of another receiver getting into the area you just vacated for a wide-open catch and big gain. Not taking the bait on underneath receivers while another receiver gets open in the deeper part of the zone you’re responsible for.

For example: Biting on routes in the flat as a cover 2 zone corner when another pass catcher gets wide open behind you. So-called smash pass concepts; A hitch route run by the outside receiver designed to bait the corner into covering him, while a corner route run by the inside receiver gets open behind the corner taking the hitch route. Are a good measuring point of a smart football player. Football players with great instincts will snuff a smash pass concept out immediately, fake attacking the hitch to bait the QB into throwing to the corner route early. Before the ball has even left the QB’s last finger, he’s already breaking onto the corner route.

A player who lacks instincts will never make that connection and as in Asomugha’s case, get burned over and over again as the offense keeps putting him in a bind.

While zone corners don’t need to possess the elite level speed man corners do, they still have to be decently athletic, be able to get in and out of breaks fast, have fluid hips and quick feet. Technique is much more important than raw speed anyway, and in 100% of the cases the DB with the better technique is the far superior one, that won’t get burned and make big plays as he will always be in a great position, never taking a step in the wrong direction or opening their hips for the wideout to take advantage of them gaining leverage either inside or outside. They also need to be much better tacklers as they’re often tasked with run responsibilities as well or taking down RBs/TEs running into the flat.

Man-coverage corners: While man-coverage corners may have the physically most demanding job in all of football, they definitely have the least demanding job mentally. While you do need an understanding of routes and your opponents’ tendencies, being great in man-coverage is all about athleticism. You have to possess speed, the ability to change directions quickly, fluid hips and quick feet to a much greater extent than zone corners. The assignment is easy: Follow your assigned guy all over the field and just stick with him. You should also be physically strong enough to jam a receiver and play bump-and-run coverage.

Having good man-cover corners on your team is still the easiest way to facilitate pressure. You can blitz without having to worry about leaving them on an island locked up with their responsibility. Have more guys to cover the rest of the field or help in run support since you don’t need safety help over the top. You can double-team other receiving threats. Your pass rush has more time to get home with the coverage in the back end holding up longer, often times yielding in a so-called coverage sack.


Zone-coverage corners: In zone coverage, corners (and all defenders playing zone for that matter), have their eyes on the QB. It’s their job to recognize and anticipate route concepts quickly, ideally before they even develop based on alignment and tendencies. They’ll react to the QB’s throwing motion and fly to the ball.
At the line of scrimmage, they can either give a cushion or press. That goes for all zone coverages.
Playing off, the corners will backpedal into their zone while observing the field and identifying possible threats that might enter their zone, with their peripheral vision. In cover 3, they will oftentimes employ the so-called “bail-technique”, where they don’t backpedal. They’re basically just running facing the inside of the field with the eyes on the QB, maintaining outside leverage.

Cover 2 is the best coverage to press out of since the corner is responsible for the curl to flat area in that call. Pressing gives them a chance to jam the receiver at the line to disrupt his timing with the QB, then either pass the guy off if he’s leaving their assigned zone or cover him man-to-man for as long as he’s in their zone.
Most of the times in zones, you want your corners to maintain outside leverage and push receivers inside to where more coverage and more tacklers await.

Man-coverage corners: In man-coverage, a cornerback’s eyes will always be on the receiver himself, on his midsection or numbers to be precise. That’s where the center of gravity lies and it’ll tell you where the pass catcher wants to go.

As opposed to zone coverage where you want to push the receiver inside, you want to push him outside when pressing in man-coverage. You want to do so because you can use the sideline as help, kind of like a virtual teammate. With linebackers, slot corners and often safeties manned up inside, they’ll have to go wherever their assigned offensive player takes them. So the middle of the field will be wide open, leaving huge windows for the QB to hit a receiver with nobody out in front of him. The same happens when linebackers are blitzing, vacating the middle of the field. If you lose inside leverage in man-coverage you’ll almost assuredly give up yardage. So you want to jam and push the receiver outside, leaving only a small window for the QB as the sideline minimizes throwing windows.

When facing bunch formations, you will want to keep a cushion to make sure you’re not the victim of rub/pick routes. Keep your body square to the line of scrimmage and your eyes on the numbers of the wideout.

Scheme fits:

Zone-coverage corners: Zone corners are best suited for cover 2/tampa 2 oriented schemes. They’ll also be effective playing cover 6, especially when being assigned the cover 2 side of the coverage, where they’ll have to defend the curl to flat area.
As mentioned above, with the variety of schemes and calls necessary in today’s NFL mixed with the prevalence of pattern matching, pure zone corners are rare to extinct in today’s game. You have to be able to play some man-to-man in some way, shape or fashion.

In cover 3, corners are responsible for 1/3 of the deep field. Single high coverages are not good fits for pure zone corners, as you won’t have safety help over the top and defending the deep 1/3 will turn into man coverage down the sideline when a receiver enters your responsibility area. Richard Sherman, who is often referred to as a pure zone corner, displays the modern zone corner like barely anyone else, who’s also been forced to prove his man-coverage skills on a routine basis in the Seahawks’ cover 3 scheme. He is not a Darrelle Revis or Deion Sanders type of man cover guy obviously, but he has decent man coverage skills and embodies a modern-day corner like barely anyone else.

Cover 4 is similar in that the corner having to play essentially man coverage deep down the field when a receiver enters his zone. However, since you’re only responsible for 1/4 of the deep field and have a safety in close proximity you should be able to ask your zone corner, especially in today’s day in age, to effectively execute cover 4 as well.

Man-coverage corners: Man corners are obviously great fits in all types of man coverages, from cover 1 to cover 2 man, as well as being effective in all-out blitz (cover 0) calls. You can leave them on an island without having to worry about putting a safety over the top to help out or double-team.

The bottom line: True shut-down corners, as well as pure zone corners, have almost entirely vanished today’s football as the requirements with today’s schemes are often overlapping, forcing corners to be much more versatile and being able to perform different tasks that corners of the past weren’t asked to do.

Malcolm Horn

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