Bill Walsh pretty much had it covered, even over 20 years ago. He said this about cornerbacks:
Ideal size: 6-2, 195, but good ones come in all sizes
You would prefer a good-sized cornerback, but fortunately they have come in all sizes. Some of the best coverage men have been extremely small and dwarfed by their wide receivers and still were able to cover because of quickness, explosion and anticipation.
But the great cornerbacks have been able to play a physical game with receivers. They can bump the receiver on the release, but more important go up for a ball and not be overwhelmed or knocked off the pass by the receiver.
Of course, you need quickness and explosion. Full-sprint speed is important, but there have been cornerbacks who have overcome a lack of sprinters' speed and played many years and become Pro Bowl participants. You'd like to think of the cornerback being able to run 40 yards in under 4.5 seconds.
He must be able to do the kinds of things receivers do when they go up for a ball.
My emphasis added. Now, let’s walk through some game film and start seeing who Denver has this year, starting with new CB Tracy Porter.
Tracy Porter CB, First Game of Film Review
The date is November 28, 2011. The location is New Orleans, LA. Tracy Porter doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to have one of the most productive games of his life in terms of tackling, in just a few hours. Cornerbacks don’t usually lead the stats in tackles, but Porter will have 10 of them today. I pulled this game up just to get a good look at his tackling technique and style - I’ll look at others to see more coverage technique, which this one was light on. Did he wrap up well? Did he leave his feet too early or too often? Does he flinch from contact? A 10-tackle outing seemed like the best way to find out, but the first half pretty much covered it.
His New Orleans Saints are facing off against the New York Giants in a battle of two well-crafted, well-coached teams. The Giants are famous for their physical, playoff-style football, with a killer defensive front four, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and massive running backs. The Saints are a team that rallies behind another Super Bowl winner in Drew Brees, and has a tough, hostile defense that carries out the schemes of then-master defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and it carries over the play of Darren Sharper in variations of the ‘Robber’ defensive formation. The Giants prefer the 4-2-5 defense, while the Saints will tend to play the 4-3-4. NO has very good linebackers and excellent defensive backs. It’s being played in New Orleans, and the weather isn’t a factor. It should be a heck of a game.
There’s a backstory here that makes it even more interesting. In Buffalo from 2001-03, Gregg Williams was head coach, with Kevin Gilbride his offensive coordinator for the latter two of those years, so these men know each other. It’s a battle of wits, with both coaches having intimate knowledge of the other’s style and preferences.
On the toss, the Saints elect to receive, and Brees immediately marches them down the field like he’s playing catch. The drive stalls out deep in Giants territory, though, and the Saints try an ill-fated fake field goal that turns the ball over inside the 15. Porter, number 22, takes the field at right cornerback. It’s the first game that I’ve watched him exclusively.
The first thing that I notice is that he’s very much on the slender side - I’d read that, but seeing it is different. He sinks easily into his stance, but he rises twice - the play’s being changed by the QB and Porter has caught it. Porter sinks back into his crouch, but he’s constantly in some kind of motion - his arms, his hands, shifting his weight. It’s just early nerves, and it disappears after a few plays. At the snap, his receiver immediately cuts for the middle. What’s noticeable is that Porter flips his hips very quickly and smoothly - that aspect is up with the best I’ve seen. He uses that to follow the receiver, taking a good angle, but the play goes away from them.
On the next snap, Porter is playing in off coverage. The defensive coordinator makes that determination - the CB just carries his decision out, so if you’re irritated at a CB taking too big a pad, aim your ire at the DC. If he didn’t want the CB back there, either the MLB or the free safety would have already told the guy. There are times, though, when the CB will see something that tells them to step back a couple of steps - most routes break between 12-15 yards, so unless you’re working the underneath game, being 10 yards back isn’t a concern - especially if your CB can flip their hips this fluidly.
When you’re in off coverage, you’re keeping the game in front of you with that approach, forcing the offense to take smaller chunks and giving them lots of chances to make a mistake, as well as giving the X receiver enough of a pad to stay with him on dagger or go routes. With a pressure-oriented scheme for the front line and talented linebackers, it’s a good option. You’re also able to see the QB more easily and read what you can. In this case, the safety (Malcolm Jenkins) cheats up and blitzes, and Manning promptly throws it past him to Victor Cruz, the receiver Jenkins left. Porter sees it unfolding, leaves his man, comes across and tackles Cruz cleanly short of the 1st down, but linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, #56, comes up and hits both Porter and the receiver from behind, shoving them across the 1st down line. It’s Porter’s first tackle of the day, and the first of his 10. He wrapped up well, low on the legs.
On the next snap, Porter comes up closer, presnap, and steps up nicely into zone at the snap. The play once more goes away from him: another first down. They call Porter over for a breather, and Manning drives the ball into Porter’s replacement, #33, Jabari Greer. In fairness, they had him playing about 10 yards off coverage, but the play goes for 19 yards. Porter trots back out and takes his crouch about three yards from the X receiver.
The next play is a handoff to Brandon Jacobs, a tight end-sized 264-lb behemoth playing running back, who slams up the middle for seven yards. Porter shows no hesitation at throwing himself at Jacob’s knees, wrapping up again as four Saints converge for the tackle. For a player who is criticized at times for not being strong enough in run support, it’s clearly not for a lack of willingness. He does need to get very serious about his physical training - at 5’11” and 186, he’s giving away too much size and bulk. He tries to make up for it with speed and low tackles which he’s good at in the open field, but they’re high-risk. Stronger receivers and running backs can run through that kind of hit. If he’s going to improve, he has to have the strength to wrap up better.
Despite a long drive, a Manning pass is completed to Hakeem Nicks, who is pushed out of bounds by Porter at the 18. The next pass is meant for TE Jake Ballard in the endzone, but it’s snagged by LB Will Herring for a touchback. Brees was back on the field. I’m usually pretty disciplined about just watching the player in question, but I have to admit that Brees was pinpoint that day, and I couldn’t help watching. Besides, it didn’t take long. 7-0, Saints, at 14:47 of the 2nd quarter.
On the Giants' next drive, Porter was in on three tackles. He drove Hakeem Nicks out of bounds, hitting him high, trying to wrap his arms around Nicks’ shoulders without a lot of effect, and eventually jumping up on him to over-balance him and force him out of bounds with Jenkins’s help. Both of the other tackles he made were approached by flinging himself at the other player’s ankles. Once it was understandable - it was an open field tackle on the Giants' massive fullback, 266-lb. Henry Hynoski, and Porter was giving away 80 lb. Porter again hit him at the ankles, and Hynoski again dove past it, hitting the ground for a first down. Steve Owen once said of Bronko Nagurski, “He was the only man I ever saw who ran his own interference.” Hynoski has about that kind of size and much as I believe in hitting, you could see Porter’s point.
The next time it was a wide receiver, though, and as is common, the receiver could fall forward and gain a couple of extra yards. Porter used the technique well, but he’s also going to both miss - as he did on his next tackle attempt - or have a steady line of players who gain extra yardage. Didn’t Denver just go through a spell of having this issue with the pre-2011 Andre’ Goodman?
You only rarely see a CB change their tackling style, so it’s likely that the best hope for Porter is that he gets much stronger, to bring them down more quickly. At least his accuracy in throwing himself is generally quite good. When he fails, he generally fails against players strong enough to keep their feet after being hit.
He was also generally kept playing off coverage, keeping his eyes on the receiver and the QB at the same time. He seemed more comfortable when playing off-man, not exhibiting the nervous energy that he did early in the game when he was playing up, but he’s up on the next few passes and isn’t twitching - it was apparently just a matter of early game nerves. Even playing up, he’s watching everything and I noticed that he was reading the formation well. It seemed that he knew when the Giants were going to run and although they usually ran strongside away from him, he tried to at least get back to the middle.
He’s obviously watched a lot of film, and that’s encouraging. He reacts very quickly to the play and doesn’t seem to have any difficulty analyzing them. He reads the QB's eyes well, knows the Giants' preferred formations and tendencies, where they tend to run their plays. He’s often in good position to affect the play, too, slight though he may be.
There were several packages where Porter was removed and another player brought in. Patrick Robinson (#21) and Malcolm Jenkins (#27) alternated covering the right side in a Cover 3 or quarters variation. Porter came onto the field for the same kind of coverage on at least two plays - the camera work was a constant irritation, since the Giants love bunched formations and sending the X receiver on a long route to clear out underneath and force a linebacker into coverage. It often worked, but the Giants defense had Brees and Co. to deal with.
Fast forward to 11:49 of the quarter. Porter gives up his usual pad, then reads something from the formation and backs up three extra yards. It’s a short pass up the middle, though, and he comes across to make the tackle. Once more he launches at the feet of Hakeem Nicks, and the receiver just runs through the tackles, off-balance, spinning and stumbling for five more yards before an ILB comes up to finish the tackle just over the first-down marker. If I wanted to be sure of that pattern in Porter’s tackles, this is doing it.
Porter has the desire to tackle but he’s not sure enough of his power and technique to wrap up head-on. Part of that is just being realistic - right now. it looks like he doesn’t have that power. If he makes it a priority, he’ll have to emphasize building power and explosion without sacrificing his speed. It will require a deft hand in his conditioning. At that point, he’ll have to get used to changing his approach and wrapping up better. As I’ve said - it’s not something that you see a lot, but last season Andre’ Goodman made that change, even if Denver has since let him go. It can be done.
A minute later, the Giants are in one of their standard formations: two RB, one TE and two WR, the receivers at the X and Z positions. The Saints countered with an aggressive five-man front. NY jumped offsides and went to a different run - a RB and a TE just behind the rightside TE and the RT, blocking for a strongside sweep. NO sniffed it out and the ILBs shot the gaps with Roman Harper bringing the ball carrier down for a loss. Heck of a play. Harper was leading the team in sacks with 6.5 of them at this point - NO loved to blitz, and they’d bring anyone. If you look for a DB who loves contact, Harper is your guy. At 6'1" and 200 lb, he still falls on QBs like a rockslide and takes the legs out from RBs.
Another sweep came out of a classic max protect with one RB and won considerable yardage to the offensive right, while Porter was in off coverage on the opposite side. I give Porter credit for both his foot speed and quick recognition - he made it all the way across the field to help out on the tackle, but his hit was the same pattern of diving into D.J. Ware’s (#28) ankles. This time Ware looked like he might be going down regardless, but Porter sped the process. It was close as to whether the hit did more than that, but Porter had to read and recognize the play immediately and showed his speed just to make it to the point of impact. The tackle also stopped the Giants' drive, and you can’t argue with success. NY had to settle for a field goal and after a Darren Sproles runback, Drew Brees took over again on his own 20. It’s a short series, NO punts to Aaron Ross, who fumbles, but Prince Amukamara comes up with the ball on the 17 and 7:27 to go in the half.
Manning immediately hits Victor Cruz, who was originally Porter’s man, for a 1st down. Cruz cut inside and they have Porter playing 12 yards off, so Cruz cuts inside, forcing a linebacker to take him on in coverage and grabs the catch. They are using Porter to prevent the go (or dagger) route, but they’re willing to bet that the pressure they can put on will stop Manning from throwing underneath. Manning’s having a good half, and making those throws. With 6:31 to go in the 2nd quarter, Manning hasn’t been hit, hurried or sacked so far this game. I’m still hoping to see Porter try to cover someone tightly.
It comes on the next play. Cruz comes up the X position’s go route, but there’s an overload weakside blitz and Manning barely gets it off. It looks for a moment like Porter’s blown the coverage, but instead he had already identified the pass (which was substantially off-target) and made an attempt to get to it. It was over everyone’s head, and it’s second down. Porter knew the receiver, had the route down, and was focused on Manning’s eyes and arm. Nice work. The drive stalls, and NY punts into the end zone. Brees takes them down the field and it’s 14-3 with 2:21 left in the first half.
On the next series, Manning misses four in a row, but on the fifth connects with Nicks, with Robinson covering. Again, the Saints have Porter, making use of his speed, in deep quarters on the defensive right. On the next play, though, a run through the middle by D.J. Ware finds Porter in nickel coverage and he hits and wraps up at the knees in textbook fashion after a four-yard gain. He’s got the skill and the technique - perhaps he just has to develop and belief in the power behind it. The next pass is to Ramses Barden III and Porter is in the way of the ball although Jabari Greer was in coverage on Barden. Third down, six to go. A quick pass to Hakeem Nicks connects and Patrick Robinson loses his angle, letting Nicks get to the first-down marker. Porter came across from the right inside receiver to help out, but too late. They gave the penalty to Porter for riding Nicks from inside to the ground outside the boundary. Robinson took his hands off and didn’t get the flag, although his mistake permitted the pass. Mental error by Porter. Three drops on the drive offset Porter’s mistake, though. A final blitz has Manning throwing it away, and the half is over for NY.
The second half was much the same, as far as Porter went. His strengths were obvious - he played well in zone and man (usually off-man); he’s faster than the onset of a mountain microburst and he’s not afraid of contact. When he wants to, he can wrap up well on tackling. He’s got very fast, fluid hips, and changes direction at speed, which is hard to find.
The other hand? He likes to dive at the ankles of receivers and running backs, which is not a high-percentage way to tackle. I still haven’t seen him really cover a few full routes in man, and I’ll be looking at more film to get there (Game logs are useful, as are play by plays). He needs to work on his strength - he wasn’t achieving much in redirection on the few times he was in press-man. His coverage, the times they sent a receiver long on him, wasn’t as tight as you’d hope. He’s got the speed - will he go up for the ball, and does he have the ability to time and the tenacity to come down with it?
Those are the things for the next time we look at him. Right now, he’s an interesting option, with some strengths to build on if he can show Denver that he’s got the ability and the willingness to improve. Time - and more film - will tell the rest.