Good cover corners are worth their weight in cap space.
That's because in today's pass-happy NFL, in which cornerbacks must play a significant amount of man-to-man, you can't afford to be without one--or five.
Cover corners can make the difference between the simple incompletion you forget as part of the opponent's completion percentage and a made-for-ESPN highlight. This is especially true when facing an elite quarterback like Philip Rivers.
As we'll see in this week's version of The Playbook Abides, Rivers exposed the potential danger of playing man coverage in the Chargers' victory on Monday night.
First, let's provide you with some context for this play. The game was tied at 7-7. The Chargers were facing a 1st-and-10 at their own 45-yard line with 9:32 to play in the 2nd quarter.
This was a difficult situation from Wink Martindale's perspective, of course, because it was both a passing and rushing opportunity for the Chargers. In fact, on 1st-and-10 for the entire year, the Chargers had run the ball just 52.5% of the time. So tendencies weren't going to help the Broncos' defense.
What followed was a classic Norv Turner play. The Chargers came out (after a bit of motion) with a personnel package that I might technically classify as a 104 (1 RB, 4 WRs), although the look that the Broncos saw gave the impression of a run-heavy set. This is precisely what the Chargers wanted.
Turner overloaded the right side of the line with two wide receivers and a hybrid WR/TE at the line of scrimmage. The split receiver simply runs a fly route. The slot receiver runs a deep post. The WR/TE stayed in to block. On the left side of the play, the other WR ran a crossing route in an attempt to occupy the linebackers from dropping too deep into their zones.
The Broncos countered with scheme, that, in hindsight (always 20/20) was a bad match. They called for man-to-man coverage with a single high safety over the top. This meant that the only help Champ Bailey and Nate Jones were going to get was whatever Renaldo Hill decided to give them. On the left side of the play, it appeared as if Dawkins was in man coverage on the receiver. This left DJ Williams in man coverage on the hybrid WR/TE on the right side of the line of scrimmage.
Now that you have all of this information, it's clear why this was a tough play for the Broncos from the beginning. At the line of scrimmage, I'm sure that Philip Rivers was smiling. He knew that the single high (Renaldo Hill) safety was going to have difficulty in picking between Bailey's man and Jones' man. If Hill immediately jumped Jones' man, he could go for the long ball to Bailey's man. If he drifted, he could simply hit Jones' man (Crayton), whom he knew was running the post.
Unfortunately, Crayton got a few steps on Jones, and Williams and Mays--keying on the WR at the line of scrimmage weren't able to get deep enough drops to discourage the post. San Diego, Norv Turner, and Philip Rivers are masters at putting this kind of strain on a defenses. Check out how the play looked live, here at NFL.com.
The interesting thing to me about this play is not that Nate Jones was beaten in coverage. That happens to every corner in the league, including guys like Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis. What's interesting is the call of a single high safety combined with man coverage. That's because it didn't appear that there was much purpose to it. First, as we can see from the diagram and from the video, there was no attempt to blitz in this situation. Dawkins, Mays, and Williams weren't coming. Jones wasn't coming off the corner either. Second, the man coverage didn't appear to be an attempt to confuse Rivers in any way. To the contrary, the Broncos' cornerbacks showed man coverage from the beginning of the play clock. Rivers has an easy pre-snap read given his knowledge of the routes and what the Broncos were showing.
Imagine if Jones had come off the corner with DJ rotating over. This would have been an interesting wrinkle. Or what about Dawkins and/or Mays pulling the trigger on the blitz with one or the other dropping into coverage. It would have been difficult for Rivers to hit any of these patterns with a play action and deep drop. This would have justified the man-to-man coverage. But here the man-to-man coverage only put the defense in a precarious position. It's hard to imagine that Wink believed that Haggan and/or Hunter were going to apply their own unique brand of pressure on this play.
Obviously, the risk of playing man-to-man coverage in any situation is that you can get burned--even more so when in a base formation. Usually, in order to take such a risk, there needs to be a proportional upside--namely, pressure, a sack, or a bad decision by the quarterback. On this play, I would argue, that the upside did not exist.
Bringing this upside will be part of the challenge Wink Martindale faces for the next meeting.