Secondary Play: Part III

No secondary coverage showcases or exposes a defensive back more than man-to-man coverage. It's in man-to-man coverage that the defensive backs are left on the proverbial lonely island, covering a receiver, where ever that receiver goes. Ideally, DB's playing mostly man-to-man coverage must embrace the pressure they are put under. In my opinion, when you see teams playing almost strictly man-to-man defense, you are seeing the best athletes on the field.

Advantages in Playing Man-to-Man Coverage

If you have the athletes, or the guts, to play man coverage there are several advantages to implementing said coverage in your defensive package:

1. It allows more players to rush the quarterback.
2. You can match up your best DB with their best receiver.
3. You eliminate confusion in zone coverage versus formations.
4. Play action passes lose their effectiveness.
5. Free defenders can help double cover receivers.
6. Combined with zone it allows disguising of coverage.

Man-to Man Coverage

In man coverage the DB must focus his full intention on the man he is covering, blocking out everything else. Total concentration of the receiver is paramount, and not only do we want our DB in the receiver's face physically, but we want him there mentally as well. As a coach, I use the terms get "into his skin", and "under his skin". We also accentuate the physical concept far more than we do in a zone package. In my opinion, man coverage is a way to either intimidate or frustrate the receiver, and this is part of the advantage of man coverage.

I'm not advocating trash talk here, nor am I advocating unfair play, but a concept of getting the opponent off his game. Some receivers have problems with man-to-man coverage. It's not as enjoyable to them as settling down in a zone and catching the ball unopposed. It's a far cry from their optimum situation, coming off the line of scrimmage (LOS) unattached, going into their breaks, as opposed to being hounded and roughed up a bit. To be fair, some receivers relish the challenge, but then again, some don't. Watch games closely, and you will often see there are those receivers who get frustrated when hounded constantly. Often, they feel they are open, but when their QB doesn't see it that way, they get frustrated, and they are the first to toss that imaginary flag into the air as they whine to officials. Sometimes their effort declines as well. As Busco21 says: "There is no place for weakness on the football field." Get into a receiver's head, and you create a weakness.

For the rest of this article we're going to assume that a pass is the play called by the offense. However, it must be noted that since the DB is concentrating solely on his man, and may read run through what his man does, he needs help from the rest of the defense. Calls shouted out of "sweep", "off tackle", "counter", "option", as well as "pass" help the DB in question to locate the ball quickly and turn to his other responsibilities as a defender.


The first step taken in teaching man coverage was using the bump-and-run approach. This was done for two reasons; one, to teach the skills of jamming a receiver at the line of scrimmage. And two, knowing that initially our DB‘s were going to lose that receiver quite often, we could emphasize getting on the receiver's hip A.S.A.P., making it a big part of every drill, imbedding the idea that the DB had to react to chasing the receiver and close the distance immediately. The concept here was to get into the DB's psyche that he better be busting his rear end to close the gap if the receiver beat the jam. As a result, I can say "get to his hip" faster than anyone I know, and it seemed to work, and made man coverage tighter and easier when we didn't jam.

Jamming a receiver is a technique and an attitude. It also gets into the receiver's head as mentioned before. Certain situations dictate inside or outside positions by the DB, but we'll concentrate on the inside position for this article. The technique involves the DB taking a forty-five degree angle, inside position, on the receiver, as close to him as the LOS allows. The DB is in a stance that approximates a quarter-squat, with his feet shoulder width apart, and his back straight. At the first sign of movement by the receiver the DB jams the receiver in the chest with his outside hand and does the same to the receiver's near shoulder with his inside hand. The idea is to force the receiver wide and not allow him to go inside. Inside passes are easier for a quarterback to complete due to distance and arm strength, so we usually want to deny this as much as possible, being aware of the outside fade route or outs as examples of countermeasures by the offense. As the receiver tries to avoid or fight through the jam the DB stays on him, as physical as possible, and as long as possible. As the receiver releases past the nose of the DB, the DB steps in the direction that the receiver is running and gets to the receiver's hip. Should the receiver move into the DB then a bump should be delivered by the DB. The DB should never seek to initiate a bump, but should take it, if it is there. If the receiver releases outside you don't jam him, you simply start to run with him.

Man Coverage Off the LOS

In straight man, without jamming, the DB will take an inside position with a depth that best fits the receiver's speed. That depth may range from three to twelve yards depending on the receiver's speed and the down and distance. The DB must never allow the receiver to get square with him, again shading him to the inside. As the receiver comes off the LOS we want our DB's to maintain a cushion and focus on the bottom of the receiver's numbers because the numbers can't throw fakes at a DB. ( I once heard coach Bill Lewis talk about a DB he coached that was excellent in talent, film study, and in reading receivers. This DB, whose name escapes me, was so adept at watching an opponent's feet that he could jump on a pattern quicker than anyone he ever coached just by the receiver's steps.)

A DB must also have an understanding of routes that his opponent will run. Pattern recognition, as the play develops, may be the difference in a big play for or against your DB. He doesn't have to guess on the pattern that the receiver will run, but should anticipate the patterns by the depth the receiver is running. Now, as the receiver gets to the cutoff point (where he breaks into his pattern) usually indicated by the receiver gathering himself or faking before the cut, the DB should drive on the pattern, get to the hip of the receiver, and run with him, staying between him and the end zone, and duplicating the receiver's moves. At this point the DB, in our approach, may look for the ball through the defender, providing he keeps the receiver between him and the LOS. He's not to try for the interception unless he can get both hands on the ball.

If the receiver gets behind him the DB must not look for the ball, but at the receiver's eyes. It's a well know fact the receiver's eyes will open wider as the ball approaches. The receiver's arms beginning to rise also tells that the ball is on its way. At this point the DB needs to turn and look for the ball. A coaching point here is that DB's usually, though unconsciously, move closer to the ball, away from the receiver. This must be drilled out of all DB's, and they should be coached to move closer to the receiver to prevent a completion over their head.

In both cases, behind or in front of the receiver, the DB then intercepts or knocks the ball away. Failing to do either of those things, he must strip the receiver's arm or arms, or make the tackle.

As I said in an earlier article, one could write a book on DB play, a thick book actually. It's a complicated and challenging position that requires great athleticism, many skills, and an attention to a myriad of details. Top Stories