The Inside Slant

Second-year corner Fred Smoot loves challenges, which playing man-to-man creates for him. Last year he played off talent and instincts. This year he armed himself with knowledge, too, studying extra film in the offseason. He knows that playing man coverage must be done right. So here's how he does it.

The first trick for Smoot is to check out precisely where the receiver is aligned. Is he inside or outside the numbers?

''I delete a lot of routes just by where he's lined up,'' Smoot said.

If he's playing press coverage, Smoot's goal is to jam his hands into the receiver's shoulders within the first two seconds. The goal is to disrupt the rhythm of the passing game. The more he bumps a receiver off stride, the more his man is taken out of the play.

''I just need to hit that shoulder,'' Smoot said. ''Once I get that I can control you.''

Smoot also sneaks a peak at the quarterback off the snap of the ball, to get his three-step read. Once he eliminates a three-step drop pass, he locks onto the receiver and ''now it's time to play football.''

He must stay hip to hip with the receiver, never allowing the wideout to pull away from him. And he wants to stay on his ''upfield'' shoulder. Also, if he's playing off the receiver in man coverage, Smoot will eye their hips, much like a basketball defender is taught to do (the hips don't lie; the eyes do).

''The eyes will get you in trouble,'' Smoot said. Until, of course, he's running stride for stride down the field. Then, when the wideout's eyes get big, Smoot looks for the ball.

And he knows when he's in trouble: ''When the man is in front of you and you're looking at his back. If you're looking at his elbows and the bottom of his cleats, you're in trouble.''

Not that he's worried about that happening.

''I play with my talent and now I play with a lot of brain,'' he said.

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