By: Chad Wilson – All Eyes DB Camp
I’ve heard it many times. In the debate about who are the best cornerbacks, some guys get eliminated from the conversation simply because they play too much zone coverage. “He’s a zone corner” they say and immediately he’s slid to the back of the pack. Playing zone is just as important to playing defensive back as is playing man and in this article I will tell you why.
The idea of a defensive back, a cornerback in particular, playing zone means he has help. The idea that someone has help doing his job automatically lessens, in the eyes of many, his abilities because he didn’t do it alone. We have placed a premium in our society on doing things “all by ourselves”. Well guys I have news for you, a cornerback playing man to man has help too, especially if he is considered to be good at it.
The best man to man defensive backs in the world would be nothing if there was not “help” from the pass rush. Covering a WR for six seconds play after play is not the path to being an all time great cover man. If anyone takes a look at the NFL career of the GOAT Deion Sanders, you will recognize that he played on great football teams. While the Falcons were not a tremendous franchise when arrived in 1989, they added talent immediately during his tenure including some solid players up front that got a pass rush to aid him in his man to man activities. In 1994, Sanders went to the 49ers, the elite franchise in the NFL at the time and was surrounded by talent, especially on defense. He then went on to the Dallas Cowboys in 1995 who had won two championships in three years before his arrival. There too he was surrounded by talent with a great amount of it on the defensive side located in the front seven.
Of course, it’s sexy to play man to man because it puts on display a lot of the physical talents that a player may possess like speed, size and quickness. However, playing in a zone highlights the mental capabilities of a defensive back and I have news for you, this game is won from the neck up.
For you defensive backs that are playing high school football. I get that you want to be known as a “shut down” corner and it is certainly important for you to work on your man to man skills. However, nothing is more frustrating for a defensive coordinator that has a defensive back that is too limited mentally or lacks the discipline to play a zone. There comes a time when a team has to play zone defense. It may be when you have a big lead and want to protect it. It may be when another player is injured and his replacement does not have his man to man cover skills. It may come when the other team has a matchup that would exploit a player trying to cover him man to man. It could also come when an offense comes up with a great scheme to defeat man coverage. Whatever the case may be, having a cornerback that can switch from playing man to man coverage to playing zone coverage effectively truly makes him great.
So my message to my defensive backs out there that think the only thing they need to work on is press man coverage, I am here to tell you that you are dead wrong. Don’t go to college and get hit over the head with the playbook. I have seen many a talented defensive back in high school who could cover man to man fall on his face in college when he gets in the meeting room and on the practice field because he doesn’t know how to play zone coverage. Football is the ultimate team game and if you are thinking that you can just set up shop on your team’s defense and be an individual by playing only man while everyone else is playing zone, then the only thing you will have lockdown coverage on will be that bench.
Chad Wilson is the owner of All Eyes DB Camp and author of "101 DB Tips". He played college football at the University of Miami and briefly in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks. Over his 15 year high school football coaching career, he tutored over a dozen Division I defensive backs and as a trainer has worked with NFL All Pros, first round draft picks, college football All Americans and Top 10 ranked high school football prospects.