Coach Rick Willis has built our defense at Wartburg College around the following characteristics: fast, physical, tough, and aggressive. We have always played an attacking style of defense and believe in applying pressure to the offense. When you think of the terms physical, aggressive, attacking, and pressure, they are often associated with techniques and schemes employed by the front seven. You think about stunts, blitzes, gap control, block defeat, pass rush, etc. At Wartburg, we also want to apply these terms to the way we attack quarterbacks, wide receivers, and the coverage aspect of our defense. The base coverages we play at Wartburg involve press technique cornerbacks, rerouting receivers with our linebackers, and matching pass routes. In this article, I will give you a quick overview of the coverages we call that utilize press technique cornerbacks, discuss the reasons why we like press coverage, and describe the way we teach press technique to our defensive backs.
This is a brief overview of our defense and the coverages we run with our cornerbacks in a press alignment. We align in a 4-3 front and our base coverage is a matching Cover 4. The cornerbacks are pressed, and carry any vertical route by the #1 wide receivers. Our safeties are aligned in a two high shell and will match any vertical route by the #2/#3 wide receivers. Our Sam linebacker to the field and our Will linebacker to the boundary are two match/flat defenders. Our Mike linebacker is a three match/low wall defender looking to match check downs and reroute shallow crossers.
We will also play press technique with our man coverages. We will play man coverage with four man, five man, and six man pressures. The number of defenders we send in the pressure and the number of defenders needed to cover the eligible receivers will determine how many free players we have available. We will play a variety of Man Free coverages and Cover 0 with no free players.
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Another coverage we play with cornerbacks up in a press alignment is Cover 2. We will play the standard 2 deep, 5 under with corners in the flats and with safety help over the top on pass downs. We will also play a version of Cover 2 where we cut the corners inside and allow them to become primary run defenders with safety help over the top. This is a good complement to our base press Cover 4 look and puts the corner in an advantageous position to become a primary run defender from press alignment. This coverage complement as one of the reasons we like press coverage. We will also blitz our cornerbacks from a press alignment. I will cover both of these in detail later in this article.
Utilizing Press Coverage
We believe in press coverage and utilize it on a large percentage of our defensive snaps. The number one reason we chose to start employing press coverage was to limit the number of routes that we would have to defend, specifically for our cornerbacks. Once you start to press a wide receiver, you can eliminate pass routes you will see from an offense. Many offenses will not run certain parts of their route tree or certain concepts when they see press coverage. Trimming down the number of routes your cornerbacks and your defense have to defend allows you to spend quality time on the problem routes that create explosive plays. I once heard Mike Tressel, defensive coordinator at Michigan State, call these routes the “fatals.” That is a term we now use with our defensive backs to help them understand the most dangerous route concepts. We must be able to “defend the fatals” on a weekly basis to be successful. As I mentioned, we will press our corners in multiple coverages, so our defensive backs have to understand what coverage we are playing and which offensive concepts/routes are the most dangerous to them in that coverage. If the defensive back can understand where they have help from other defenders, and where they will be threatened by wide receivers, it allows them to adjust their alignment/technique to defend the fatals. I think this type of coverage forces your defensive backs to understand coverages conceptually and increases their knowledge of how an offense is going to attack them. During our game week preparation, our defensive backs need to be aware of the coverages we are planning to use for our opponent. What are the most common routes we will see from our opponent during that week? Which route concepts are the fatals for the coverages we plan to run? What adjustments must the defensive back be prepared to make to defend the fatals on a play-to-play basis? I also believe press coverage helps you as a coach to determine what you need to spend time on in practice. You get more repetitions working on a reduced number of pass concepts/routes that you need to be prepared to defend.
Another reason we have chosen to employ press coverage is to apply pressure to the opposing wide receivers and quarterbacks. We want to force wide receivers to work to get a release. We would also like to force the quarterbacks to make difficult throws. When you press a wide receiver, it adds another variable to their route-running ability. It also adds variability to the quarterback and wide receiver timing on certain routes. It is no longer just drop back, throw, and catch. The wide receiver now has to be concerned with getting a release off the line. They have to adjust their footwork at the start of the route, use their hands to fight against the defensive backs attempt to reroute them, and prove they are willing to be physical at the line of scrimmage. The quarterback is no longer able to count on consistent route depths and open throwing lanes/windows on the field. The precision of the offensive passing game must increase and the number of contested throws should be greater if the defensive back is able to execute proper technique. It is important to point out that this advantage will be negated if we are unable to defend the fatals. You can reduce the completion percentage of an offense and still give up points by allowing completions to become explosive plays.
The next reason we have chosen to employ press coverage is to confuse the wide receiver blocking responsibilities and protect our safeties in the run game. As previously mentioned, one of the main coverages that we play with press corners is a matching Cover 4 scheme where our safeties become primary run defenders and are responsible to be force or cutback players in our run fits. The main way for an offense to account for safeties in their blocking scheme is to send wide receivers into the box to crack block them. When we press with our corners, it makes it harder for the wide receiver to get the safeties blocked on a consistent basis. The wide receivers will also mistake the press corner for man coverage and try to run off the corner with a vertical route. This leaves the safety unblocked in run support. Playing press coverage has also made it easier for us to run a version of Cover 2 where our corners now become the primary run defender and the safeties will help over the top as a deep half defender. The corner shuffles inside toward the ball on the snap to read the end man on the line of scrimmage or number 2 receiver. If he reads run, he attacks and becomes a primary run defender. If he reads pass, he sinks back and away to defend the flat. This has added another wrinkle to our press technique that causes confusion for the wide receiver and offensive blocking responsibilities.
The final reason we have chosen to employ press coverage is to utilize our cornerbacks in our blitz package. By consistently pressing our corners in our defense, it is easier to disguise our corner blitzes. There is not a clear tip for a corner blitz by seeing a press corner because it happens consistently in our scheme. The corner blitz has become a major part of our pressure package, specifically during choice/on schedule downs where we can see a balance of run and pass. It is a great way to get edge pressure against the play-action pass game without sacrificing a hat in the box and gap integrity against the run game.
Teaching Press Technique
We teach our press corners to start with their feet in a squared stance at hip width or slightly wider. The feet should not get all the way to shoulder width because too wide of a base will not allow for the explosive lateral movement needed to cut off the wide receivers release. The cornerback should have a slight bend in the knee and hinge at the hip to approximately a 45-degree lean. They should feel some tension in the hamstrings, similar to the power position they would have for a hang clean in the weight room. I am flexible with the hand placement in our initial stance as long as the hands are in front of the body. I have some corners who are more comfortable with arms relaxed and hands dangling in front of the body, ready to shoot when needed. I have other corners who would prefer having the hands in more of a fight position out front with a bend in the elbow. The eyes should be on the belt of the wide receiver during the initial stance. Eye discipline and eye transition will be critical to the success of our press technique.
When the ball is snapped and the wide receiver begins his route, we use timing steps to activate our feet in an attempt to force the receiver to commit to a release. The initial step will happen with the outside foot and the second step will happen with the inside foot. These steps will happen in place or may inch back slightly. Again, they are timing steps to activate the feet, force our cornerback to have patience at the line, and stay as square as possible during the receiver’s initial takeoff. The cornerback does not want stationary feet that are stuck in the ground and would like to avoid overcommitting to the receiver’s initial move by flipping his hips too soon. If the cornerback “opens the gate” for the wide receiver’s release, it will be difficult to consistently stay on top of routes or in phase with the wide receiver downfield.
Once the cornerback has taken time steps and forced the receiver to commit to a release, they want to cut off the receiver’s release by moving their feet. We teach our cornerbacks to shuffle to the cutoff and win the battle at the line of scrimmage with their feet. We are always going to preach “feet first” in press coverage and will add a punch with the hand when the feet are in a position for that to occur. One of the phrases I heard when first coaching press technique was to force the wide receiver to “run around your T.” Have your cornerbacks stand in front of a receiver and extend their arms out to their sides forming a “T” with their body. The goal is to get the wide receiver rerouted outside of this area forcing him to run around the T. For this to occur, the press corner needs to understand the importance of the initial time steps, patience at the line of scrimmage, staying as square as possible as long as possible, and winning the battle at the line of scrimmage with their feet.
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Now that the cornerback has rerouted the receiver with their feet, they will use their hands to control the receiver. We use the term “opposite hand punch” when it comes to the use of our hands. This means that our cornerback should punch with the hand opposite the direction the wide receiver is releasing. If the receiver releases to the defensive backs left, it would be a right hand punch and vice versa. We want the punch to land on the shoulder pad of the wide receiver, trying to capture his shoulder. This allows the cornerback to have better control of the wide receiver, and makes it harder for the receiver to knock the cornerback’s hand/arm off after contact. It also gives the cornerback better leverage to flip his hips and re-punch if the wide receiver tries to cross his face on a double move.
We teach our cornerbacks to keep their eyes on the belt or hip of the wide receiver when in press alignment. The cornerback’s eyes should continue to track the hip of the wide receiver through the release. If the cornerback’s coverage responsibility is to match the wide receiver, they should continue to track the wide receiver’s hip until they are in position to make a play on the ball. We would call that positioning “in phase.” The cornerback must be in phase with the wide receiver before they are allowed to locate the ball in the air. If they are out of phase with the wide receiver, the cornerback should continue to track the wide receiver’s hip and hands, preparing to play through the receiver’s hands when they attempt to catch the ball.
The only time our eyes can leave the wide receiver from a press alignment would be transitioning from press alignment to a zone coverage. In that case, it is important for the cornerback to understand how to transition the eyes to the next key and not get caught “peeking” where they shouldn’t be looking. For example, when we play Cover 2 from press alignment our eyes should be on the #1 wide receiver until completing the reroute. Then the cornerback needs to transition their vision to the #2 wide receiver to locate a possible flat threat. Finally, the vision would transition to the quarterback to determine where and when to break. Another example would be playing Cover 4 match from a press alignment. The cornerback should keep their eyes on the #1 wide receiver through the release and determine if they are a vertical threat. If the receiver breaks off the route before becoming a vertical threat to the cornerback, the corner should sink back into their quarter of the field and transition the eyes to the quarterback to determine when and where to break. Vision and break are critical components to the success of a defensive back. A defensive back with eye discipline issues will rarely have success, and often find themselves giving up the fatal explosive plays.
How to Finish
The final area to cover when it comes to press technique is how to play the wide receiver and the ball after the reroute at the line of scrimmage has occurred. In other words, how to finish the play after the receiver has released and runs their pass route. If the receiver takes an outside release and runs a vertical/fade route, the defender wants to stay in phase with the receiver. We talk to our cornerbacks about “squeezing” the wide receiver to the sideline so the quarterback has less space to work with when placing the vertical throw. If the defender is able to stay in phase and squeeze the wide receiver, they should be able to play the ball in the air. If the defender is unable to stay in phase and ends up trailing the wide receiver, they should not look for the ball. Instead, they should continue to track the hip of the wide receiver until they get back into phase or the receiver’s hands flash causing the defender to play through the hands of the wide receiver attempting to get the ball out. If the receiver takes an inside release, the defender should stay on top of the route. We would like to be in phase with the top shoulder of the wide receiver and have the ability to adjust to the ball in the air. This gives us an opportunity to play through the wide receiver to make a play on the ball, or undercut the receiver with a hook and strip technique depending on the placement of the throw from the quarterback. If we are not on top of the route or in phase with the top shoulder of the wide receiver, we should not look for the ball. Instead, continue to track the hip of the wide receiver and prepare to play through the hands.
Press Technique in Action
There are six videos below, which will allow you to see our press technique in action. They include a mix of matching Cover 4 and Man coverages with cornerbacks playing press coverage. You should concentrate on the Boundary Corner in all the videos – except Video 4 which only has aField Corner – to get the best view of the press technique I previously described in this article. Videos 1, 2, and 3 show our press technique against an outside vertical/fade release. Videos 4 and 5 show our press technique against an inside release to a post and dig route. Video 6 shows our press technique against a double move slant release. These videos will allow you to see how the press technique looks at the line of scrimmage, and give you a chance to see the technique involved with playing the ball down the field.
Video 1: Press Technique vs. Outside Vertical/Fade Release – See Boundary Corner
Video 2: Press Technique vs. Outside Vertical/Fade Release – See Boundary Corner
Video 3: Press Technique vs. Outside Vertical/Fade Release – See Boundary Corner
Video 4: Press Technique vs. Inside Release to Post Route – See Field Corner
Video 5: Press Technique vs. Inside Release to Dig Route – See Boundary Corner
Video 6: Press Technique vs. Slant Route with Double Move Release – See Boundary Corner
Thanks for taking the time to read my article on press coverage technique. I hope it has been helpful to you. If you are considering the use of press coverages in your defensive scheme or have questions/suggestions about any of the information in this article, please feel free to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am always open to conversations about football, and love talking/learning about the game.
Chris Winter is entering his 14th season with the Knights and sixth as assistant head coach. He also has served as the wide receiver and running backs coach. In 2014, Wartburg led the Iowa Conference in scoring defense, total defense, rush defense, pass defense, pass-defense efficiency, fewest first downs allowed, third-down defense, and sacks. The Knights also finished the 2014 regular season ranked among the top 15 nationally in scoring defense (11.2 pts/game), passing defense (136.2 yds/game), team passing efficiency defense (88.68 percent), and total defense (257.2 yds/game).
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