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The Cornerback Position: An In-Depth Guide

Posted by Throw Deep Publishing Staff on

It sounds strange but it's true:

Football has become an offense-first game. The ability to throw the football accurately to the receivers is what drives most offenses at the college and professional level, and leads to tons of success.

It makes sense then, that some of the most valuable people on defense are the guys responsible for shutting down the pass game and eliminating what a quarterback does best.

That's where the cornerback position comes in.

Keep reading to learn more about this crucial position in football.

What is a Cornerback in Football?

A cornerbacks primary job is to cover the wide receivers for the opposing team's offense. Whether in man or zone coverage, the passing attack will often target the cornerbacks, and some of the greatest one on one duels and rivalries in football have been between a wide receiver and a cornerback.

In man coverage, the cornerbacks job is to cover the wide receiver in what is often a one on one situation. The wide receiver has a planned route with his quarterback, and will line up with a plan to beat the cornerback to the spot he needs to get to in order to receive the football.

Darrelle Revis

The cornerbacks job is to mirror every move that receiver makes and manage to stay with him until the play is over. If he loses him, it can result in a big gain for the offense, and it is those elements that make the cornerback position one of the hardest in football to play.

Any mistake made will be capitalized on and easily result in a touchdown for the opposition. The cornerback goes into every play at a disadvantage. The wide receivers know exactly where they’re going and have practiced it thousands of times to make sure the rhythm is perfect. The cornerback has no idea and has to carefully watch the footwork of the receiver while backpedaling as the play takes shape.

Why is it called a Cornerback?

A large part of a cornerbacks duty is to protect the outside thirds of the field near the boundary, hence the term ‘corner’.

The position is part of the defensive backs unit, alongside the free and strong safeties. Teams will typically have two cornerbacks on the field to cover either side, and sometimes a third corner in a nickel package that will cover a slot wide receiver.

What are some other names for the position?

While there are not typically any other official names for the cornerback position, they are often referred to as ‘DBs’, standing for defensive backs, and the truly great ones are considered ‘lockdown corners’, for their ability to cover some of the greatest wide receivers in football.

Malcolm Butler

A lockdown corner has the ability to totally eliminate the threat of a great wide receiver in an attempt to help his team win. These players do this week in week out, covering great players for a whole game, all while starting out running backwards and without any guarantee of where the wide receiver is going to go.

What are the skills and body type needed to play the position?

Cornerbacks are fast and extremely agile. They have to be able to turn on a dime and follow a wide receiver out of his break as the football is thrown. A cornerback always starts out facing the wideout and therefore his first step is always backwards. This is known as a backpedal and after the first few steps the corner must get out of that backpedal and into a full sprint.

The ability to make these sharp turns and track with some of the game's best players makes a great cornerback.

While coverage is the main task of a cornerback, they also contribute as run defenders when running backs bounce outside. The corner has to again protect the boundary and either make the tackle or force the running back inside towards the rest of his defenders.

Who are some of the best cornerbacks ever?

There have been many great corners in the history of football. The athleticism and ability to cover just about anybody is not something easily accomplished.

Deion Sanders is largely considered one of the greatest football players and athletes of all time, and therefore the best cornerback of all time. Sanders, otherwise known as ‘Primetime’ is a two time Super Bowl champion, an 8x Pro Bowler and won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1994.

Charles Woodson is another of the all time greats, and is considered one of the greatest athletes at both the collegiate and professional level. He is the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman trophy, awarded to the greatest college football player each season.

Charles Woodson

Others include Mel Blount, Champ Bailey, Ty Law and Darrell Revis, each of which accomplished incredible feats covering the very best in the game.

There are 18 cornerbacks in the Hall of Fame in total, including legendary players such as Dick Lane (Night Train Lane), Mike Haynes, Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau.

Why is the Cornerback position so important?

Without great cornerbacks, the opposition’s wide receivers would dismantle a defense without hesitation. When a great cornerback has to go out of a game due to injury or fatigue or even just to take one play off, the first thing a quarterback will typically do is target his replacement straight away.

Quarterbacks look for weaknesses to exploit. If you have great corners you can take away that opportunity and cause a quarterback to hesitate, which can then result in your defensive linemen and pass rushers getting a sack or heavy pressure on the QB.

Joe Haden

Teams that can trust their top corner to go and cover the opposition's top wide receiver can scheme an entire defense around the fact that they have that man taken care of. Trusting a corner ‘on an island’ is not something done very often, and only the greats are left to cover their side of the field entirely by themselves with no safety help.

That’s exactly where the name ‘Revis Island’ comes from. Darrell Revis was such a great cornerback during his playing days that he was given the nickname Revis Island as a testament to his ability to totally shut down wide receivers all by himself. Those players did not enjoy a visit to Revis Island.

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