From corner to center stage

Defense: Enforcement of the 5-yard bump rule puts a premium on having cornerbacks with the size and speed needed to shut down elite receivers.

Nfl Preview 2004

The League

September 09, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Dodging a blizzard of yellow flags this summer, cornerbacks once again are on the spot and under fire in the NFL.

When the league's competition committee declared in March that officiating crews would make enforcing the long-standing 5-yard bump rule a "point of emphasis," it signaled the latest advance in the push for more offense.

It was, simultaneously, another step backward for defenders.

It remains to be seen what impact the enforcement will have in 2004; the fact that receivers no longer can be touched after 5 yards should empower the passing game.

But it is more clear now that having a so-called shut-down cornerback is an invaluable weapon for any playoff-aspiring defense, perhaps even a necessary one.

No less an authority than Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis learned the importance of elite cover corners when he left the Pittsburgh Steelers to join the Ravens as defensive coordinator in 1996. The Ravens were in a search mode then and Lewis became the architect of a Super Bowl defense.

"I think the most important part of this is being able to cover people," Lewis said. "I underestimated it when I came from Pittsburgh to Baltimore. I credit Ozzie [Newsome] and his vision with doing that for me. And what we did in Baltimore paid dividends, obviously."

On the flip side, Newsome, the Ravens' general manager, was on the committee that decided stricter enforcement of the bump rule was needed because of declining passing statistics a year ago.

"As a committee, we had a chance to go back and look at two years of defensive back play and how our officials were calling it," Newsome said. "What we wanted to do was make it a little more clear-cut: What is defensive pass interference? What is offensive pass interference?

"The difference is receivers will have more freedom, as they should have."

In the tradeoff, cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers will have less. That became apparent in the preseason, when officials called a lot of illegal contact penalties to affirm the new interpretation.

The team that inspired this fresh look at illegal contact, the New England Patriots, won two Super Bowls in the past three years with a physical, pressing style of pass coverage.

The 2001 Patriots roughed up the St. Louis Rams' receivers to win the Super Bowl, and gained widespread attention for doing the same to the Indianapolis Colts in last season's AFC championship game win. But Patriots coach Bill Belichick insists his defensive backs are not taught to break the rules.

"There isn't one penalty that we are coaching," he said recently. "If something is illegal and it is a foul, then we're coaching the players not to do it that way, and trying to find a way that we can get the job done without causing a foul, with very few exceptions."

In a league leaning more on the pass each season, teams with a shut-down corner can better navigate the tricky back roads of playoff football. Elite corners often are the difference between winning and losing. Yet, their margin for error grows smaller with each new offensive wrinkle and rule change.

Mastering that margin is how a player joins the league's short list of elite corners. It's a list that includes Ty Law of New England, Chris McAlister of the Ravens, Champ Bailey of the Denver Broncos, Charles Woodson of the Oakland Raiders, Patrick Surtain of the Miami Dolphins and Samari Rolle of the Tennessee Titans.

Credentials start with a mentality common to great players.

"The first thing they all have is a mind-set to play on the corner," Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "That is the resilience to compete and think as a winner every down. It is very difficult to get in those guys' heads to the point that they shut it down."

Other qualifications are physical.

"You have to have size because most receivers are 6-3, 6-4," Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "You've got to have great speed because these guys can run down the field. But you also have to have quickness, strength and toughness.

"And a complete corner has to be able to tackle and have great ball skills. A lot of guys can cover, but can't find the ball. When the ball's in the air, the good ones [play like] a wide receiver."

Nolan is quick to draw the line between cover corners and complete players.

"Some guys are cover corners by choice, not by limitation," he said. "If somebody has a tremendous amount of talent and size, and they choose not to be a complete player and not play the run, they can still be a very effective player in the NFL. But the guy calling the shots has to realize that so he doesn't put that player in a situation where he's not going to be successful."

The Patriots' Law rates among the league's best even though he's 30 and no longer has outstanding speed. Last year, Law's ninth season in the NFL, was perhaps his best.

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