Playing The Slot Corner For The Steelers Is Never Easy

Among Steelers fans, William Gay doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of friends.

Admittedly, it’s not as bad right now as it was last year. But Steelers fans remember the Patriots torching Gay for pass after pass last year. Fans get upset thinking about Gay’s struggles to matchup with tight ends and slot receivers in man coverage. They consider him smaller and slower than they would like a Steelers cornerback to be.

And because of all that, some fans get very frustrated when they see #22 on the roster and on the field.

But most Steelers fans may not fully understand just what all is involved in playing the nickel corner spot for the Steelers, which is probably the biggest explanation as to why you see Gay and not Curtis Brown playing the nickel spot in 2011.

In fact, that’s pretty much how Mike Tomlin explained it recently when asked why Gay is the nickel corner.

“The ability to play in the slot is usually exemplified by what a guy is able to take in from an above-the-neck standpoint. It is probably more like safety with the position than it is like corner, and he has shown an aptitude for it,” Tomlin said during a recent press conference.

Playing in Dick LeBeau’s defense is like signing up for a calculus course no matter where you play. But playing as the nickel or seam corner for the Steelers is like adding a bit of theoretical physics on top.

I’m not going to be able to explain all that goes into playing nickel corner for LeBeau, partly because I can promise you that I don’t understand all of it (or most of it). But thanks to a lot of reading, film watching and a helpful copy of the Bengals 2002 defensive playbook (written by LeBeau), hopefully I can offer some additional understanding of what to look for when the Steelers take the field.

There are a whole lot of coverages, and a whole lot of duties that a nickel corner can have in the Steelers system, but one of the cornerstones is the fire zone scheme, which is what we’re going to focus on today. In fact, it’s so complicated that we’re just going to focus on one aspect of the fire zone blitz.

LeBeau has more blitz combinations than you can count, but in a large number of them, he’s sending five rushers of some combination, while playing a three-man underneath zone, with a three deep zone over the top of that. No matter who’s coming on the blitz, be it James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley or Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior, behind them the Steelers are going to try to cover the seams while the middle zone is (or at least was in 2002) called the three receiver hook.

Generally the nickel corner if he’s not blitzing is going to be handling one of the seams.

To play the seam, you aren’t focused on playing a man; you’re focused more on covering an area (as we said, it’s a zone). But there are a whole lot of rules that go into figuring out who and where to cover.

So let’s start out with the basic rules as spelled out by LeBeau back in 2002.

So the outside corner lines up on the #1 receiver (the receiver the furthest outside on that side of the field). The seam corner lines up on the #2 receiver. And both of them (as well as the three receiver hook) have to be aware of whether a third receiver (usually a running back, but also potentially a tight end lined up on that side) is coming out into the pattern.

Now in many other coordinator’s defensive schemes, the nickel corner’s job is to play his receiver inside out. By that I mean that he’s supposed to try to route everything outside as much as he can. In LeBeau’s defense, the player playing the seam (the nickel corner in this instance) is looking to play everything outside to inside. So he lines up outside of the slot reciever and attempts to bump/route him to the inside.

Why does LeBeau’s defense emphasize routing receivers inside? My best guess is because a corner working outside to inside is turned to see the quarterback and the rest of the backfield. A corner working inside-out is by his positioning, turning his back to the backfield. Do remember that everything in the Steelers’ defense is first predicated on stopping the run–it’s easier to do that if you can see into the backfield. Also, having an outside technique makes it easier to funnel running backs back inside, where a Steelers corner should be getting plenty of help from the line and the linebackers.

And if it’s a pass play, you have a defensive back who can see both the receiver and the backfield instead of one who is just focused on the receiver. There are definite advantages to that as it allows you a much better awareness of where the ball is going–not just from where the quarterback’s eyes are, but also by the nature of a drop. If he’s on a three-step drop, expect to see the receiver run a slant, stop or other short route. If it’s a seven-step drop, the quarterback is likely looking deep.

Communication is key.

The seam corner has to engage the No. 2 receiver, route him outside-in, but if the No. 2 receiver runs a crossing route, he hands him off to the man handling the 3RH zone (communication is key!).

But if the No. 1 receiver (the outside receiver) runs the crossing route and cuts inside while the No. 2 receiver runs a fly route or an out route, the seam corner handles the crossing route (and eventually hands it off the the middle (3RH) zone man) while the outside corner handles the No. 2 receiver (communication is key).

Oh, and there’s one addendum to this. The rules state that the seam corner has to handle the first man who crosses his face. So let’s take that last scenario where the No. 1 receiver cuts inside, the No. 2 (slot receiver) runs an out or a streak. The seam corner is covering the No. 1 receiver on his crossing route, but if the back on that side leaks out on a flat route and in doing so is getting outside of the seam corner, the seam corner has to leave the No. 1 receiver to pick up the back coming out of the backfield.

See how this can get confusing? If you’re playing in the slot, you don’t just physically match up with a receiver and run all over the field with him. Instead, there’s a whole lot of thinking and a whole lot of reading and reacting going on. And the example I gave is just one of a series of coverage schemes and responsibilities the slot corner can face.

That explains why William Gay is the Steelers’ slot corner. Brown may have more physical talent and he might eventually be a great slot corner, but it’s a lot tougher to learn how to handle the seam than it is to handle playing outside in the Steelers defense.

If this type of story interests you, there are a couple of sites I’d recommend. Smart Football and Blitzology do a good job of breaking down the Xs and Os of various teams. Blitzology’s series of posts about Dick LeBeau’s defense helped inspire this post and also gave me understanding on several aspects of LeBeau’s scheme that were confusing me.

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  • Canadian Steeler

    Great content JJ. It’s too bad (for us) that you have other stuff going on, because your stuff here is always awesome.

  • Mike L

    Would not the assignment for the zone LB and zone safety be just as difficult except usually LBs and safeties don’t have CB speed.  Any overload is strong vs zone coverage but you need time to break the zone. thus the reason for sending 5 blitzers. The zone coverage causes the QB to hold the ball longer and the attackers need to get to the QB.  One reason the Packers used additional blocking protection in the SB.  Max protect seems to be the counter for the zone blitz, that gives smart QBs (Brady, Brees, and Rodgers) time to pick apart the zone. 

    • JJ Cooper

      Yeah, playing the seam in the Steelers defense is tough no matter if you’re a corner or a safety. Playing the 3RH spot isn’t exactly easy either.

    • Canadian Steeler

      What’s the counter to that counter then? Something like what the Jets did and rushing only 3-4 so all that extra protection is useless? It’s hard to know if the Steelers have the quality of secondary that they could cover (even if it’s only 3 receivers) Welker or Jennings for an extended period of time. It’s interesting to see the game theory involved with all this.

      • Mike L

        I think if you rush 4 you have to take Farrior out, go dime and bring B-mac in, put him in the slot FS role and move the FS back.  The other idea is bring more pressure by having Timmon (3RH) have the option to run a delayed blitz.  Also switch safety roles and have Troy, Lewis and Ike play press coverage with Clark helping deep, more of a high risk/reward formation. 

        • Anonymous

          I think rushing 4 is the default behavior in the base defense. You send the two DEs, the NT, and one of the OLBs. The other OLB, and the two ILBs drop into coverage if they read pass.

        • Anonymous

          I think rushing 4 is the default behavior in the base defense. You send the two DEs, the NT, and one of the OLBs. The other OLB, and the two ILBs drop into coverage if they read pass.

  • Kev4heels

    Thanks for the explanations! Love learning the intricacies of football!
    Keep em’ coming!

  • Smheart78

    Very insightful. Give me another one please. Particularly where it ends up with Farrior, ILB,  covering the TE/RB/WR. It would seem to me that his read/reaction must be the most demanding?

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Very interesting stuff.  Watching most of the games on TV, it is hard to see all formations and the movement.  And while I can see more of the action in person, I’m sure I’d miss more than I’d understand.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Very interesting stuff.  Watching most of the games on TV, it is hard to see all formations and the movement.  And while I can see more of the action in person, I’m sure I’d miss more than I’d understand.

  • foosball

    great post, but what do they change up to handle the dinks and dunks and then deep bombs of an offense like NE?

    • http://ThePublicProfessor.com The Public Professor

      Bump and run!  God, I miss Rod Woodson.

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