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Cornerbacks: To press or not to press

Wcg_thumb_xo_mediumA hot topic of discussion the last few years is how far the Bears usually have their corners off the line of scrimmage.  Is it a coaching point, or do the players just play off on their own?  When they do play some bump and run coverage is it in the defensive game plan to do so or are the DB's making the call to do it?  Make no mistake about it, where ever the corners line up it's a coach's call. 

It's schemed where they line up.  If a CB is playing off on his own, going against the game plan, and he's getting burned with quick slants or hitches that player will be benched, and conversely if a CB is playing up tight against the coaches wishes and he isn't effective he'll find some pine time as well.

In last Sunday's game it was pointed out that Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald likes when corners play him close, and why not, at 6'3" & 217 pounds he's bigger and stronger than most every corner he plays against.  While Charles Tillman played tight on a handful of snaps, the Bears played off the majority of the time.  When is the opportune time to press?  When is it best to play off?  Unless you're an elite CB, blessed with incredible make up speed, you play according to scheme.  And the Bears scheme usually dictates play loose.

In the Cover 2 type defense we've seen in Chicago during the Lovie Smith era, the corners are responsible for the sideline in about 12/13 yards, keeping balls thrown to the flats in front of them.  The Bears favor physical corners (Tillman, Zackary Bowman, and Corey Graham) who should be able to press.  In theory, the CB's could easily play press coverage while looking for a back coming to the flat or a slot WR or TE running an out or arrow route into their zone.  By pressing the split end they'll throw off the timing of a quick slant or skinny post in between horizontal zones (CB/LB) or a fade or go route behind him (between the CB/S). 

I've always felt that playing real soft coverage on the WR's in zone gives too much of an advantage to the offense.  If the CB's play off the slant can be thrown immediately, before the wide out can get close to the 2nd defender in.  Pressing up will make the WR have to work to get into his route and give the defense a chance to be effective.  With all the 3 step drops the Bears see, doing anything to disrupt the timing patterns should be priority #1. 

In some variations of the zone defense, the corners are actually responsible for sticking man to man if they go deep, so pressing them could be a problem.  If you try to bump and run, but don't get a good jam, you risk getting blown by.  The same can obviously be said when in man to man, so if the corner doesn't have the speed to stick with a WR, pressing isn't a good idea.  None of the Bears corners have what you would call track speed.  No 4.3 40's in that group.  So why take a chance on playing tight.  This is the biggest reason why they elect to rarely press. 

Generally speaking, defenses that get to the QB with a regularity can press more, with the thinking that routes that take time to develop won't work if the QB is running for his life.  And by pressing you take away the quick timing routes QB's look for when they sense a blitz. 

Other times you'll see some teams funneling wide outs to their help with press coverage.  For example, if a defense is in a rolled over 3 deep look, (The 3 deep consisting of both safeties rolling over to one corners side with the other corner responsible for the other third of the field) the corner that is pressing may try and induce the WR to an outside release knowing he has over the top help from a safety.  If the team is a primarily a Cover 2 team, this is a great wrinkle to add to the defense.  You may get a QB reading Cover 2 off the snap that attempts to hit his WR down the sideline (the usual hole in the Cover 2 between the CB/S), but with the safety over further than in the Cover 2 (because he only has deep third responsibility) he could be there for the pick.

Bottom line is the Bears don't press because they don't have the type of defense that allows you to press, both scheme wise and with their personnel.  The Bears just don't bring the kind of heat on opposing QB's that would benefit from bump and run coverage.  If the Bears did play tight, with the QB having plenty of time to scan the field, NFL WR's would eventually beat the press.  Remember no track star DB's in this group.  They could mix things up and press while in zone from time to time, but again if the QB is allowed to sit in the pocket, it'll be easy pickens.

If you think of the CB's and/or teams that are successful with the bump and run type coverage, you'll either think of the corners with great make up speed, that could make plays on the ball seemingly where ever they are on the field, or the teams that eat quarterbacks for lunch.  Two things we don't see in Chicago.