Friday, August 7, 2009

Corner Concerns

Look, I know it is a week into training camp, and panicking over anything other than season-ending injuries is a rather fruitless effort. There's a long way to go, and this group of professional players are all still in learning mode.

But one thing that popped out at me this week was the repeated burns of our corners, particularly veteran Al Harris. Now, we've all thought he was on the verge of losing a step anyway, but the hope was that playing zone might be a better situation for him: not as much need for catchup speed when you are playing back a bit.

But I learned this week that Dom Capers' version of the 3-4 puts even more pressure on the corners: oftentimes, when the linebackers are sent in to blitz, the safeties have the responsibility to come up and provide backup. This takes away the over-the-top coverage that corners are used to.

This little tidbit from Bedard:

One thing you never saw in Bob Sanders’ defense that you do now: cornerbacks having to fend for themselves in the deep part of the field. Since the safeties have to cover for the linebackers during blitzes, a common sight in camp thus far is a cornerback with no help around him. Tramon Williams had that happen to him during team run when James Jones and Rodgers hooked up on a long pass.

And that is what concerns me. There are a lot of us that have (quietly) prepared ourselves mentally for the decline of Al Harris, reassured by the promise shown by Tramon Williams last year. Given Williams' contract extension and stellar play in the OTAs, some were even looking forward to it, already penciling in Harris at nickel

But Williams has also had a rough TC so far, and while Woodson has been able to nail down his side of the field pretty solidly, the concerns have to be there for the opposite side.

I've long been critical of the safety play. I think we have a stable of run-stoppers that struggle in their pass coverage responsibilities. The switch to the 3-4 seems, once again, to play to the strengths of our safeties...they will be spending more time playing up closer to the line in run and short pass support as the linebackers take on the rush responsibilities.

That's fine, but it would seem to me that you would need stronger cornerbacks in order to pull this off. Two years ago, I think you could have quite easily made the case that we had two of the best corners in the NFL, and if nothing else, the best bump-and-run tandem in the league.

The year is 2009, our corners are two years older and reaching the age where many veterans strongly consider retirement (and others have the decision made for them by coaches who want to inject youth into their position). It's one thing to take our corners and change how they've done things since the Jim Bates days: taking them off the line and putting them into the more cerebral zone coverage instead of the mano-y-mano man coverage they are used to and excel at. It's making the task a little bit more difficult to set them out on an island against NFL receivers (including Calvin Johnson and Percy Harvin twice a year), taking away that over-the-top help they are used to.

So, seeing Harris struggling in this new role isn't unexpected or surprising, but the thought that Williams is also struggling has to raise an eyebrow. One thing that Mike McCarthy does, at least offensively, is to modify the schemes to try and cover the holes. However, it seems like he has left the responsibilities of the other side of the ball to the defensive coordinator. I do have faith in Dom Capers to make it work, but it is hard to cover for consistent inconsistency without hurting another part of your game.

And, God help us if Woodson suffers any length of missed playing time.

Again, it is far too early to hit the Panic Button, but this is going to be an interesting development to watch over the next several weeks.

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