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Understanding Press Coverage, Tight Hips, and Rasul Douglas

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Things may not be what they seem with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Round 3 selection.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

[BLG Note: Welcome BGN’s newest writer, Benjamin Solak!]

Rasul Douglas, man.

You’ve likely heard the SparkNotes scouting report: Length. Ball skills. Tight hips. Scheme-limited.

As a Round 3 selection—from the compensatory picks, at that—his Week 1 status for 2017 is unclear. Usually, you expect a Round 3 pick to start in a couple of years. But Rasul Douglas likely wasn’t selected by the Philadelphia Eagles to sit and learn. In part, because a deep CB class pushed him and other talented corners (Cordrea Tankersley to Miami, Cameron Sutton to Pittsburgh) deeper into the draft than they should have gone; in part, because the Eagles desperately need new blood on the defensive boundaries.

And in part because Rasul Douglas is better than a Round 3 prospect.

Much better.

As most bold claims do, this take comes with an asterisk. Douglas has a specific skill-set, and will handcuff a secondary in terms of scheme and assignment. But a deeper dive into the tape, and a nuanced understanding of Douglas’ responsibilities, show that Douglas’ isn’t as physically limited as he seems.

More plainly, Douglas has the tools to be a dominant press-man cornerback and effective short-zone cornerback. Referred to by many as ‘tight-hipped’, Douglas does take an extra click to swivel his hips and change direction, but long legs and undisciplined feet are the greater culprits when it comes to his issues hinging his hips. Douglas possesses elite length, aggression, and ball skills, as well as sufficient lower body fluidity. These traits check the boxes for a lockdown press-man corner—it’s just a matter of maximizing his strengths and masking his weakness.

How do we do that, you say? This is the part where the GIFs come in.

Press-Man Technique

The common image of press-man coverage: The cornerback, crowding the wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. His hands are up and ready to fire, and at the snap, he shoots. With a powerful strike, he knocks the wideout off his spot before the pass-catcher can even think the word “Release.” Late off the line and knocked from his route, the wide receiver is effectually removed from the play.

And those highlights rock—don’t get me wrong. But that simply isn’t press-man coverage. It’s more like hyper-aggressive press-bail coverage, and it is of little interest to us here.

The goal of press-man coverage is still disruption within the contact window (<5 yards from the line of scrimmage). But the corner doesn’t attack, then run; he defends and redirects.

Press-man coverage starts in the feet.

Louder, for the people in the back?

Press-man coverage starts in the feet. Lined up within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage and across from the wide receiver (potentially with an inside or outside shade), the corner is responsible for mirroring the action of the wide receiver. He endeavors to keep his hips square as long as the wide receiver’s hips are square, keeping the wideout in his cylinder and only turning upfield when the wideout elects a direction to release. He tethers his eyes to the waist to determine which way the receiver is headed, for, as the illustrious Shakira once told us, hips don’t lie.

The wide receiver can do, essentially, whatever he likes at the line of scrimmage. The corner may attempt to dictate a certain release (inside or outside) based off of the scheme, but he isn’t going to attack the wide receiver. He’s going to wait for the receiver to commit.

You can see this patient mirroring sequence in the press-man drill run by Chris Ash, now head coach of Rutgers, during his time as defensive coordinator of Iowa State.

Focus on the footwork you see from the #12. He doesn’t ‘open the gate’ allowing the wideout to release vertically, but instead keeps his hips at a 45 degree angle. This ‘kick-step’ technique presses the wide receiver’s space and forces him to widen before getting vertical.

Hence, press-man.

The hands get involved only as the receiver releases. The opposite arm is extended into the breastplate of the wideout, with the elbow locked out, to create further displacement. On an outside release, one arm is used to squeeze the receiver into the sideline. On an inside/vertical release, a two-arm jam is used until the receiver begins gaining vertical ground, then the corner transitions to one arm.

A wild shove isn’t called for, and can often be detrimental. The corner sacrifices his balance to throw his weight at the wideout, and is susceptible to cuts. The goal is displacement and the minimizing of space. The corner is constantly present in the wide receiver’s space, closing the throwing window.

While there are variations of press-man technique across the league, you’ll universally find that the coverage starts in the feet, the hips open with the receiver’s, and the jam arrives later in the route stem, to redirect and close space.

Why Press-Man Matters

Jim Schwartz’s scheme allows for a variety of coverages. Because he rushes with exclusively four linemen on the majority of downs, he has seven backfield defenders. That’s enough to run virtually any coverage scheme. Of his plethora of options, he predominately runs Cover 2 as his base zone and press-man as his man coverage—why?

Because Schwartz expects to generate pressure, he’s more worried about quick, shorter passes than he is about deeper ones. He doesn’t expect the quarterback to have enough time in the pocket to consistently hit those long-developing routes.

As such, Schwartz tends to play coverages that disrupt shorter routes. Cover 2 has five flat defenders who can read the quarterback and break on the ball. Press-man disrupts the releases of quick-breaking and timing routes, while coverages like off-man allow for a cushion that can be exploited.

That’s why Rasul Douglas’ technique, toolkit, and success in press-man is so important. His ideal frame and pedestrian click-and-close illustrate a mainly press-man, occasionally zone corner. If he sees significant starting time, as I expect, it would behoove Schwartz to run press-man concepts.

I went through five Douglas games and watched all of his press-man reps. I saw a total of 46 ‘active’ reps—that is to say, the result of the play wasn’t a designed run or pre-determined throw, like a WR screen.

The quarterback looked to Douglas’ coverage on 22, or 48% of those reps; only threw it on 11, or 24% of those reps. On those 11 targets, Douglas only allowed 2 completions for 40 yards, with 0 touchdowns and 1 interception. Against Oklahoma, when Douglas followed Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook across the field, Douglas allowed no opportunities for a target out of press-man coverage.

Statistically? He good.

Film Review: Press-Man Coverage And Tight Hips

Let’s check out a press-man rep against Dede Westbrook early in the first quarter. He does a fantastic job keeping Westbrook in his back pocket—that is, staying up field relative to Westbrook. You can see how he hinges smoothly to a 45 degree angle with his hips. He reacts appropriately to, then recovers from the double move. He uses his opposite arm not to steer Westbrook into the sideline and close the throwing window for QB Baker Mayfield. This is a great rep.

But it isn’t perfect.

Douglas’ great weakness as a cornerback, especially in press-man: his stride length. He’s a high-waisted 6’2, and long strides equal slow strides for cornerbacks. It makes it quite difficult to change direction and--as we’ll see—to swivel your hips.

While Douglas does an excellent job staying sticky with Westbrook, look at the length of the stride he takes when responding to Westbrook’s hesitation. He let his feet get too narrow and almost cross, a cardinal sin during the kick-slide process of press-man coverage. As a result, when forced to stop by the double move, his weight was moving past his feet, and he had to take a long stride to gather himself.

If Westbrook had indeed released inside after the hesitation move, it may have taken Douglas a beat to ‘switchback,’ or open his hips at the opposite 45 degree angle and start moving the other direction.

You know, like this:

(Please take a moment to enjoy the nickel corner body-checking the umpire.)

That laborious 180 degree rotation of Douglas’ hips, when he overreacts to the outside fake and has to switchback to get moving upfield? The time it takes for him to get his left leg around and planted? That’s hip stiffness. No ifs, ands, or buts. The duration of that switchback allows the receiver to gain all sorts of leverage on him. Less than ideal.

But the deleterious effect of this hip stiffness is augmented by Douglas’ poor foot discipline and natural length. When reacting to the outside fake, his left foot crosses over his right, and that forces his hips to close. Instead of simply pivoting off his right foot to switchback he has to take another new step and work his hips through an even larger angle.

And imagine if Douglas were 4 inches closer to the ground. When he eventually plants his right foot to change direction, he has to expend more energy through his hips to move his longer legs a greater distance. Shorter legs may cover less ground, but they’re easier to swivel. In other words, the torque generated by the hips has to do significantly more work moving Rasul Douglas legs when compared to, say, Donnel Pumphrey legs.

As such, Douglas’ perceived hip-stiffness is a conflation of poor footwork, length, and, well, hip stiffness. It’s a problem, but it isn’t as bad as it seems.

Now, we can’t fix length—and as a matter of fact, it helps more than it hurts. Because he has such a large radius, Douglas can still disrupt patterns after his transitions take time. We can, however, fix weight distribution. Douglas often pops up out of his backpedal, which forces his weight over his heels instead of his toes, which leads to poor footwork, which—I don’t know if you’ve heard—slows down hip transitions.

At the end of the day, Douglas’ length will always slow down his transitions. That’s a reality—longer strides are...you know...longer. That being said, disciplined footwork can mitigate some of these issues, if Douglas can refine the technique and utilize it consistently.

This is imperative for Douglas’ development as a press-man corner. Inconsistent footwork speckles his tape, and his length saves him in college far more often than it will in the NFL. That’s what Philadelphia is banking on, if and when they start their third-rounder: That he can make strides (oh, that’s a bad pun) in his foot technique.

Because when press-man footwork is clean, incredibly fluid hips simply aren’t essential.

Bottom of screen

No cross. Kick step into 45 degree hinge. Money.

“But wait, Ben! What if Rasul Douglas doesn’t develop clean press-man footwork, Ben? What if he doesn’t develop—some players don’t, you know! What then, huh?”

Calm down, imaginary naysayer.

The second GIF (vs Iowa State), wherein Douglas bit on the outside fake and had to ‘switchback’, began our investigation of Douglas’ suspect flexibility. But when a press-man corner bites hard on a fake, there’s more than one technique for recovery.

Ladies and gentlemen, the whip turn:

You’ll notice the footwork is by no means dirty. Douglas just overreacts to the head fake (eye discipline helps foot discipline). But instead of trying to pull his hips through a switchback, Douglas instead flips his heads and his shoulders and rotates the other way, working his hips through a smaller angle, to get right back in phase with the WR. While he isn’t in the ideal spot, Douglas is in position to make a play on the ball by the time the wideout reaches the sticks. That’s an excellent, heady recovery.

So even if Douglas’ footwork fails him, he flashes the recovery ability to work through his natural limitations and reacquire a position to capitalize on his strengths. He flashes multiple recovery abilities, multiple times, on tape. The value of those skills cannot be understated.

Notes could be made on Douglas’ successes and failures in zone (mostly successes) and off-man (mostly, um...not). But that’s for another post. Rasul Douglas, the press-man cornerback, has the length and flashes the footwork to consistently disrupt at the line of scrimmage. His biggest knock, while present on tape, is exacerbated by his technical deficiencies and frame. Cleaning up those issues will assuage the effect of that knock.

Remember what we said in the beginning: Round 3 selections are expected to start within a couple of years. Douglas will likely be forced into a starting role earlier rather than later, and the prayer is that those starting reps won’t ingrain in his muscle memory his poor footwork. But keep an eye on those feet throughout Douglas’ early career. If they land with more consistency and discipline, he has CB1 upside in Jim Schwartz’s scheme.

And I won’t even put an asterisk on that take.