How to Become a Complete Cornerback

Former NFL cornerback Juran Bolden said, “Getting beat is just part of football. You show me a cornerback who’s never had a touchdown thrown against him. It happens. But when it happens, you just have to make sure you find a way to come back and compete and get your fair share of plays.” This quote sums up a lot about playing cornerback. There are a lot of responsibilities for cornerbacks which makes it difficult to stop every pass, but don’t get your head down after each completion.

Man Coverage

Man coverage is really self-explanatory. Essentially, a cornerback will be locked on with a specific receiver for the entire play. During these situations your coach might be wanting to bring some linebackers or safeties on a blitz, which requires you to stay with your man the entire time. 

This can be difficult with the middle of the field open, so you must be aware of any inside routes. The two primary options you have is to press to prevent an immediate inside route or play loose and be ready to attack any inside releases. Depending on whether it’s cover 0 or cover 1, you may not have help behind so make sure to not get beat over the top. Man coverage does require steady cornerbacks, but it also allows for increased pressure on the opposing quarterback.

Here Head Coach Larry Kindbom at Washington University explains the fundamentals of man coverage.

Source: Cornerback Play and Techniques

Zone Coverage

If the coach calls for a zone, then the cornerback is responsible for a certain area on the field. Whether it be monitoring the flats or covering the deep zones, these schemes can provide some flexibility to keep the offense uneasy.

One of the more common zone coverages is cover 2, which means there are two safeties covering the deep zones. The corner, who is covering the flat, must attempt to force the receiver inside thus allowing the safety to come in and make a play. In cover 3, the corners take the deep zones in the field along with the free safety. Cover 4, also known as a prevent defense, means there are four defenders in the deep zones. The key with cover 3 and cover 4 is to not stay too deep or else the offense will recognize they can beat you with short underneath passes.


Bump and Run

In a strategy perfected by Oakland Raiders’ Willie Brown, the bump and run strategy involves a defensive back lining up straight in front of the receiver. Then upon the snap, he’ll try to slow the receiver down with his arms or hands and mess up the route. It is not something that should be recommended for an inexperienced cornerback. If you’re not careful, the receiver could sneak around and get wide open deep for a massive gain. The bump and run is also more efficient if you are a cornerback with size that will allow you to control the receiver more easily.

If successful, a bump and run tactic can severely disrupt the timing between a quarterback and the intended receiver. However, the corner must also be aware of the defense his team is in. If it’s a man, he needs to be prepared to turn and run with the receiver after the jam. Conversely, if a zone is called, the jam can be a little more aggressive as the corner will then slide into his zone after the initial jam.

Defensive Backfield Overview

While I’ve already been discussing some of the common alignments for cornerbacks, I thought it would be helpful to also give a quick overview of the entire defensive backfield. This is because all defensive backs need to be on the same page at all times. The cornerbacks need to be highly knowledgeable of the coverages so they are fully aware of where the help is and in what areas they are all alone.

  • Cornerbacks – There are typically two starting cornerbacks. The primary traits to look for are speed and agility, while height is also becoming a more common characteristic of elite corners.
  • Strong Safety – Here you have the strongest and biggest player of the defensive backfield. Strong safeties are heavily involved in the run game and usually responsible for covering tight ends and running backs.
  • Free Safety ­– A good word to describe a free safety is the last line of defense. He usually positions himself farther from the line of scrimmage and needs above-average speed.
  • Nickel backs – Nickel and dime backs often come on the field in clear passing situations. They replace slower linebackers to provide more capable coverage players onto the field to cover additional receivers.

Helping in Run Defense

Playing cornerback isn’t all about covering receivers. In fact, most of the more talented cornerbacks also possess the talent to provide assistance in the run game. Whether the corner is playing tight or loose, they still need to keep an eye in the backfield. However, this does get difficult when playing man coverage. While in man, the corner has to stay with the receiver at all times, which makes it tough to peer into the backfield. 

Ultimately, it comes down to taking advantage of your instincts to determine what the impending play will be. Another key tip is to always practice your tackling when you have the opportunity. Oftentimes on sweeps the corner may have to either record the tackle or force the running back out of bounds.

Here former Coastal Carolina Cornerback D’jordan Strong discusses the run fit.

Source: Cornerback Keys to Lockdown Coverage Course


One thing that scouts consistently look for amongst cornerbacks is whether they can convert an interception when the chance presents itself. Turnovers are so vital in today’s game that you can’t afford to consistently let balls bounce off your hands. This is why I suggest young cornerbacks continually practice catching the ball. Furthermore, you need to develop an inner-mindset that if the ball comes your way, you’re going to be making the interception. Even if you drop one, internalizing this mindset will increase your confidence.

A lot of what goes into making interceptions deals with body positioning. If you’re going up against a taller receiver, positioning is the only way to make a play on the ball. Once positioning isn’t an issue and you know how to defend particular routes, work on jumping. This may seem elementary, but sometimes cornerbacks get frozen when they see taller receivers in a goal-to-go situation. Eliminate these negative thoughts and simply go up and get it!

Disguising a Blitz

Football is a chess match. Coaches are going to be consistently competing against each other to try to outsmart their counterparts. One method that keeps the offense guessing is disguised blitzes. 

As a cornerback, you’ll likely be involved in these disguises from time to time. The ultimate goal is to sell the opposing offense to think you’re in coverage. In order to successfully do this, align across the receiver like normal. Now, it is important to try and time the snap. As the quarterback begins his cadence, start creeping closer to the line of scrimmage. At this time, you can either initiate the blitz or fake it. Upon faking it, the quarterback might think you’re blitzing and throw it immediately to your receiver. The result: Easy Interception!

Becoming the Next Richard Sherman

The Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman has quickly become one of the elite cornerbacks in the NFL. Most of this is due to the fact that he’s mastered the traits discussed in this article. He’s excellent in man and zone coverage. Sherman is not afraid to jam the receiver and has great chemistry with the rest of his defensive backfield. 

Lastly, he knows how to come away with the ball for an interception. As I mentioned from the start, cornerback isn’t an easy position. The best way to overcome its difficult nature is to continuously practice the physical and technical skills required.


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