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Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Teams find it's time to man up

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Asante Samuel
With Asante Samuel, the Falcons, traditionally a zone team, will go to more man coverage.

Thanks to the combination of tight end Jimmy Graham, quick running back Darren Sproles and good wide receivers, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees shredded Cover 2 and other zone defenses last year.

Leaguewide, the Cover 2 looked outdated in 2011. Rules to protect defenseless receivers have allowed smaller receivers such as Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson to run the middle of the field with limited fear of being physically blown up by a safety. Offensive coordinators continue to spread the field with four and five pass-catchers. Good pass-catching tight ends have become as important as great outside wide receiver threats.

This preseason, the response from defensive coordinators appears to be more man-to-man. As I traveled to training camps this summer, I noticed more teams implementing man-to-man concepts. Several teams are trying more press coverage at the line of scrimmage. The Cover 2 isn't dead, but teams that don't have the ability to switch between man and zone coverage based on their opponents' personnel are in trouble.

As James Brown once sang: "It's a man's world."

Nnamdi Asomugha
Nnamdi Asomugha will get to play more to his strength this season in Philadelphia.

•  Terrell Owens probably got a reality shock when he arrived last week in Seahawks camp. For two plays, he went against 6-foot-4 cornerback Brandon Browner, who plays press coverage in the style of Mel Blount. On one play last week, Browner brought Owens to the ground. On the other, Browner used his hands and strength to re-route Owens. When Owens moved to the other side of the field, Richard Sherman, a smooth man coverage corner, stayed with Owens stride for stride.

•  In Baltimore, John Harbaugh has loaded up with more than a half-dozen cornerbacks who can play man. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are long, angular corners who can stay with receivers from the line of scrimmage until the end of routes.

•  With the addition of Asante Samuel, the Atlanta Falcons, a pure Cover 2 team, are trying more man-to-man plays. Dunta Robinson is a good man-cover guy. He's getting the chance to use those skills more under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

•  The Eagles are finally utilizing the man-to-man skills of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. First-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo kept them in zone coverage much of last year. Now, the Eagles start practice with man-to-man technique drills and are allowed to be aggressive covering receivers from the line of scrimmage.

"Teams have to have variations," Asomugha said. "Teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago and others know what they are doing. Here, we've started to put that [man] element in a little bit more. They want us to be aggressive. You need to focus on the things you do well."

Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips led one of the most dramatic turnarounds of a defense in recent memory. Ownership asked for his suggestions to fix a 2010 Texans defense that had some of the worst defensive stats in NFL history. He felt they needed a defensive end for their 3-4 scheme, so they drafted J.J. Watt in 2011.

Johnathan Joseph
Johnathan Joseph provided a once-weak Texans defense with valuable coverage skills.

One of the keys to the change was adding Johnathan Joseph at cornerback because of his ability to play man. Joseph gave Phillips aggressive pass coverage, and the addition of safety Danieal Manning provided range when covering the middle of the field.

"There was a time several years ago when I was in Oakland that it was only Lenny Walls, Champ Bailey and me playing man," Asomugha said.

Not all teams are going to man. Gregg Williams used a lot of man with the New Orleans Saints. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is installing more zone from the principles he learned in Philadelphia from longtime Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Johnson's schemes featured plenty of zone blitzes from a 4-3 scheme, and that's what the Saints will try this season.

After losing Asomugha, Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson over the past two years, the Oakland Raiders, which had been a man-coverage team, are using more zone. Part of that is because of the talent. Because of cap issues, the Raiders had to grab some veteran corners off the street. If they build back the talent level through the draft, they probably will go back to man coverage more in future years.

Colleges are producing an improved crop of man-coverage cornerbacks. Buffalo may have hit on a great one in Stephon Gilmore. I was amazed at the skills of Janoris Jenkins in St. Louis. Not only does he have great skills for playing press at the line of scrimmage, but he locates the ball well and looks like a center fielder getting under high, deep passes for interceptions.

One of the next trends will be to take some of the taller corners and match them up against the best tight ends in the game. The Patriots create matchup nightmares with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. That's why the Bills drafted Gilmore and Aaron Williams over the past two years. They are taller corners who might be used to match up against the Patriots' tight ends.

The whole process has put scouts in position to recognize -- and draft -- more man cornerbacks from the college ranks.

It truly has become a man's world.