To get a better understanding of the necessary techniques and keys to being successful in press coverage in the NFL, as well as how to beat it, we sat down with Chicago Bears WR Kendall Wright and CB Prince Amukamara.
When the Chicago Bears drafted CB Kyle Fuller in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the team was still using former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s hybrid Cover 2 system.
It was a system that relied heavily on zone coverage, which is the strongest area of Fuller’s game. He showed promise early in his rookie season but it has been a steep uphill climb for the Viriginia Tech product ever since.
A major hurdle for Fuller has been adapting to current coordinator Vic Fangio’s man-based system. Fangio often puts his cornerbacks on an island in one-on-one situations with little safety help. Successful corners under Fangio are those who can execute press coverage in isolated man-to-man situations, which is Fuller’s biggest area of weakness.
As a result, the Bears invested in free-agent cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper this off-season. Both are long corners with plenty of experience in press-man sets.
During OTAs and minicamp, Amukamara stood out for his prowess in man coverage, where he’s been a PBU machine the past month.
“To be honest, this is one of the best OTAs I’ve had, yeah,” Amukamara told Bear Report. “I credit it to [defensive backs] coach Ed [Donatell]. He’s a great coach, a great asset for me. He’s been coaching me up. As a seventh-year guy it’s natural to think you know it all and you can’t really learn that much but just what he teaches broadened my knowledge of the game that much more.
“We’re working on my backpedal mostly and just football IQ. Reading leverages on the receiver, reading just different formations by the offense. So just little stuff like pre-snap reads that can help me play faster.”
The Bears desperately need a player like Amukamara to emerge as a legitimate No. 1 corner, one who can get in the face of opposing wide receivers and win on third down.
Yet what does it take to be effective in press coverage?
“Offense is all about timing, it’s all a rhythm,” said Amukamara. “So any time I can make the guy stutter or hesitate a little bit, I’m throwing off that much timing.”
Disrupting that timing often involves a cornerback using his hands to physically alter the receiver’s route. Yet that can backfire if the defender is too aggressive at the line of scrimmage, as quick receivers can fly past a corner whose weight is too far over his toes.
To avoid that scenario, Amukamara says patience is crucial at the LOS.
“If I stay patient and he’s [dancing around], that’s taking time off. If I can get a hand on him, I’m taking time off too. Anyway to disrupt the timing of the route is a positive for me.”
Hand usage is equally important for receivers tasked with beating press coverage.
“First of all, if a guy is in your face and he’s pressing, you’ve got to already have a plan coming to the line of scrimmage,” WR Kendall Wright told Bear Report. “I think you’ve got to, as a receiver, you’ve got to get your hands up and be ready for that contact by the DB and don’t let him get your hands on you. Whether you speed release him or hit him with a move at the line, you’ve just got to beat him.”
Yet press coverage isn’t always a matter of working over a receiver in the chuck zone. Often, press coverage is used to mask off coverage, where the defender bails out of press at the snap.
For a receiver, does press-bail change your strategy in a one-on-one situation?
“No, you’ve just got to have a plan to play fast as a receiver at all times, whether it’s press or press-bail,” said Wright.
Press coverage, and man coverage in general, often leads to jump-ball situations between receiver and defender. This especially true when there is no safety help over the top, as NFL quarterbacks gravitate toward one-on-one matchups.
For a defender, what is the key to winning in 50/50 situations?
“It’s definitely want-to,” Amukamara said. “I played with one of the best in the game who can do it, Odell [Beckham Jr.]. What he told me is that he’s trying to take the ball away, not catch but he’s trying to take it. That’s the mindset of a corner. When you go up, you’re not a defender. You’re the offense now. You have just as much right to the ball as the offensive player.
“I’m just trying to make the catch. I think that’s the difference between PBUs and picks. Guys are trying to catch it like an offensive guy and some guys are trying to defend it and knock it down like a defensive guy.”
Man coverage also leads to plenty of downfield opportunities where defenders are running stride-for-stride with pass catchers up the sideline.
On deep balls where both players are sprinting vertically, how does a cornerback know when to look back for the ball?
“I think corners, if they’ve played the game a little longer, you just have that invisible clock in your head. It could be a tip from the receiver’s body language, but usually you just know the ball is coming,” said Amukamara. “That or the eyes, or what we’re taught is to play the hands. If the receiver is running, as soon as he puts his hands up, you know the play is about to happen.”
For both receivers and corners, there are many layers to playing press coverage. Yet, despite having played four years in the NFL, Wright hasn’t faced much press.
“I haven’t gotten too much press like that,” he told me.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking but I would love for anybody to press me because I feel like I can beat anybody.”