clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Defensive Coverage Techniques I - Backpedal, Slide, Jam

Over the course of the off-season, we would like to discuss some basic defensive techniques and strategies along with common defensive looks that you will see over the course of a football season--specifically in pass coverage. Since we are all at different levels of technical understanding of the game and the positions, we thought we would start with the absolute basics and work towards more complicated aspects of pass coverage. Please be patient if these concepts are elementary and remember that understanding technique is critical to successful play.

There are a few basic techniques that a defender will utilize on any given play to get into pass coverage. At the snap of the ball, the defender will try to jam the receiver, bump the receiver then get into coverage, or will immediately drop into coverage. There are typically two techniques to immediately drop into coverage, the slide step and the backpedal.  Please note that these concepts apply to all defenders even though we will mainly focus on the defensive backs and corners here.

The first important aspect in pass coverage, particularly for a defensive back, is the backpedal. Backpedaling is usually the first move that a defensive back (especiallyy the corner) will make when the ball is snapped. One should note that a straight backpedal is extremely common for man coverage techniques. In a backpedal, the defender’s body is squared up with the target. The defender will try to maintain as low a center of gravity as possible and keep his weight over the balls of his feet. The necessity of backpedaling on the toes slightly leaning forward with a low center of gravity allows the defender to move backwards yet stay in a position to make a forward or lateral break.


An alternative to the backpedal is the slide step technique. The slide step is often utilized when a defense is playing zone defense. The slide step is similar to a defensive basketball move. The defender maintains a low center of gravity and moves laterally/side to side by sliding down the field until the receiver puts him in a position to turn and run or make a break. The main key here is to never let your feet cross one another. This technique allows the defender to look into the backfield with his primary vision and watch the WR he is lined up over with peripheral vision (or vice-versa, depending on how good the DB really is). It also allows the defender to better see receivers running in or out of a particular zone. This technique requires the defender to have good body control, as he may need to open his hips nearly 180 degrees if necessary to run with a receiver. This is why, when looking at DB recruits, that you will often hear of hip flexibility.

When playing these basic techniques, the cornerbacks will typically give the defender a cushion to begin the play.  A cushion is an area of space between the defender and the receiver.  This cushion is typically 5-10 yards and depends on defensive strategy as well as the skill levels of the offensive and defensive players.  At the snap of the ball, the defender will typically move downfield (backward) using one of the aforementioned techniques, allowing the receiver to shrink this cushion.  The defender will then play his assigned coverage.

Who utilizes the above techniques?  All defenders in pass coverage will utilize the backpedal in some fashion.  Defensive backs often utilize this technique in both man and zone coverages.  Cornerbacks typically utilize the slide step when they are located on the perimeter (outside) of an offensive formation.  Linebackers, too, sometimes utilize the backpedal and often play a technique that is a mix between the backpedal and slide step.  This technique involves the LB opening his hips and sliding to drop into proper position for a zone defense.

We often refer to points in coverage when a defender “jams” a receiver. A jam is essentially a bump or chuck at the line of scrimmage (LOS). The purpose of a bump at the LOS is to throw the receiver off of his initial route. This bump can easily disrupt a timing route or force a receiver out of his original route path. Depending on the coverage type, the defender will initialize and utilize the bump in several ways. Jamming a receiver is a risk reward tactic. If the jam is successful, the receiver will be severely handicapped in running the correct route. However, if the jam is not executed correctly, the receiver gets a good release with a defender severely out of position.

When initiating the jam, it is important to stay in a good football position: weight over balls of feet, separated roughly shoulder width, shoulders parallel to the LOS with the outside foot forward and more weight on the forward foot. This puts your upper body over your toes, maintaining a low center of gravity, and keeping your head up at all times. The defender must line up as close to the LOS as possible without being offsides. This is imperative as it gives the DB the best opportunity to get a good jam on the receiver. When the receiver makes his initial move off the LOS, the defender wants to jam the receiver while maintaining control of his own body This jam will involve a swift motion with both hands rapidly being jabbed into the receiver’s torso. The defender should not reach for the offensive player, as a reach will get the defender out of a proper balanced defensive position and susceptible to missing the jam and leaving the receiver open. As stated before, the overall coverage call will dictate individual jam circumstances and how aggressive the defender can be trying to throw the offensive player off his game.

The first instance we will discuss of a jam will be used to help a zone defense. Here, the defender will jam the receiver then drop into zone coverage. Under this scenario, the defender can be a little more aggressive with the initial jam because he will eventually let the receiver go so that the defender can cover his zone. As soon as the receiver gets through the jam, the defender will immediately drop into his designated zone.

Using a jam in man coverage is commonly referred to as bump and run coverage. This coverage is typically used with a larger and more physical defender. At the snap of the ball, the defender will jam (or bump) the receiver. This throws off the initial timing of the receiver and moves him off of his route. After the bump, the defender will not be allowed to touch the offensive player. Thus, the defensive player must be prepared to immediately turn and run with the receiver. This makes the defender’s fundamentals coupled with a good bump critical for this strategy to work. We will expand on bump & run in further articles.

A final item to keep in mind is that the defender MUST fight for inside position when playing Cover 2-man defense. Thus, it is critical that the defender line up on the receiver's inside shoulder and work him towards the boundary. This is called "inside technique". By forcing the receiver to the outside, the defender effectively puts himself between the quarterback and his target, thus making a completion more difficult. This technique will also take away the quick slant and make running a dig or stop route a little more challenging. It also gives the deep safety help time to adjust and read the pattern. In Cover 1, you will see the DB take an outside shoulder (technique) because his job is to jam and funnel the WR inside towards his only safety help, but leaving the Corner with primary responsibility on outside and deep routes. The specific alignment hints at the coverage in many cases, but depends also on which side of the field the Corner has primary run support responsibilities or a gameplan adjustment.

So who utilizes a jam?  A jam is utilized by a defender covering a receiver.  This receiver is usually split outside of the TE/Tackle either as the split end, flanker, or slot receiver.  Another key item to remember is that the easiest of the three to jam is the split end, as the SE is lined up on the LOS.  Being on the LOS reduces the space between the defender and the receiver and increases the likelihood that the defender gets a good jam on the receiver.

What are ideal situations to utilize a jam? In my opinion, goal line situations are great opportunities to jam the receiver. In man coverage inside your own 10, there is no excuse for a team not to jam the crap out of the receiver. The defender must do everything that he can to take away the quick slant in this situation (remember, on the goal line giving up a quick slant essentially gives up 7 points). The defender MUST, MUST cheat inside (almost to the point of having his back to the QB, if necessary), jam the piss out of the receiver, and force him outside. With the field compressed here and by forcing the receiver outside, only a perfect toss to the pylon should beat the defender.

Common situations when you will see the split end get jammed occurs with a weaker receiver or a less quick receiver. These two items are pretty simple. A weak receiver will not be able to fight through the jam to get to where he needs to go. A receiver who lacks quickness (notice the word quickness, not speed) will not be able to make an initial move to get around the jam. The final case is with a speed guy who can beat you deep. Often DC’s will try to jam this guy AND provide umbrella coverage over the top, obviously hoping the jam will slow the receiver down but still having a safety valve if the defender cannot jump the receiver at the LOS.

Physical play also has its place in zone coverage as well. When a defense plays cover two, the defense usually employs hard corners on the perimeter. A hard corner is a corner who has flats responsibility, so has to play fairly close to the LOS. In this case, it is common to see some physical play out of the corner as he tries to create turmoil for the receiver and usually funnels the receiver back into the field (where he has more help from other zones). In C2 Zone, he will generally play an outside technique, as opposed to C2-Man, where he will play inside technique usually. However, if playing "off" instead of bump & run, a coach may elect to not showcase the coverage and play the same leverage for both coverages.

Another zone scenario that I like to see a jam used involves creeping the SS into the box against a twins formation. A "twins" formation involves having two receivers on the same side of a formation (see below). With essentially eight men in the box, it is easy for the defense to play a three deep zone (or Cover 3) to stop the run. I like playing the Will LB (weak side linebacker who typically lines up on the opposite side of the formation as the tight end) head up over the slot receiver. Since he has flat responsibility, utilizing the will backer to jam the inside man is a no-brainer if your WLB is athletic enough to get to his zone after the jam.

(the C3 depicted is a 1/4-1/4-1/2) We will get deeper into coverages, coverage recognition, and different scenarios from here on out.  It is, however, critical to remember these basic techniques when watching the games to understand whether a failure was created by poor design, poor execution, or poor technique (which we view as piss poor, completely unacceptable, and a call for change).