NFL Hall of Fame - Lesson 02 - Receiver vs. Defensive Back Matchups

More than any other position, wide receivers are in true one-on-one matchups in many situations. Whereas quarterbacks face entire pass defenses and running backs are up against a whole run defense, wide receivers are often isolated on the outside against a single cornerback.

Thus, projecting wide receivers is very much about exploiting those matchups. You need to uncover as much possible information as you can about 1) who a wide receiver will be matched up against and 2) how well he’ll perform in that matchup.

WILL HE SHADOW?

The most important question to ask when determining a wide receiver’s matchup is if a particular cornerback will shadow him around the field. Most teams keep their cornerbacks on one side of the field or the other, but some teams put their top cornerback on the opposition’s top wide receiver, no matter where he lines up.

One source I like to use to determine cornerback alignment is Pro Football Focus. They have numbers on where cornerbacks line up and how often. If you look and see that a cornerback like Richard Sherman lines up on one side of the field 95 percent of the time, you know that, unless there’s a change, he won’t be on the team’s top wide receiver in a lot of situations.

You can go the extra mile to look at how frequently each team’s wide receivers line up in certain spots. Some teams use their wide receivers on one side of the field more than the other, so you can match up the percentages with those for the defense’s cornerbacks to get a sense of which defensive backs will be covering which receivers.

Of course, you need to pay attention to news throughout the week, too. Sometimes there are hints that a particular cornerback will shadow a specific wide receiver, which needs to be factored in to your projection for that player.

ONE-ON-ONE?

Another thing to keep in mind is that covering a wide receiver is often not one man’s duty. Some teams play man-to-man coverage a whole lot more than others. One of the worst situations for a wide receiver is seeing a safety over the top of him, which happens to both receivers when a defense is in a Cover-2 shell with two safeties deep. Against defenses that play a lot of Cover 2, tight ends and slot receivers typically have bigger numbers because the outside receivers are effectively getting double-teamed.

This is where a holistic approach to projecting players makes sense. To understand how a defense will play the opposing wide receivers, you might need to look at the offense’s running game. Is it strong enough to force a safety into the box? If not, you can expect those outside receivers to see a ton of double-coverage all day.

Some teams that don’t play Cover 2 can still challenge the outside wide receivers. Some teams let their shutdown cornerback (CB) play man coverage and then roll a safety over the top of their other cornerback. That makes it really difficult for an offense because 1) the CB might be on their top receiver, 2) the No. 2 receiver is getting double-teamed, and 3) there’s a safety who can move into the box to stop the run. In that way, you can see just how powerful a single shutdown CB can be. I tend to avoid attacking defenses with those players because they can stunt the fantasy production of an entire offense.

WHO WINS?

It’s not all about which CB is on which receiver. You also need to be concerned with 1) how many targets that receiver will get and 2) what he can do with them. Again, I like to use Pro Football Focus to determine how effective CBs have been in the past. I particularly like yards per route because it shows you many yards a CB has yielded for each passing snap he’s been on the field.

One overlooked aspect of wide receiver production is touchdown probability. Certain wide receivers score at a much higher rate than others, but the same is true for cornerbacks; there are certain guys who are really poor in the red zone.

For the most part, it’s the smaller cornerbacks who struggle in tight areas. I really like to pick on defenses with short, light cornerbacks. That’s often a sign an offense will throw more in the red zone and that the wide receivers will be able to take advantage.

 


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