Playing man-to-man pass coverage is one the most difficult football defensive skills to master. Cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers and defensive ends often find themselves defending a passing target one-on-one. The defender must read the receiver and determine which route is coming. He must use speed, agility and technique to remain close to his opponent, close the passing lane and make a play on the ball if it comes.
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Read the Formation
Where a receiving target lines up often foreshadows the route that is coming. Scouting reports reveal opponent tendencies in each alignment. "The formation of the offense will tell you a story even before the ball is snapped," former NFL safety Matt Bowen wrote in his blog for The National Football Post. "Know your opponent and why he is aligned in that position."
Execute the Press
When in press coverage, a defender must impede his opponent's release from the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of the play. Defenders should strike the target in the breast plate while keeping their feet lateral, then stay on his hip as he gets into his route.
Focus on the Opponent's Hips
Eye placement is critical to good coverage. Receivers can’t make a cut without turning and opening their hips, so defenders should lock in on them.
Don't Peek Back at the Quarterback
Once the play is well underway, defenders should give their man their full attention. "Don’t look in the backfield," Bowen wrote. "There is nothing going on back there that concerns you when you are playing man-coverage."
Maintain Low Pad Levels
Defenders should keep their shoulder pads low and over their feet while backpedaling. This allows them to plant and drive, open their hips and change direction more easily. Defenders that get too tall with their technique are more easily beaten.
Explode from the Backpedal
When a defender believes his opponent is about to run past him, he should come out of the backpedal. If the opponent is close enough to be touched, then he is close enough to blow past the defender.
Maintain Proper Leverage
When playing with safety help over the middle, the defender can play the outside hip of his opponent and take away the sideline. When playing without help over the middle, the defender should stay on the inside hip to take away the middle while using the sideline as help.
Play the "Pocket"
To catch a pass, the receiver has to bring his hands together. Coaches call the space between the hands the "pocket." When beaten in coverage, a defender should refocus on the pocket and attempt to get a hand in there as the ball arrives. By playing the ball, a beaten defender is less likely to be penalized for pass interference.