Many cornerbacks prefer to defend man-to-man rather than in zone coverages. Guarding one wide receiver as opposed to an area of the field often plays to a certain elemental instinct. It’s also, mentally speaking, easier.
But the physical demands of man defense in the modern NFL, with officiating increasingly favoring offense, have led to less usage of the coverage. Defensive coordinators used man coverage on just 34% of snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Eagles finished around the median at 35%, but only eight other teams used man less. Jim Schwartz probably doesn’t have a preference. “Whatever it takes” is his motto. But balance without predictability has its advantages, and the defensive coordinator has had to lean on zone the last two seasons because of injuries.
Schwartz’s coverages could be tilting back toward man this season mostly because of one man: Darius Slay. The Eagles’ prized acquisition of the offseason has long employed the defense when following top receivers, and while there are ways to have the other corners play zone on any given play, when one goes man, the others often must, as well.
Slay wasn’t the only new face signed to account for a possible shift in coverages. The Eagles signed veteran slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman. But they also moved Jalen Mills from corner to safety, pegged Avonte Maddox as his replacement, and sought to create a secondary with versatile pieces.
Reconstructing the back end, however, comes with challenges, in light of the restrictions the coronavirus pandemic has placed on learning, practicing, and team gathering.
Asked if reverting to more man defense made sense without the benefit of a preseason, Slay and Robey-Coleman concurred.
And that sounded fine to both.
“That’s definitely an easier transition,” Robey-Coleman said Monday during a video news conference. “That’s up my alley. I love man-to-man. I love getting in people’s face, putting hands on [them].
“That’s definitely going to be one of the [hallmarks] of this defense, is getting in people’s face and actually covering them and letting the D-line do what they do best, and that’s getting after the quarterback.”
In getting pressure, one hand feeds the other, but the Eagles’ pass rush shouldered less of the blame when quarterbacks went off through the air. Playing more man doesn’t necessarily lead to success. But having the horses helps.
The Patriots did, specifically cornerback Stephon Gilmore. They played more man (57%) than any other defense in 2019 and had one of the stingiest groups in the NFL. The Lions, with Slay, were second (56%), but they had one of the worst pass defenses despite their scheme’s similarities to New England’s.
X;s and O’s matter much less than the Jimmies and Joes, but part of Detroit’s problems stemmed from the predictability of the coverages. Packers receiver Devante Adams, in a film breakdown with nfl.com, revealed that Slay’s movements against presnap motion were a tell for man or zone.
Slay confirmed on Twitter that the Lions didn’t disguise the coverages and said Monday that “every man call was always in the slot.” But if Schwartz is to have Slay trail one receiver and he wants to keep offenses guessing, he’ll likely need plays when his top corner drops into a zone from the slot.
“In this defense,” Slay said, “I got to open my brain up a little bit and get ready to play some nickel, too.”
That would require the slot to handle some outside, something Robey-Coleman said he was comfortable doing. Maddox has already shown inside-outside versatility. And having two former cornerbacks in Rodney McLeod and Mills at safety will give Schwartz flexibility, as well.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken a lot of strides in trying to avoid the tells in our defense, whether it was man or zone,” Schwartz said recently. “It really started the week after the Super Bowl before the  season.
“We saw where [offenses] were going with pick routes [against man] and said, ‘OK, we’re tired of complaining to the officials that we got picked or it was offensive pass interference. We need to mitigate it ourselves.”
Schwartz gave his defensive backs more freedom to switch off, but that’s where communication is key. And with all the new faces and the lack of time together because of the shortened offseason, the learning curve will likely be steeper.
Slay and Robey-Coleman have an advantage, having already played for Schwartz, albeit each for one season. They know his scheme, his terminology, and his peculiar personality.
But they’ve only just recently met their teammates and begun practicing on the field. Social media posts from Slay and other defensive backs hint at an already-developing camaraderie. It didn’t take long for Robey-Coleman to find his go-to guy in the defensive backs meetings room.
“I always go to Rodney McLeod for any … third-level, fourth-level questions that I have about the defense,” Robey-Coleman said. “Just taking it another step forward because I know that Rod has the mindset and he’s very cerebral as a safety.”
McLeod will be the quarterback of the secondary. But Slay and Robey-Coleman bring a combined 14 years of NFL experience to a unit that lost a defining voice in safety Malcolm Jenkins. The Eagles also have maturing pieces in Mills, Maddox, and, the team hopes, Sidney Jones.
“It’s a process that’s got to be expedited,” Robey-Coleman said. “That’s why you have seasoned veterans that can come in and adjust to the climate of the organization or a situation that’s going on outside of football, just speaking on this pandemic.