In man coverage, it’s a tricky spot for South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn.
He has to be cognizant of getting beat outside and potentially deep. There’s usually some type of help to the inside. Yet one of the most basic plays in a modern RPO offense uses a simple run fake to pull the linebacker, open up a window and create an opening on the slant.
And that’s one thing that makes it difficult.
“You got 80 yards of grass behind you so you’re not really thinking about a slant,” Horn said. “But just got to compete at the line of scrimmage and hopefully come out on top.”
This little conundrum is just a small piece of assembling a defensive puzzle. Offenses are built to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally. They can pound with the run, zip passes toward cracks in coverage or have the option to do both on the same play.
As a corner in man coverage, a player is thinking about the help on inside outs. Outside, they’re just thinking about bombs.
Those slants turned into big gains against Alabama. A modest catch and a couple missed tackles had talented receivers galloping to daylight. So how does a corner, conscious of the deep ball, head off those interior routes?
“Good eyes,” Horn said. “Have good eyes throughout the route. Inside releases, is it easy for a DB to look at the quarterback, see what the ball is coming and you’re going to lose sight of your man.
“You can’t do that.”
That question of eyes in the correct place has dogged the Gamecocks at certain points. South Carolina’s secondary had some issues against UNC and Alabama, and slants played a prominent role in those struggles.
In theory, defending the slant is as much on linebackers as corners, but between run-pass options and plain old play-action, offenses have ways to get them out of position. And in the structure of a defense such as the Gamecocks’, linebackers don’t put those pass drops as priorities.
“We’re not taught to guard the RPO,” middle linebacker Ernest Jones said. “I see run, especially with us, we see run, we got to attack it. So it’s definitely open, you know, that’s just the safeties’ and the corners’ job of squeezing that stuff. And making the throws harder.”
At the moment, the Gamecocks are allowing FBS opponents to complete 60 percent of their passes (about the national average) for 8.2 yards per attempt (94th nationally).
Georgia is averaging 6.8 yards per carry vs. FBS opposition, which opens the RPO game up. The Dawgs are 11th in passer rating and 15th in yards per attempt.
The damage Alabama did certainly had an impact there, and it’s something the staff has tried to clean up since. The message to players is stay with your man, be close enough to touch him (in phase) and then work back to the ball.
“In man coverage, you need to cover the man, and that’s where we’ve made some mistakes this year,” Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said. “We’ve got our eyes back on the quarterback. It’s hard to play man-to-man when you’re staring at the quarterback, so you just play your normal techniques, whether you’re in press man or you’re in some sort of off man and whatever techniques that we’re coaching you to do.”
The back-shoulder fade
Georgia’s top two receivers stand at 6-foot-5, and 6-foot-3. The next most productive pass catcher is still 6-foot-1, 195 pounds. That means the Gamecock defensive backs will likely find themselves trying to handle some fade balls, including the back shoulder variety.
Back shoulder fades take advantage of a corner playing tighter, making sure to be in between the quarterback and receiver. Muschamp explained the ball is basically thrown at the back of the receiver’s helmet. It goes to the outside, so a receiver can stop, reach outside and the defender’s momentum carries him past the receiver.
It takes advantage of the way Muschamp wants his corners to be, which means an adjustment and a bit of discomfort.
“When you play a team that plays a back shoulder, you’ve got to be able to play the ball out of phase,” Muschamp said. “So, if you feel the receiver falling away from you as you start to look and lean, then you’ve got to be able to play through your back to your left hand if you’re facing the receiver that way.
“You’re not in phase with the receiver anymore on a back shoulder ball.”
In that case, a defender has to attack through the receiver and try to disrupt things while not necessarily having an eye on the ball.
For Horn, it starts with something more basic. He noted a corner had to stay on top of the receiver and couldn’t find himself chasing.
“Based off the beginning of the route beginning at the line of scrimmage,” Horn said. “You win at the line of scrimmage. It is not really a route you can win going on downfield.”