Analyzing cornerback play is a difficult task. Looking at their overall metrics is a good start. Breaking down their play by coverage type and alignment is even better, as man vs zone schemes and slot vs wide alignment are all fundamentally different. Going a step further, Sports Info Solutions (SIS) breaks down their play by Press Type. This allows us to separate off coverage from tight bump-and-run coverage, which again are fundamentally different techniques and situations.
At SIS, Press Coverage data is tracked on every play for both man and zone coverage, but for this analysis, the focus will be on press-man compared to off-man coverage plays.
League-Wide Usage and Performance
As a whole in 2019, NFL corners used press coverage on 44% of their man coverage snaps—press coverage is defined here as a corner lining up within two yards of the receiver and attempting to make contact at the snap. Corners were generally more successful while in press coverage, as they allowed a lower completion percentage, lower yards per target, and lower EPA per target. However, when a reception was allowed while in press coverage, receivers averaged almost two more yards per reception.
Off-Man vs Press-Man in the NFL
|Man Coverage Type||Press Usage%||Comp%||Yds/Tgt||Yds/Rec||EPA/Tgt|
Corners in press coverage were also able to make a play on the ball — including interceptions, dropped interceptions, and passes defensed — at a higher rate (15%) than corners playing off coverage (12%). However, they were called for pass interference at a higher rate: 5% of targets in press compared to 2% while playing off of receivers.
NFL Team Usage and Success
Overall press-man coverage showed some advantages for corners in 2019. But when broken down on a team level, we can see that there was a wide range of usage and levels of success.
Top 5 NFL Teams in Press-Man Usage
|Team||Press Usage%||Off-Man |
When looking at the teams that used press-man the most, we can see that it was a wise decision for most of them. The Chiefs’ corners, who ranked second in usage, were much better in press-man coverage, allowing a Positive% (percent of plays with a positive EPA) 17 percentage points lower than they did in off-man coverage. The Browns and Falcons also allowed a lower Positive% in press-man than off-man, while the Colts and Dolphins performed about the same either way.
Bottom 5 NFL Teams in Press-Man Usage
|Team||Press Usage%||Off-Man Positive% Allowed||Press-Man Positive% Allowed|
When looking at the teams that used press-man the least, two teams stand out in opposite ways. The Texans, who used press coverage on only 23% of their man coverage snaps, were wise to avoid it. Their corners were 6 percentage points better in off-coverage.
On the other side of the spectrum were the Packers, whose corners excelled in press-man coverage, even though they rarely used it. Only 34% of opponents’ targets resulted in a positive EPA against the Packers when in press-man, compared to 58% when the Packers were in off-man. The 24% difference was the third-highest in the NFL, behind only the Bills (29% difference) and Cowboys (26% difference), who both also benefited from press-man coverage.
Top NFL Press-Man Corners
Now that we have compared press-man coverage to off-man coverage on a league-wide and team level, let’s take a look at the individual corners who excelled in press-man coverage last season. The metric used here to evaluate individual corners is Total Points per 60 Plays. Total Points is SIS’s player value metric that evaluates corners not only when they are targeted, but on every other snap as well. It is scaled to 60 plays to better approximate a per-game sample.
It shouldn’t be surprising to see multiple Bills players on the list, considering they allowed the lowest Positive% in the league while in press-man coverage. Tre’Davious White topped a lot of coverage lists this past year, including SIS’s Total Coverage Points Saved leaderboard, and here he ranks fifth, while teammate Kevin Johnson ranks sixth.
The top spot on the leaderboard may be surprising as it is held by Kansas City’s sixth-round rookie Rashad Fenton. During the Chiefs’ Super Bowl season, Fenton allowed four completions on 13 targets, defended two passes, and got a boost in Total Points / 60 for his elite target suppression. Fenton and teammate Tyrann Mathieu, who is nominally a safety but meets the threshold to be included in this leaderboard, each have smaller sample sizes than some of the other players but were excellent when deployed this way.
Two other players to note are Jaire Alexander and J.C. Jackson. Alexander was the second-best corner in the league in press-man, though the Packers did not take advantage of this as they had the third-lowest press-man usage. Jackson stands out among the other leaders for his sheer volume of press-man usage. He excelled even while playing press two to three times more often than the other leaders.
NCAA Usage and Performance
Corners at the college level have similar results to those in the NFL. They allow a lower completion percentage, fewer yards per target, and a lower EPA per target in press-man than in off-man coverage. The main difference between levels is the rate at which teams use press-man. At the NFL level, press-man usage is only slightly below off-man usage. At the college level, where it is harder to find elite corners, teams play much less press-man.
Off-Man vs Press-Man in the NCAA
|Man Coverage Type||Press Usage%||Comp%||Yds/Tgt||Yds/Rec||EPA/Tgt|
Similar to corners in the NFL, NCAA corners also allowed a higher yards per reception and were flagged for pass interference at a higher rate while in press-man. Although the overall usage of press-man was relatively low, five schools used it on the majority of their man coverage snaps: Pittsburgh (62%), Oklahoma (61%), Southern Mississippi (53%), Michigan State (52%), and Nebraska (51%).
Top NCAA Press-Man Corners Returning in 2020
In terms of Total Points / 60 Plays while in press-man, 2020 NFL draft picks Trevon Diggs (ranked second nationally), Damon Arnette (fourth), Jeffrey Okudah (sixth), and A.J. Terrell (10th) all excelled last season. With those players now gearing up for their rookie seasons, let’s take a look at the best press-man corners returning to school in 2020.
Oregon senior Thomas Graham Jr. led the nation in Total Points / 60 Plays while in press-man coverage last season. He allowed only five completions on 17 targets and made a play on the ball (pass defensed or interception) four times.
SIS’s press coverage data allows for a deeper analysis of corner play in the NFL and at the FBS NCAA level. Overall it shows a trend that press-man is generally more successful than off-man coverage. Press-man does allow more yardage if the pass is completed and draws more PI penalties.
It’s also worth noting that there is definite selection bias when considering press-man statistics because generally, teams are more likely to play press-man if they believe they have the personnel to do so. But, this analysis can still be used as a look into how useful press-man coverage can be when used properly.