Nick Saban revolutionized defensive backfield play.
This is not a bold statement: it happened, we’re aware of it, and the Alabama football program is still enjoying the fruit of it to this day. Saban didn’t necessarily create the side-shuffle technique currently used by all Alabama defensive backs in press-man coverage, and he was far from the first to rotate from two-high to single-high in order to match routes from zone coverage, but he did bring it all together and create a uniquely successful defense from it.
Of course, this prolific defense and its development will inevitably be distilled into easy soundbites. That’s what happened in 2012, when rookie Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said that he “never backpedaled” at Alabama—a complex truth was reduced to a nugget. Saban himself said that backpedaling was “the most overrated thing” for playing in the secondary, but it was within the context of how he schemed his defense—and how he adjusted it to account for worse athletes.
But if the backpedal is out of vogue, nobody told Buffalo Bills CB Tre’Davious White.
New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore is the best cover man in the league, but because Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is buddies with Saban and puts his corners in the half-turn or press shuffle accordingly, White is the best backpedaling corner in the league. He doesn’t get any bonus points for that, of course—but when you consider just how difficult of a technique it can be, it’s hard to be anything but blown away by White’s growth over the last few seasons.
At the core of successful off-man coverage is patience, no matter which technique a corner is using. When backpedaling, that patience is manifested in a corner’s shoulders and his weight. With his hips pointed toward the receiver as he slowly retreats, a corner in the backpedal does not have the advantage of playing with physical leverage relative to the receiver as he runs his stem. He is not plastered to his inside hip, leaning him into the sideline while roadblocking him from a free inside cut. He must be ready for a break in any direction, at various depths, while remaining cognizant of multi-break routes that will fly in the opposite direction of his momentum.
This vast array of possibilities, and the heavy responsibility it puts on the shoulders of the defensive back, contributed to the slow recidivation of the backpedal. There’s tremendous stress here, both physically and mentally. It is a technique that invites targets, as it allows for separation throughout the route stem and unabated releases, and requires that unique blend of educated guesswork to anticipate routes that only elite defenders have.
Again: nobody seems to have told Tre’Davious White.
In the scope of playing routes from the pedal, there is no aspect of White’s game in which he can be described as anything less than elite. In terms of balance, foot speed, and body control, White’s ability to maintain his line and relation to the receiver through route stems, then suddenly flip his hips or plant his foot to react to the break, allows him to immediately get connected to both vertical and breaking routes without admitting a throwing window for even a brief moment. He has the requisite physicality to survive physical stems and reactionary quickness to deal with the league’s top route-runners.
White is able to cheat mentally to account for those plays which test the limits of his physical ability. The most stunning aspect of White’s game is his route recognition and anticipation: multiple times per game, White is in his break with or even before his opponent, and many of his best PBUs and interceptions come as a result of his superior timing and sense of spacing. White baits throws when he knows the route that’s incoming, inviting passes that the quarterback and receiver think they will complete, but which White knows will fall harmlessly to the turf. White’s physical tools are, again, top-shelf—but he can make himself look even quicker with how well he anticipates and reads.
Because of the two reasons listed above, White is not only a prodigious off-man defender, but he is perhaps the best zone corner in the league. White is ludicrously patient for a player overwhelmed with multiple potential route breaks his way, has an immediate click and close that rivals any corner in the league, and is the best “guesser” when it comes to route breaks in his vicinity. These traits immediately translate to zone coverage, which allows White to read through the backfield into the route combination, giving him another data point from which to predict the play.
It is both noteworthy and valuable that White is so good in zone coverage—but to be in the conversation for the top cornerback spot in the league, you simply must be able to play true man coverage. That’s why we’re focusing on White’s man coverage ability, as it’s what takes him from the level of a Jaire Alexander—a deadly zone cover corner with budding man coverage ability—and catapults him into the air of a prime Richard Sherman: an elite zone cover corner with accompanying elite man-to-man ability. The Bills play more zone than the average team, but when White gets put into man coverage is when you truly realize just what a talent he is.
The final aspect of White’s elite off-man ability is his physicality. White is not afraid to get connected with power, jockey for position on tight-window throws, or to disrupt the catch point with momentum. Many top-flight off-man corners are quality in their pedal and in their reads, but shrink from the catch point against bigger receivers, as the same diminutive size and fluid frame that gives them such a silky pedal limits their ability to play above the rim. Such is not an issue with White, who isn’t huge by any means (5-foot-11, 192 pounds), but is willing and able to bring the thunder.
For the sake of wholeness, it should be pointed out that White can sufficiently play press-man technique when asked to. Here, he is not so firmly the cream of the crop, but with plus length (32-inch arms), the aforementioned foot speed, and the above physicality, White more than holds his own against WR1s by denying releases, rerouting stems, and winning with leverage to deny throwing windows. From a technical perspective, White is able to utilize a soft-shoe technique that is not dissimilar to his backpedal, and again shows a high level of technique in what is a dying breed of coverage due to the physical, mental, and technical difficulties it poses.
At some point in the discussion of the NFL’s top players, we begin making mountains out of molehills, splitting hairs between two or three or four supremely talented individuals in our thirst for an undisputed GOAT. Such could be the danger at the top of the cornerback field in 2020: that we have to decide between Stephon Gilmore and White and Jalen Ramsey and Marshon Lattimore and Marlon Humphrey who is truly the best corner in the league. For my money, it’s Gilmore—but far more importantly, there’s only one player I view as a threat to Gilmore’s dominance, and that’s White. There is nothing at which he isn’t great; there are multiple things at which he is elite. And, on top of it all, he’s doggone fun to watch, because he’s so good at something that so few players do at a high level.
So go ahead and tell White that the backpedal is overrated, Saban. Good luck with that.
- Dec 08, 2022
- Dec 08, 2022