Now more than ever, DBs have it tough
Greg Garber [ARCHIVE]
November 18, 2011
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Our parents love to tell us how difficult life was back in the day. Walking to school in three feet of snow. No cell phones or email. The two-martini lunch. (Whoops.) Self-esteem was an utterly foreign concept.

Oh, and playing defensive back in the NFL.

Nnamdi Asomugha, the Philadelphia Eagles' stellar cornerback, used to hear it all the time from Hall of Fame corner Willie Brown when he was with the Raiders.

"Willie was always saying how tough it was," Asomugha said, laughing. "We'd watch some of his old films and he'd give me advice on technique. I'm sure it was tough, but he was hitting guys 20 yards down the field before the ball was in the air!

"It's like an all-star game now. Fans want to see points. The higher-ups know that, and make life a lot harder on us. I think -- I don't think, I know -- the cornerback position is the most difficult position in all of sports."

More than a dozen people interviewed for this story think he might be right -- of course, most of them were DBs. Quarterbacks, despite those hell-bent pass-rushers, mostly control their own destiny.

Cornerbacks, specifically, and defensive backs in general, have everything stacked against them. They are the proverbial fire hydrants at a dog show, shark bait, crash-test dummies, the Washington Generals playing the Harlem Globetrotters -- doomed to fail again and again.

Granted, it's never been easy for defensive backs:

- The receiver is running forward. At the outset, a defensive back is running backward.

- The receiver and his quarterback know where he's going. A DB doesn't.

- More often than not, the receiver is both taller and heavier than a defensive back. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the average corner is giving two inches and nine pounds to a wide receiver; safeties spot four inches and 49 pounds to tight ends.

Today, a number of emerging factors make it even harder to defend the pass:

- Officials seem to be itching to throw their yellow flags for the inadvertent bump or ill-placed hand past the 5-yard chuck zone; as a result, pass interference and defensive holding calls are at their highest rate in eight years (0.92 penalties per game).

- Quarterbacks are protected like fine china, meaning they have more time and space in which to operate.

- Since last year's crackdown, high hits across the middle are scarce. Even hard hits that appear to be clean are drawing flags. As a result, receivers are more willing to extend themselves for the catch with little worry of reprisal.

Deshea Townsend, who played 13 seasons as an NFL defensive back and is now in his first year as the Arizona Cardinals' secondary coach, said today's game is like "flag football," and the "world's best athletes" have an "impossible" task.

For all these reasons, teams find themselves compelled to pass. More than ever. The percentage of passing plays to run plays is trending toward an all-time record, more than 58 percent. The record for passing yards per game (443.1) is likely to be shattered; through 10 weeks, it's 463.3.

Think about it this way: If an offense is on the 50-yard line, the four, five or six defensive backs are responsible for defending a staggering 25,000 cubic feet of airspace. All it takes is a six-inch window to complete a pass.

Teams understand this, which is why there is no such thing as a third-down defense anymore. Nickel backs often start against three- and four-wide receiver sets. In Week 8, Ben Roethlisberger and the retro-run Pittsburgh Steelers threw the ball 50 times in beating the Patriots.

"As Bill Belichick used to say, 'Television didn't pay billions of dollars to see 6-3 games,'" said ESPN analyst Eric Mangini, a former head coach for the Jets and Browns who served as Belichick's defensive backs coach in New England when they won three Super Bowls. "He was talking about the lack of offensive pass interference calls at the time, but it's true today.

"You don't want to be a DB. There's no tougher position in the game."

An impossible task?

Eric Weddle, as the San Diego media delighted in pointing out, had failed to make the Pro Bowl and produced only six interceptions in four previous seasons when the Chargers signed him to a five-year, $40 million contract in July.

But through Week 10, the free safety -- the Chargers' last line of defense -- was tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions.

"As a DB, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades," he said. "You have to have great instincts and, more than anything, be consistent. You have to be fast enough to stay with the wide receiver and big enough to make tackles in the run game."

Todd McShay, an ESPN draft analyst, broke down the delicate dance between receiver and defensive back:

"As a receiver, I dictate where I'm going. I have one thing to focus on -- separating from the DB. The defensive back, playing in space, has two things to worry about: the receiver and when the ball is coming. A lot of guys can cover. They have the height, the weight, the speed, the fluid hips to turn and mirror the receiver. But the difference between the good ones and the great ones is ball skills. To stick with the guy and be able to locate the ball over your shoulder -- which, oh, by the way, could be coming at any time -- it's so hard."

All of these issues make Dennis Thurman's life exceedingly difficult. He was a cornerback in the league for nine seasons, from 1978-86, but he's been coaching defensive backs for more than twice that long.

"They've turned it into a game of pitch-and-catch," said Thurman, in his third season as Jets secondary coach. "They've made it fast-break basketball on grass. They're allowing wide receivers to push off at the top of their routes. They push you away and very seldom do they call it.

"If I was coaching wide receivers, I'd coach them to do it, too."

In 2010, offenses threw only 27 passes in the direction of Asomugha -- and completed only 10. That's pretty much the definition of a lock-down, cover corner.

"It was probably a couple more than that," Asomugha allowed. "But when you put the work in, you're hoping for those kind of results."

The bottom-line result for the unrestricted free-agent back in July was a five-year, $60 million contract from the Eagles. Asomugha struggled earlier this year when Philadelphia played a lot of zone defense, but recently he has been deployed more in man-to-man schemes.

Asomugha, who has three interceptions, smiles when people bring up his windfall.

"The money doesn't make the job any easier," he said. "I'll be on the field for 70 plays, and you have to be on for every single play. I'll go 68 out of 70 plays, lights out, and then, the two they find me -- all of a sudden you had a bad...
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