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Can't Just Cover

Posted May 8, 2012

Cardinals cornerbacks have to be willing to hit, tackle

Cornerback Patrick Peterson hauls down Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks in a game last season.

One of the messages Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau always had for his cornerbacks as each season began was unchanged year after year.

“There are no cover corners in this defense,” LeBeau would say, and Deshea Townsend hasn’t forgotten.

The message is virtually the same in Arizona, said Townsend, the former Steelers cornerback and current Cardinals assistant defensive backs coach. With defensive coordinator (and LeBeau disciple) Ray Horton running a similar defense with the Cards, the team’s cornerbacks of course have to cover.

But “if you are of the mindset you only cover, you’re not going to make it,” Townsend said.

The Cardinals have been collecting bigger, more physical cornerbacks the past couple of years. Patrick Peterson is 6-foot-2 and 219 pounds and Greg Toler looks like he’s added muscle to his 6-0, 192-pound frame. Newcomer William Gay is 5-10 and 190 pounds and third-round pick Jamell Fleming is 5-11, 206. Even Michael Adams, lacking height at 5-8, is a holdover in part because he has shown himself to be a sound tackler.

(Draftee Justin Bethel, 6-foot and 200 pounds, is listed as a safety, although Horton said he will be tried all over the secondary to see where he best fits.)

With Horton, it’s a must.

“The defense (Horton) runs, it’s an aggressive defense,” Gay said. “If you don’t have corners that can hit, you’re going to be giving up touchdowns left and right. The way the defense is structured, the (offense) always wants to get a hat on the outside linebackers and the ends and the safeties. The unblocked guy is going to be the corner. You have to be willing to sacrifice your body and go in there and hit a 230-pound running back.”

One of Horton’s themes since arriving was “Big guys who can run, little guys who can hit.” It’s a simple premise. The larger defenders are expected to be physical, but if they can show speed, it makes a difference in blitzing and chasing down a ballcarrier or quarterback. The smaller defenders already are supposed to be fast, but if they can be physical, the defense has all kinds of options.

That doesn’t mean Horton would turn away a Deion Sanders-type, although that guy “better be knocking down balls and picking them off,” Horton said.

“It’s not all or nothing,” Horton added. “You’d like to have a guy have a complete package but it is rare.”

The evolving game also has changed the definition of physical. The size required in cornerbacks is as much about matching up down the field with giant receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson as much as it is about hitting someone.

Townsend said the Cards talk technique about how to tackle frequently, but in the end “you have to have want-to.” That is increased by time in the meeting room, when peer pressure gets intense when the video shows a player unwilling to come up and make a hit.

“That makes it fun,” Townsend said. “That makes guys want to go out and make tackles, because if they don’t, they’re going to hear it.”

Physical play has been something head coach Ken Whisenhunt has stressed since he arrived and Horton doesn’t want to lose that – although Horton admitted “the game is changing from getting down on the ground and getting dirty to the Greatest Show on Turf.”

“Covering is the main job but you want the physicality, get guys out of their game and let them know they will get it every play,” Peterson said. “As a defense, you have to have the tough guy mentality regardless. We don’t want an offense pushing us around, and if they get some calls, we have to live with that sometimes.”

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