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Rush Or Cover?

Posted Apr 27, 2011

Pressure or coverage can be chicken-or-egg debate

Cornerback Patrick Peterson (7) and linebacker Von Miller (40) are at the forefront of the pass rush-vs.-coverage talk in this year's draft.


Ken Whisenhunt smiled.

He’d like to have both, actually.

Shutdown corner and a top pass rusher make any defense good. At the top of this year’s draft, both exist – linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Patrick Peterson. In some ways, choosing between the two can be a kind of chicken-or-the-egg argument.

But if a choice has to be made?

“It’s an individual philosophy,” Cardinals director of player personnel Steve Keim said. “But the way I look at it is not many cornerbacks can cover for six seconds, even the really good ones. To me, whoever is closer to the quarterback or closer to the ball on a down-in, down-out basis, if their skill set is matching and there is equal talent, to me, you have to go with the guy who makes an impact on every play.”

The Cardinals need a pass rusher more than a cornerback right now, at least at first glance. Joey Porter did not give them what they needed off the edge last season, and in reality – even though the Cardinals piled up the sacks in 2009 – the team hasn’t had a dynamic edge rusher since Bertrand Berry was in his 2004 heyday.

The Cards also already have Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and an improving-but-still-raw Greg Toler who could start at cornerback.

As the draft analysis is gathered, however, it seems unlikely Miller falls past both Denver at No. 2 or Buffalo at No. 3. Peterson seems much more probable to be available. And the second-best pass rusher for what the Cards need, North Carolina’s Robert Quinn, may be too big of a risk at No. 5, especially when Peterson is deemed to have star potential.

Besides, most teams need at least three good cornerbacks, and finding a good nickel corner – which Peterson could fill at first, perhaps, or Toler – is still important.

At some point, however, the Cardinals will need to get that pass rusher.

“With a corner you can protect him with coverages, but you certainly can’t manufacture a pass rush with a player,” said former NFL general manager Charley Casserly. “You have to do that with blitzes and that’s taking more chances. If it is an even situation (on a grade), I take the pass rusher.”

That’s ultimately the key for Whisenhunt. While it’s impossible to know exactly how the Cards have graded players like Miller, Peterson and Quinn, for instance, the choice between pass rusher and pass coverage comes down to those grades.

“If it is close, I think it comes down to where you think the guy fits your team better and what other things he brings to the table,” Whisenhunt said. “Say it’s an outside linebacker, is he a sub-rusher? Can he be a three-down player? If it is a defensive back, is he a nickel, can he go inside, does he have a return value? Those are all variables.

“And if you feel you have a group of guys at a position you think you can get by with and you have a distinct need at the other position – and the players are close – then obviously you have to go that way.”

Peterson definitely has return value on both punts and kickoffs. Miller, meanwhile, does have question marks about being a three-down player and an ability to stop the run. On the other hand, Miller “is not being paid to handle the run,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said. “He’s being paid to get to the quarterback. You’re not going to get a player who is perfect.” The Cardinals also have more depth with DRC and Toler at cornerback than at outside linebacker.

The draft does seem to be a little deeper in rushers than cornerbacks, although the Cards must also measure these college defensive ends and their ability to translate into an outside 3-4 linebacker.

“Which guy affects the other guy more? There is no question the pass rusher affects the corner more than the corner affects the pass rusher,” Keim said.

“If you are an ‘almost’ guy who comes close to the quarterback, your corner better cover a little bit. But if you are at least disrupting timing as a pass rusher, or getting the hands up and disrupting throwing lanes, you got the quarterback thinking, and he will help the corner significantly. You know what they say, the better corners have the better pass rush.”
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