I'm not talking about a lead corner, or the guy who you say is the lockdown guy because he's the best guy on the team, I'm talking about a player than can take a receiver in man coverage without help and thrive. If you have that guy on your team, there are endless options for you to make hay against opposing offenses.
I've written that free safety is the most important position, because that guy can't be bad, but there's no higher upside to be had than having a true lockdown corner. A dominant defensive tackle is a close second but the Nebraska Cornhuskers were still good in 2010 after Suh was gone..okay, okay, so maybe they still had Jared Crick.
Nevertheless, if I had my druthers I'd still want the lockdown corner. Especially if my defense was based in quarters. Give me competence everywhere else and we'll be in good shape. The value to be had from having a superstar there is hard to even quantify.
For instance, I've had the debate a few times with people over exactly how good Texas Tech will be this year. They were fantastic on offense last year, finishing second in the whole country in Offensive S&P, but they also lost their LT Le'Raven Clark, RB DeAndre Washington, and WR Jakeem Grant.
Clark was a good player, drafted in the third round, Washington had consecutive 1k yard seasons and was drafted in the fifth round. Jakeem Grant was awarded the "Darren Sproles water bug trophy for most outstanding tiny person" for TWO different seasons.
So despite those losses I have zero doubts that Texas Tech will again be highly effective on offense in 2016. I mean, just look at this:
There are a few ways to do that, but if you have a lockdown cornerback your options in this regard expand considerably. Here's a glimpse into the schematic world of containment options afforded to teams that have a man-coverage guru...
Against the run
Thanks to the rise of run/pass option plays (RPOs) you can no longer afford to just be good against the spread passing attack OR the spread rushing attack, which quarters was otherwise a phenomenal means of accomplishing. You gotta be able to stop both simultaneously.
I outlined the easiest way to do this in my article listing the top run-support safeties in the Big 12. You get the boundary safety involved as a free hitter against the run game by asking the cornerback to handle any vertical routes by the boundary side receiver without help over the top.
But because you're on the boundary, the quick hitch or out is pretty hard to cover unless the corner is right up there on the cornerback. It's just such a short throw that even a noodle-armed QB can get the ball out there to hit the window. If the QB and WR are in sync with accurate tosses and that WR is hard to tackle for any reason (size, speed, sheer toughness) then you're going to struggle to avoid giving up easy gains. That means you're now also vulnerable to getting impatient and getting caught by the hitch and go:
Anyways, a team that relies on playing off coverage on the boundary in order to involve the safety is at risk of either death by a thousand paper cuts on quick easy throws or seeing their players get undisciplined and caught by a double move or play-action.
The ideal solution is to do what Sparty used to do, what Alabama does, and what Baylor has tried to mix in and play press-man without help.
I know, I know, I headlined this section about the run game and I'm just talking about the passing game. That's kind of the point though, lockdown corners that can truly lock down a top target's route tree can prevent offenses from punishing a loaded front.
The defense can now load the middle of the field and bring pressure on the run game from one or both edges by utilizing the nickel and/or the boundary safety. Against normal formations I'd argue the best value comes from having the lockdown corner over the boundary side receiver.
Why? Because the other outside receiver is harder to reach thus teams don't really scheme help to the far outside routes. If there's no help to free up then there's little advantage to using the lockdown corner there. The beauty this player offers against the run is the ability to maintain numbers in the middle of the field so that the offense doesn't have space to play in.
Against trips formations
Against a 3x1 set there's an advantage to be had from having a lockdown corner either to the field or the boundary. Again, the value in a lockdown corner is allow the defense to X-out a receiver, forget about him, and focus on stuffing everything else.
So having the lockdown corner aligned to the field can be valuable in allowing a defense like this:
If you're reading the links on the side of this blog, you may have read this amazing post on trips coverages by Coach A. on matchquarters.com. He breaks down some of the specifics of these coverages and mentions this K-State version of the coverage:
As I gleaned from looking at the best defenses of the second Snyder-era, when the Wildcats have been their best is when they have guys that can play off coverage techniques like the one above and then jump routes when the QB makes mistakes or tries to force a ball in without enough zip or accuracy. Duke Shelly is a really complete young DB that might fit that mold if he doesn't ever quite become a true lockdown guy.
The best place to have your lockdown guy vs trips is still on the boundary because then you can use the boundary safety in a variety of different ways to attack the offense. My favorite is the Sparty/Ohio State "solo" adjustments where he picks up the opposite field slot on deep routes and plays aggressively against the run:
On the blitz
The best thing about the split field, quarters-based concept might be the blitzes. When a defense can play a conservative zone coverage to half the field and bring a wild, man-blitz on the other it really mucks up the reads for the QB and can lead to a bad day.
Normally when a QB sees a single linebacker or defensive back coming off the edge or up the middle, he expects to see a single-high safety coverage with man or match-up zone underneath. Not so with modern quarters defenses, who can play different coverages to either side of the field.
With the defense playing man coverage on the boundary, there's no longer a "2 over 1" or "3 over 2" advantage to maintain, which frees up someone to blitz. Many teams like to blitz the cornerback off the edge, but if he's a lockdown guy perhaps you want him locking down that receiver while the weakside LB or safety come after the QB:
The corner can also free up the opposite side of the field to bring pressure if the defense wants to use their freed up boundary safety to roll to the field to help out over there:
For the purpose of blitzing, it's helpful if the entire secondary can at least hold up in man coverage and offer something on the blitz, but a single lockdown player can still free up other players to help each other out.
Scheming advantages against good opponents, especially Big 12 offenses, is very difficult unless the defense has the following traits:
1. No weak links!
Everyone on the field needs roles they can fill and perform without committing egregious errors or being easily targeted. Weak spots will always be isolated and hammered by at least one opponent on the conference schedule.
2. Someone that tilts the advantage back to the defense.
This could be a defensive tackle that has to be double-teamed, a pass-rusher that can't be blocked without leaving a RB or TE home to block, or a lockdown corner that can allow the defense to shrink the field and reduce the stress of spread out formations.
If OU's Jordan Thomas, TCU's Ranthony Texada, or one of Texas' cornerbacks is up for this role in 2016 it could open up the world to their defense and equalize the advantages normally enjoyed by the league's offenses. If not, those teams will need to find advantages elsewhere.