Xs and Os: Phases of Man-to-Man Coverage

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Cornerback Sam Shields excels at man-to-man coverage.
Cornerback Sam Shields excels at man-to-man coverage.

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers became famous while implementing the zone blitz defense. However, while in Green Bay, he has let his talented cornerbacks, mainly Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, play a lot of man-to-man coverage.

This article looks at some of the basics of man-to-man pass coverage. While it’s popular to simplify it as “you go wherever he goes no matter what,” there’s definitely more to it than that.

While the above tenet is true about going everywhere your man goes, there is the importance of alignment and body position. Also, the overall strategy of defending the pass differs depending on how the defender is covering the receiver.

During man-to-man coverage, the defender usually turns his back to the quarterback. Based on his position with respect to the receiver, he has two options:

1) Play the ball

2) Play the man

For simplicity’s sake, let’s only look at how a cornerback covers a wide receiver in true man-to-man coverage. Assume there is no double coverage or other creative forms of bracketing.

When aligning the cornerback to the receiver, the alignment usually has the cornerback inside of the receiver with reference to the ball.

The reason behind this is because it puts the defender in between the ball and receiver and also allows the cornerback to use the sideline as an extra defender. If the ball is caught out of bounds, it’s an incompletion.

The most basic form of man-to-man coverage is called in phase “even”. The cornerback is running even with the receiver and their shoulders are almost touching.

In phase "even"
In phase “even”

While in phase “even”, the cornerback is instructed to play the ball, essentially becoming a receiver on the play. In this position, the quarterback’s throw must go through the cornerback.

Similarly, cornerbacks often trail the receiver by playing “in their back pocket”. As long as the cornerback is not in front of the receiver, he’s still in phase. If trailing, he’s in phase “hip”. 

In phase "hip"
In phase “hip”

While in phase “hip”, the cornerback also plays the ball.

Conversely, the cornerback may, at times, play in front of the receiver. This is called out of phase.

Out of phase
Out of phase

At first glance, this looks like an odd and possibly problematic alignment. However, there are several reasons for this coverage. The main advantage is the defender is deeper than the receiver. It’s often paramount to never let the receiver get deeper than the defender.

Another reason is that this position allows the cornerback to use his body to influence the receiver. For example, the cornerback can slow down, effectively slowing the receiver down. Or, the cornerback can take away an inside release. It’s actually a more aggressive alignment than being in phase.

When playing out of phase coverage, the cornerback must now play the man because the ball no longer goes through the cornerback.

The cornerback has to rely on watching the receiver’s arms, eyes, hips, and hands to determine when the pass is arriving. The only play is on the man to either break up the pass or immediately tackle him if the ball is caught.

In the video below, Sam Shields had two interceptions against the Bears in the 2010 NFC Championship game. On his first pick, you can see that he is playing in phase “hip”, and the ball had to go through him. He played the ball and got the interception.

In the next video, Sam Shields had another interception against the Cincinnati Bengals during the 2013 season. In this play, Shields is actually playing out of phase and comes back to play the man. While playing the man, he was able to steal the ball and grab an interception.

Here’s one last video for you. It’s a generalized highlight reel of Tramon Williams. While he is seen playing some zone in it, there are plenty of instances where he’s playing both in and out of phase man-to-man coverage. Can you identify them?


Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WISports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.


17 thoughts on “Xs and Os: Phases of Man-to-Man Coverage

  1. Would a CB tend to play ‘out of phase’ more if there is no safety help to his side?

    1. Yes, that is often the case–great observation. The CB still can play out of phase if he’s the boundary corner and the safety is playing shaded to the field. Also, the CB can play out of phase if he has underneath help, maybe in the form of an LB playing the flat/curl.

    2. Though the match up,down/distance could dictate,I would think yes..with no backside help,keeping the play in front of you would be imperative…your thoughts while we wait for Jays’:)

  2. Good primer to man coverage. Do you think you could write one including how to defend certain passes to certain routes, and not just how to cover a fade or a 9?

    1. There will be slight variations in covering the receivers depending on the routes, but I drew the streak as a general simplification. The phase is with respect to where the receiver is related to the ball, which will be pretty similar for all the routes. The toughest ones to defend are the slant and the back shoulder because in/out phase don’t give any real advantage.

      The biggest variations in man-to-man coverage come from how the leverage is established and where the help comes from.

      For example, with safety help on the top, the CB usually gives an inside release to the WR and pushes him to the safety help. If that’s the case, the CB usually always wants to play outside hip and the safety will drive downward to the inside shoulder.

  3. I don’t know why you would post a picture of Shields committing a blatant DPI at the top.

  4. All this and no mention of Press and Off man? Whats up w/ that? That is the starting point for any kind of man coverage. Tramon makes most of his plays from Off man.

    Whether the CB is in phase or out of phase has a lot to do w/ the routes and down and distance expected, beside where the help is possibly coming from.

    BTW a lot of people mistake Off man for zone, since they assume that if the CB isn’t in the face of the WR at the LOS, he’s in zone.

  5. It still pisses me off Sam was called for PI in that photo you posted.

    On what planet is that F!@#$%#! pass interference?!!

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