How Defensive Back Has Become the Hardest Position to Play in Football

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIDecember 29, 2012

Pro Bowl CB Charles Tillman has his hands full trying to contain Calvin Johnson.
Pro Bowl CB Charles Tillman has his hands full trying to contain Calvin Johnson.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Isn't it about time that we acknowledge being a defensive back in the NFL has become the hardest position to play in the game?

For years, it was assumed that quarterback was the hardest position to play. But thanks to the NFL's Competition Committee, ongoing rule changes have made it easier on quarterbacks and more difficult on defensive backs.

More quarterbacks are surviving entire seasons thanks to some of these rule changes (h/t

1) No defensive player may run into a passer of a legal forward pass after the ball has left his hand (15 yards). The Referee must determine whether opponent had a reasonable chance to stop his momentum during an attempt to block the pass or tackle the passer while he still had the ball.

2) No defensive player who has an unrestricted path to the quarterback may hit him flagrantly in the area of the knee(s) or below when approaching in any direction.

3) Officials are to blow the play dead as soon as the quarterback is clearly in the grasp and control of any tackler, and his safety is in jeopardy.

NFL Network analyst Steve Wyche wrote an interesting article about the aerial evolution of the NFL, which he broke down into five major areas; growing knowledge of quarterbacks on the passing game, dictating personnel matchups, schemes, mentality and rules changes.

Wide receivers are now allowed to run free in the middle of the field after they have passed the five-yard mark from the line of scrimmage. This change in how the game is enforced by the referees has really opened things up for the offense.

Defenders rushing the quarterback have to make sure that they ease up enough so that they don't get flagged for leading with their helmet. The NFL further protects quarterbacks by eliminating horse-collar tackles. The big fines that have been levied by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Pittsburgh LB James Harrison for his hard hits on quarterbacks sent a message to the rest of the NFL.

To be sure, the quarterback position is getting better athletes to play the position all the time. To further illustrate the point, here is an overview of how many quarterbacks started every game this year coming into Week 17 action:

AFC East—Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo) and Tom Brady (New England).

AFC North—Joe Flacco (Baltimore), Andy Dalton (Cincinnati) and Brandon Weeden (Cleveland).

AFC West—Peyton Manning (Denver) and Philip Rivers (San Diego).

AFC South—Matt Schaub (Houston) and Andrew Luck (Indianapolis).

NFC East—Tony Romo (Dallas) and Eli Manning (N.Y. Giants).

NFC North—Matthew Stafford (Detroit), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay) and Christian Ponder (Minnesota).

NFC West—Russell Wilson (Seattle) and Sam Bradford (St. Louis).

NFC South—Matt Ryan (Atlanta), Cam Newton (Carolina), Drew Brees (New Orleans) and Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay).

Twenty of the 32 NFL starting quarterbacks have lined up for every start this year. Twenty-four of the 32 have either missed no starts or just one start at the most. That means the rule changes to protect quarterbacks are working.

For the quarterbacks that have missed multiple starts, there are a few who are known to be risk takers. You have some quarterbacks that like to hold the ball too long or take too many chances with their style of play. Examples like Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick qualify here.

Quarterbacks that only missed one start after 16 weeks include Ryan Tannehill (Miami), Robert Griffin III (Washington), Mark Sanchez (N.Y. Jets) and Carson Palmer (Oakland).

Rule Changes Make It Tougher for Defensive Backs to Play a Physical Game

 The biggest increase in penalties on defensive backs with regard to recent rule changes are the number of flags for hitting a defenseless receiver. It also didn't help that the year began with the replacement referees. In the first three weeks, defensive backs literally had no idea what to expect would be enforced from one week to the next.

Hitting a defenseless receiver is the rule change that is making it almost impossible for a defensive back to know how to properly do his job. If a receiver is about to catch the ball, one of the accepted ways historically to defend the play was to try to jar the ball out of his hands by driving your body through the receiver.

If the receiver has his back turned to you, or has jumped up to catch the pass, they are now in a defenseless or vulnerable position. That leaves the defensive back with few options. They either give up the reception and immediately tackle the receiver, or they can attempt to strip the ball after the receiver comes down with the pass. 

There have been a countless number of penalties this year on defensive backs who have made a clean, legitimate hit on the wide receiver. Much to their chagrin, the defensive back turns in disbelief to see that they have been called for an illegal hit on the play. The worst part is that they have no recourse other than to accept the penalty.

In real time, it is truly difficult for referees to distinguish between a legitimate hit or if the player was leading with his helmet. In prior years, defensive backs were taught to launch themselves into the receiver to break up the pass, and they are still being penalized for those kind of hits.

For veteran NFL defensive backs, it is difficult to change how they have always been taught to play the game. In the heat of the battle, your instincts kick in, and you rely on what you have always done in the past. Some players are able to make adjustments to their game quicker than others. For the newer players to the league, they can learn how to adapt easier since they have fewer bad habits.

In this week's episode of Inside the NFL on Showtime, broadcaster Cris Collinsworth suggested that the instant replay booth review these penalties. He contends it is better to take the time to make sure the defensive back actually was guilty of the infraction before stepping off the penalty yards.

That is something I would endorse, because some of those calls can result in changing the outcome of a game. When instant replay shows that there wasn't any infraction committed, why not try to get the right call like you do with every touchdown and turnover?

Physical Demands on Defensive Backs

Look at the way the position of wide receiver and tight end is physically evolving in the NFL. If you look at the Pro Bowl rosters for the last two years, we see some truly massive physical specimens that the defensive backs have to face every week.

You have to be physically ready to go up and contend for the ball with players like Detroit WR Calvin Johnson (6'5" tall and 236 pounds), Houston WR Andre Johnson (6'3" tall and 230 pounds), Chicago WR Brandon Marshall (6'4" and 230 pounds) and Atlanta WR Julio Jones (6'3" and 220 pounds).

Then you throw in some of the bigger tight ends around the league: New England TE Rob Gronkowski (6'6" tall and 265 pounds), New Orleans TE Jimmy Graham (6'7" and 265 pounds) and Pittsburgh TE Heath Miller (6'5" and 256 pounds).

Let's look at the typical size of Pro Bowl corners from the 2011 and 2012 rosters. Minnesota CB Antoine Winfield is 5'9" and 180 pounds. He is giving up eight inches and 56 pounds to Calvin Johnson twice a year. Houston CB Jonathan Joseph is 5'11" and 189 pounds. Atlanta CB Brent Grimes is just 5'10" and 183 pounds.  Tim "Peanut" Jennings is only 5'8" and 185 pounds.

As you can see, these guys are at a big physical disadvantage, and they can't make contact after five yards from the line of scrimmage. It also seems that there are more than a handful of plays in every NFL game where the bigger wide receiver is seen pushing off the defensive back but is rarely called for offensive pass interference.

Another physical issue is the number of designed plays in the offensive scheme such as bubble screens to wide receivers, or sweeps where pulling linemen are targeting defensive backs. The thought of 6'6" and 6'7" linemen weighing 320 to 350 pounds charging at a 185-pound defensive back has to create some sleepless nights before games.

In the future, it would make sense to see a greater percentage of athletes in the 6'1" to 6'2" range be converted to defensive backs. Recent high draft picks examples of that would be Arizona CB Patrick Peterson (6'1" tall and 219 pounds) and Cincinnati CB Dre Kirkpatrick (6'2" and 190 pounds).

Looking at the corners that made the Pro Bowl rosters for the 2011 and 2012 seasons, only Champ Bailey, Charles Tillman, Antonio Cromartie and Patrick Peterson are at least 6' tall.

While defensive backs have to be big enough to battle the Calvin Johnson's and Brandon Marshall's of the NFL, they also have to be quick enough and agile enough to contain wide receivers like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola.

What about the nature of how the quarterback position is changing? The physical evolution of quarterbacks is also making it tougher on the defensive backs. Long gone are the roly-poly quarterback types from prior decades like Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen.

Defensive backs have to face a wide variety of athletic-type quarterbacks now in the league. You have the quickness of Russell Wilson, the speed of Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. Contrast them with the power of Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger, and the overall athleticism of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.

When defensive backs are playing against a mobile quarterback like Newton, Wilson, Griffin, Rodgers or Kaepernick, if they see the quarterback roll out to their side of the field, panic has to set in.

If they charge the quarterback, the ball will be flipped over their head for an easy touchdown. If they stay with their man, the quarterback easily runs it in for a touchdown. There is no halfway point. It is like defending a two-on-one fast break in the NBA, you just can't prevent it very often.

The number of key injuries to quarterbacks and wide receivers that required them to go on I.R. early in the 2012 season are negligible at best. But that wasn't the case with defensive backs.

Here are the results of some notable injuries in September through November this year for quarterbacks, defensive backs and wide receivers. The research shows that the defensive back position is physically taking a much bigger toll to play:

Defensive Back Notable Injuries

September—Brent Grimes (Atlanta), Terrell Thomas (N.Y. Giants) and Darrelle Revis (N.Y. Jets). Ron Brooks (Buffalo) went on I.R., only to be designated to return later in season.

October—Lardarius Webb (Baltimore), Tracy Porter (Denver), Charles Woodson (Green Bay) and Ras-I Dowling (New England).

November—Terrence McGee (Buffalo), Bill Bentley (Detroit), Richard Marshall (Miami), Shawntae Spencer (Oakland) and Brandon Meriweather (Washington).

Quarterback Notable Injuries

SeptemberNovember: Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville). He is the only QB that went to I.R. during first three months.

Wide Receiver Notable Injuries

September—David Nelson (Buffalo), Austin Collie (Indianapolis), Vincent Brown (San Diego) and Jacoby Ford (Oakland).

October—Nate Burleson (Detroit) and Santonio Holmes (N.Y. Jets).

November—Laurent Robinson (Jacksonville), DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia) and Kyle Williams (San Francisco).

As you can see from the above details, the position of defensive backs are really getting beat up. The number of key DBs that went to I.R. was far more than wide receivers and quarterbacks. The QB position has been relatively free of season ending injuries except for Blaine Gabbert and Kevin Kolb, who went to I.R. in December.

Defensive Backs Are Often Left Out on an Island

When the defensive coordinator wants to shut down the opposition's running game, you will often find the defense stuffing eight men up in the box. Whenever that happens, the defensive backs are often left exposed to cover their side of the field, whether in man-to-man or in zone coverage. 

If a well-executed play fake is made, and the defense freezes for a step, the defensive backs are left to play center field and limit the damage from a big play being made.

Add into the mix the new wave of quarterbacks with their option-reads plays and ability to release passes quickly. Offensive coordinators simplify their offenses to make it easier for quarterbacks to quickly determine where they need to go with the football. Film study reinforces the right decisions based on what looks they get from the defense for a specific play.

Spread offenses limit what defensive coordinators can do with their blitz packages. The fewer players that you can commit to rushing the passer, the more time the quarterback buys to find an open receiver. With the ability of some quarterbacks to be very mobile in the pocket (Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers come to mind), it makes it even harder on the defensive backs to stay with their man for longer than four or five seconds.

To be a successful defensive back, you have to have a number of physical attributes. You need to possess the combination of speed, agility, quickness, leaping ability and physical strength, which is hard to find in one athlete. You are also required to have quick reflexes, great anticipation skills and the kind of a memory that allows you to forget about bad plays as soon as they have occurred.

These are the reasons why the position of defensive back is getting so difficult to play, and to play it at a high level is even harder. With offenses going to four- and five-wide receiver sets, the need for more quality defensive backs on every roster continues to grow.

For the upcoming rookie defensive backs in 2013, you can bet they will be examined very closely by every NFL franchise to find out exactly what are their strengths and weaknesses. No matter how much potential they have, you know that every NFL veteran quarterback will be testing them early and often.

Thanks for checking out the presentation.


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