With nemesis Odell Beckham Jr. up next, Josh Norman continues to catch flak for not shadowing No. 1 receivers. For starters, he’s not the coach—and 10 other truths to consider before forming an opinion

By Andy Benoit
September 21, 2016

Human rights. National spending. The Middle East. And now, Josh Norman playing on just one side of the field. Controversy and debate are always pouring out of our nation’s capital. From this list, we’re going to dive deep into the only item that, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t really matter at all.

By now you’ve heard that Norman, Washington’s $75 million cornerback, did not shadow the Steelers’ Antonio Brown in Week 1. With the exception of two fourth-quarter plays in Week 2, he didn’t travel with the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant either.

So far Norman, Washington’s left cornerback, has been a good soldier and refused to bemoan his role despite being coaxed again and again by fans to do so. But what happens if Norman goes to New York this week and doesn’t square off with his favorite nemesis, Odell Beckham Jr.?

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Like most controversies, this is more complex than any headline or hot take can capture. So what we’ll do is list 10 truths about Norman, this week’s game and his situation.

Digest the information and render your own opinion.

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Truth No. 1

Any talk about Norman getting to play more man coverage in Washington is, and always has been, nonsense. Maybe coach Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Joe Barry pitched more man coverage to Norman in his free-agent visit. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe Norman thought there would be more man coverage. Or maybe not. But this was always crystal clear: No defense in 2015 played more pure zone than Washington. This defense typically played straight Cover 2 (two-high safety zone) or straight Cover 3 (single-high safety zone). Cover 2 and Cover 3 are what Norman played the most in Carolina (by a wide margin, in fact). He had become the best zone corner in the NFL. Which is why the purest zone defensive team wanted him. Plain and simple.

Truth No. 2

Washington’s logic about why they’re keeping Norman strictly on the left side is solid. Barry has said, “It’s easy for the guy that’s [moving]. It’s hard for the other three or four DBs to get lined up.” The fourth-year defensive coordinator (second year in Washington; previous two in Detroit ’07-08) explained that it’s not just a No. 1 receiver on offense who moves, it’s all the receivers. So if defenders start traveling with specific receivers, they essentially have to learn four or five different positions. Because what if their receiver goes to the slot on one play, the backfield on the next, out wide in a 2x2 formation after that and then, say, to the furthest inside slot in a 3x1 formation? If it were man coverage, it’d be easier—you’re still guarding the same player. But zone coverage is all about spatial reasoning and reading multiple routes at once. Most teams don’t have five defensive backs who can do this from several different positions.

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Truth No. 3

There can be a happy medium, of course. In Carolina, Norman did travel with No. 1 wideouts when those receivers lined up on the perimeter. Offenses were still able to dictate matchups away from Norman by aligning a receiver in the slot. (This, by the way, is not uncommon. Zone-based defenses don’t like moving their outside corners inside because the corner’s reads and spacing change so radically.) But if Norman and Washington’s other outside corner, Baushad Breeland, can learn to play just two positions—left corner and right—the rest of the secondary can still stay put. So flip-flopping is possible.

Truth No. 4

And thus it reasons that Barry & Co. don’t believe Breeland can effectively play both sides. They would know better than anyone. But what’s strange is that Breeland, who now plays right corner, has played left corner. In fact, he was there most of last year and made some very nice plays. (His interception in Week 5 against the Falcons comes to mind. That was a great illustration of a corner understanding his opponent’s route tendencies.)

Truth No. 5

Moving players around still goes against the core reason for playing a simple zone scheme like Washington’s. Coaches choose this scheme because they want to minimize the amount of thinking their guys do so they can play as fast as possible. Moving positions, even just from left to right, creates one more element of thinking. And though Carolina did it with Norman, Carolina’s zones tend to have just a little more dimension and variation than the zones Washington plays, making them just a little more about strategy and a tad less about speedy execution.

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Truth No. 6

Many coaches believe the difference in speed that a corner gets by staying on the same side is not worth the cost of using a top corner one-dimensionally. The list of upper-tier corners from predominant zone defenses who have played the left or right side includes: Jimmy Smith in Baltimore; Jason Verrett in San Diego; Jason McCourty in Tennessee; Darius Slay in Detroit; and to a lesser degree Vontae Davis in Indianapolis. And a few years ago, two of the league’s very best corners also headed this list: Pittsburgh’s Ike Taylor (now retired) and Miami’s Brent Grimes (now in Tampa Bay, where, in his final years, he’s playing just the left side).

Truth No. 7

The biggest star zone corner in football almost never changes sides. That’d be Richard Sherman, though no one complains about this. The narrative has always been, Wow, look at how Seattle can plop Sherman on the left side and eliminate that entire part of the field! No one is saying that about Norman in Washington, even though Ben Roethlisberger in Week 1 and Dak Prescott in Week 2 rarely threw to Norman’s side. But there’s a difference between Sherman and Norman: Sherman plays in a much more talented defense. When you avoid Sherman, you’re attacking a shrunken field that’s patrolled by the likes of Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. That’s four elite middle- and deep-level defenders. Washington’s safeties are DeAngelo Hall (good, but no Earl Thomas) and career backup David Bruton. And compared to Wagner and Wright, Washington’s linebackers, Will Compton and Mason Foster, fall under the broad category of JAG (Just A Guy).

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Truth No. 8

It’s unlikely the Giants care about where Norman lines up as much as everyone else does. New York’s passing attack is ultimately about getting the ball to Odell Beckham Jr. When Beckham faced Norman last December, he allowed Norman and the matchup’s spotlight to get inside his head. And so he proceeded to lose his head. Let’s assume the lessons from that embarrassment and from the one-game suspension that followed mean Beckham won’t be acting up again this Sunday. Then it becomes all about football. And from a pure football standpoint, it was very apparent that Norman could not run with Beckham. Beckham beat him downfield multiple times. For various reasons, the plays happened to not be made. Unlikely it goes that way twice.

Truth No. 9

Do not take Item 8 to mean that Norman isn’t as good as advertised. He’s a phenomenal defender. His understanding of angles and recovery technique might be second to none. But that recovery speed isn’t as dynamic as Beckham’s playmaking speed. If Beckham gets full steam in open space, it’s advantage Giants.

Truth No. 10

As soon as Washington starts winning, this entire Josh Norman controversy will be forgotten.

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