Houston Texans wide receiver Damaris Johnson, left, catches a pass as Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin defends during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014, in Houston. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez
November 07, 2014

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) Playing man-to-man coverage as a cornerback in the NFL is often described as being left out on an island.

As difficult as that can be, lining up in the slot might be even more challenging.

Instead of being matched up one on one against some of the NFL's greatest athletes, it's as if slot cornerbacks are dropped onto a busy street at rush hour trying to chase receivers while dodging fast-moving cars at the same time.

With receivers able to go either direction without the defender having a sideline to assist on defense and strict limitations on how much contact is allowed to slow a receiver, playing the slot can be an almost impossible task. ''I don't want to say you can plug anybody outside, but being an outside corner can be a lot easier,'' said Raiders cornerback Carlos Rogers, who has played more snaps in the slot the past four seasons than any other player.

''In nickel, you're dealing with the linebackers, you're dealing with the D-line, you're dealing with your corners and your safeties. You can't just throw somebody in there and say, `Go play nickel.'''

Along with dodging traffic in the middle of the field, the biggest challenge of playing in the slot is not having the sideline as an extra defender.

Jets defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said outside cornerbacks often don't need to be concerned about out routes based solely on the formation if a receiver lines up too close to the sideline.

''When you're playing in the slot, you can't do that, because he has a lot more room to maneuver you,'' Thurman said. ''That's why it's tough to play in the slot. A lot of players don't like playing in there, because they don't like the space that's there, and they don't have that comfort of the sideline to work with.''

The position has become a regular part of many defenses. Once reserved for special sub packages, defenses now use five defensive backs on nearly half the plays. According to STATS, defenses were in nickel 48 percent of the time through Week 9, part of a steady increase over the years to match up with offenses that have replaced the fullback with an extra receiver.

With more and more teams using four receiver sets, defenses often need two players adept at playing in the slot at the same time. This season is on pace for the most passes to be thrown with four wide receivers in the game. In fact, teams have already used four receivers more often in the first half of this season than they did in the entire 2006 campaign.

While slot receivers used to be exclusively small and quick players like Denver's Wes Welker, more teams are mixing things up to create better matchups. Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall all have run more routes this season as slot receivers than on the outside.

That has led many teams to move a starting cornerback inside when they go to five and six defensive backs, and use a backup on the outside.

Philadelphia saves its top cornerback, Brandon Boykin, almost exclusively for slot duties.

''I can't say enough about him,'' Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. ''It's a starting position for us. I know it isn't to you guys, but the nickel spot is a starting position that plays in every game. They dictate what personnel group is in, what we're going to match them with. ... We love what he's giving us and we love what he's bringing.''

Teams value the position so much that the 49ers and Broncos drafted players in the first round in Jimmie Ward and Bradley Roby to play in the slot.

Ward has had some struggles as a rookie, most notably when he allowed three touchdown passes against Marshall in Week 2. Roby has had a big impact in Denver, allowing Chris Harris Jr. to move back outside. Roby has enjoyed the challenge.

''It's way easier when you go back outside,'' Roby said. ''Because on the inside they can go either way. You're always thinking about where my help is and who's going to help me and all that stuff. It's a little bit easier on the outside, there's less space to guard and it's a longer throw for the quarterback. In the slot, it's right in front of him.''

While some players can succeed both on the inside and outside, the skill sets needed for the two spots are very different. Quickness is at a much higher premium inside than the straight speed often needed to play on the outside.

Instincts and tackling are also needed because defenders on the inside often need to worry about the entire offensive formation rather than just one outside receiver.

''He has to play man to man; he's got to play zone; he has a chance to blitz; he's got to make tackles,'' Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. ''It really calls for a really diversified athlete that has a good all-around sense, because there's a variety of things that they're asked to do.''

Harris said another necessary attribute to succeed in the slot is endurance. Many teams try to tire a cornerback by constantly sending receivers in motion, something Harris doesn't have to worry about as much now that he has moved back outside to make room for Roby.

Harris recalled one game against the Chiefs when he had to chase a receiver in motion on six straight plays at the start of the game.

He finds life a lot simpler on his island.

''I think playing the slot definitely helped me because it's just tougher in there,'' he said. ''And then when you go outside, you're like, `Man, I don't have to do all this running.'''


AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Rob Maaddi, and Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed to this report



AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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