As of late, the Bengals’ pass defense has been outstanding. They are only giving up an average of 183 yards per game over the past three weeks. Having safety Chris Crocker return to play some of his best football in stripes has not hurt at all, but the new look to the Bengals’ defensive backfield goes further than that.
And it was not Dre Kirkpatrick, as the rookie only played one defensive snap on Sunday. No, it is Leon Hall, who is being utilized like he never has been before. But it does make perfect sense to use Hall in the slot, because it suits his game very well.
Over the past few years, teams routinely running three-receiver sets even on passing downs, eschewing the traditional fullback for a versatile tight end and spreading the defense to create running lanes instead of using a fullback to blow out the hole. The proliferation of the zone run has helped boost that.
With that in mind, the slot cornerback has become an increasingly important position, often times a starter who plays more snaps than the Sam linebacker. With teams running out of three receiver sets, it becomes even more important for the slot cornerback to play the run, and with players like Wes Welker and Victor Cruz emerging, very often a team’s best wide receiver is in the slot, taking advantage of the easier-to-find holes in coverage.
Cortland Finnegan was the original poster boy for the number one corner who moved down to the slot. He has mastered the art of timing a corner blitz, something that Mike Zimmer values out of his defensive backs, and, despite his diminutive stature, is not afraid to square up to the line of scrimmage and make a stop against the run.
More importantly, the slot receiver does not have to deal with a jam off the line of scrimmage and is not redirected. This means that he has a full head of steam by the time that he reaches the cornerback. The slot cornerback has to play outstanding coverage to deal with a receiver who could blow past him or cut the route off at the stem as soon as the cornerback opens his hips.
Outside cornerbacks have the ability to reroute receivers towards the sidelines to limit their space in which to work, or funnel them inside towards safety help. In this regard, slot cornerbacks have to be more explosive and better in pure coverage to deal with the added danger and extra ground to cover.