Training Camp: Playing Defensive Back

Training Camp for Playing Defensive Back

I attended football camp at Columbia University and with the assistance of the Educator, a defensive backs coach (who works with the Source), I learned the intricacies of the defensive back position and what to watch for.

What does a defensive back coach look for?

Feet. And that actually goes for all of the positions—footwork is a critical aspect of how successful a player will be. So what exactly do they look at?

  • Do the feet get tangled up?
  • Is there good balance?
  • Does a player run in place or move across the field? If he runs in place it means he is not moving as far with each step. They want someone who can quickly move, i.e., cover ground or cover grass.

Attitude. How do they carry themselves? How do they react to being given a hard time? It is important to know whether a player can handle the pressure of playing the cornerback position, which is often in the spotlight.

Eye discipline. What is the player looking at? A defensive back should only be looking at the receiver, not the quarterback or anyone else. And it is critical that he is looking at him after the breakpoint—that’s where the receiver changes directions on the route he is running.

Does he Own the Space. This is when the defensive player forces the offensive player around him such to adjust his route. He will position himself in the path of the receiver and hold his position in an attempt to re-route the player and affect the timing of the play for the offense.

What does he do once he is In phase. “In phase” means that a player has decided to cover a particular potential receiver. Once in phase, the defensive back will look at the hips of the receiver and control or defend against the receiver near him by controlling space.

Does he Control the Cushion. This means that the defensive back is limiting the distance or cushion between the receiver and himself all while the receiver is trying to expand that space. If you can’t touch the receiver you can’t defend the pass. The distance between them is the battle of who controls the cushion and you can tell who is winning by how close or far apart they are.

Recovery speed. This is the rate at which a player closes the gap (or cushion or space) between the offensive player he is up against and himself. He allows a cushion (as described above), but that gap may widen depending on what the offensive player is doing and how effectively he can create space. Whatever space is between the offensive player and himself, the defensive player must recover this or close the cushion once the ball is thrown and he can make up for it with good recovery speed. Recovery speed is the rate at which a defensive player moves and eliminates space once the ball is in the air going towards the player he is up against. When the receiver starts looking for the ball it slows him down and the defensive back has additional time to catch up to him. The defensive back shouldn’t be looking for the ball until he is on top of the receiver. And some coaches don’t want him ever looking for the ball, but rather just following the eyes and body movement of the receiver. However, strategically it may be important for him to look for the ball because if the player has his eyes on the ball and is playing it as opposed to his opponent, he will not be called for pass interference, regardless of the contact.

Head placement. When tackling the head should always be facing downfield.


  • If you can’t touch him, you shouldn’t be looking for the ball. In fact…
  • Don’t turn and look at the ball as this freezes you
  • Eye discipline makes or breaks a defensive back.
  • Do not look at quarterback. Do not look at the ball. Look at the receiver. The receiver takes you to the ball. Look at his shoulders and look at his eyes—they will tell you where the ball is going.
  • Ideally, you don’t need to ever look at the ball. As soon as the receiver puts his hands up—the defensive back should touch him. The only time that the DB needs to look for the ball is when he is running into or knocking over the receiver. In that case if he looks for the ball, the argument is that he is playing the ball, not the receiver and that contact is just incidental.

To read more about defensive backs, see Who are the Defensive Backs? under Basics.

To read more about defensive terms, see Defensive Strategy Terms under Advanced.

To read more from the Training Camp series, see Training Camp: Playing Inside Linebacker vs Outside Linebacker.

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