“Off man” coverage begins seven yards back. Why is off man in quotes? Because there really isn’t such a thing as off man coverage. Corners standardly line up this way. When they’re up on the line, that’s press. I’m guessing people started saying off man because the corner isn’t on his man and wanted to give it name besides standard.
As explained in the hard and soft press coverage articles, both begin close to the line of scrimmage. Hard is all about jamming the WR with the hands and body, while soft press is more about using body positioning to disrupt the route. Touch them after five yards and you get a flag. Both are used in man coverage.
*to note: this is Football 101, so things are explained simply and in basic terms. The words, usually and typically can apply to most sentences. Also to *note, WR or TE applies. Finally, there is a whole series of Football 101, if you have questions about formations, terms used, etc., we most likely have it in an article. Use search to find it or go through the Football 101 page.
Standard coverage is seen more in zone defense. He needs space because while he may be tasked to mirror one guy, he has to cover anyone who enters his zone. At any point in time during the play, another receiver (WR, TE, or RB) can come into the zone and it is the CB’s responsibility to pick it up.
In some ways, playing press is easier than zone because you only have one guy to cover. This should mean you’ve watched countless hours of tape on him and know how he runs, his and his quarterback’s tendencies. The downside is it’s tiring. The CB’s are running, backpedaling, and shuffling every single play.
Playing zone and “off” coverage allows CB’s to cover less ground. If they’re seven yards back, they’re watching the play develop in front of them. If they have a deeper zone then there’s usually not as much back pedaling at the snap. The goal is to keep the play in front of them. If the WR gets within his cushion, the CB will break from his back pedal and begin running into his deep zone while covering that man. If the play is on the other side of the field, then his job is to begin pursuit.
This means, give up the short hops, but stop the intermediate to deep passes. If a team has really good inside linebackers who can cover, the CB’s job becomes easier. Denver played more zone last season than they did under Wade and the defense paid for it.
Mentally, zone is more exhausting because the CB is watching several players at once. If you’ve got a team who likes the spread (using four or even five receivers), the CB could have three men to watch (plus the QB’s eyes).
In those cases, it’s impossible to have both (or three) CB’s play man press because someone(s) is free to roam. Guess the wrong guy and you better have great safeties to mop up (we do). However, generally once safeties are needed, you’ve got a big chunk play.
Sometimes, one section of the field plays man while one or two play zone. This can occur if a team has only one top talent like the Bengals with A.J. Green. You can put your best CB on the star WR and the remainder of the defense can cover the rest with either zone, man, or a combination of both. If you’re running a combo scheme, then as the WR runs his route with the CB on his tail, he’ll end up double or tripled covered as he runs through other defender’s zones. This can be an effective way to shut a star player down. Just look at how Jalen Ramsey and the Jags took care of A.J. Green in 2017.
If your best CB can’t hang with a wily and speedy devil like Julio Jones, your CB1 may decide to play standard man because he wants the space to turn quickly. Jones could knock you down and blow the doors off you before you realize what’s happened if you play him on the line. Not to mention, Matt Ryan isn’t a schlub in fitting a ball in.
Which brings us to another reason a CB may want to play back: the quarterback. Some QB’s love their dink and dunk or have a tendency to stare the receivers down. This means, why play press man when you can just watch the QB and jump any route? Squat like a toad, dare him to throw to the open guy in front and break up every pass he telegraphs.
Bad quarterbacks can make throws look good because of the space; however, once a defense gets a read on the qb, it’s often curtains. Routes get jumped, balls get batted and intercepted and a bad day ensues. The Miami game was a, what not to do, by both quarterbacks because both were being read by the DB’s
On the flip side, really good quarterbacks love zone coverage if they’re playing average defenses. They use their eyes to sell everything, but where they’re going, and good Offensive Coordinators will use that like a dream. Not to mention, that space gives them room to lead their receiver…right into the end zone. Even good defenses can get lost on occasion (see the 2017 game we played the Patriots*). Which leads us to why every team does use trickery.
Often, corners will line up as if they’re in zone in a standard formation, but actually they’re playing man press or the reverse. They’ll use this based on the QB, receivers and who they’re playing. It’s always about the art of illusion. We have a few articles on the different formations that can be used that apply to where the DB’s play, just search in Defense Formations.
In summation, playing in a standard “Off man” coverage (seven or more yards back from the LOS), gives the cornerback more choices and more room to make them. When to do so is based on the defensive play, trickery of the defensive coordinator, the skill level of the quarterback and receiver.