Does size matter in secondary? Bolts say no

The San Diego Chargers bucked the trend of playoff-caliber teams adding bigger cornerbacks to their defenses this past offseason.

Denver, the defending AFC champs, signed 6-foot-1 Aqib Talib in free agency and drafted 5-foot-11 Ohio State product Bradley Roby in the first round. The New England Patriots, who played Denver in the AFC title game last season, replaced Talib with one of the best cornerbacks in the game, 5-foot-11 Darrelle Revis.

The Patriots also signed 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner in free agency to play opposite Revis once he serves a four-game suspension.

San Diego’s AFC West rival, the Kansas City Chiefs, released 5-9 Brandon Flowers in a cost-cutting move, and will have a projected starting cornerback tandem of 6-2 Marcus Cooper and 6-3 Sean Smith.

The Chargers recently signed Flowers, cutting 6-1 cornerback Brandon Jones to make room on the 90-man roster. Of course, the Chiefs promptly signed Jones because he fits the team’s profile for a press cover corner.

Teams such as Denver, New England and Kansas City are trying to emulate the success the Seattle Seahawks have had with tall, lanky cornerbacks like Richard Sherman (6-3) and Byron Maxwell (6-1). Over the past two seasons, the Seahawks have the most interceptions (46) during that time frame.

The Chargers are 25th in the NFL the past two seasons with 25 interceptions. With an average of 5-10 and 192 pounds, San Diego has the smallest secondary in the league. However, defensive coordinator John Pagano will rely on an improved pass rush, along with more speed and athleticism in the back end to improve his team’s pass defense.

San Diego hopes to get an impact from first-round selection cornerback Jason Verrett, who fits the team’s profile for a cat-quick cornerback at 5-9 and 190 pounds. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said before this year’s draft that he believes size is not an issue at the cornerback position. And Telesco can look to past successes with drafting smaller defensive backs in Indianapolis like Tim Jennings and Bob Sanders as evidence of that theory.

“We need guys who can cover people, No. 1, and tackle,” Telesco said in an interview before this year’s draft. “And if they come in a smaller size, they come in a smaller size. If they’re average-sized, they’re average-sized. But if you hold out looking for just Richard Sherman, you’ll be waiting a long time.”

Verrett, who hopes to be fully healthy at the beginning of training camp after offseason shoulder surgery, believes his height will not be an issue.

“It’s just moving my feet and playing a lot smarter on the field,” Verrett said. “I played against a lot of guys that were 6-2, 6-3 (in college). I didn’t really try and get my hands on them too much. And once the ball is in the air, definitely being a competitor (is important).”

Why size matters

In his return to the NFL, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll focused on developing a defense with an emphasis on speed, ball anticipation and size. That’s particularly evident in the secondary, where Seattle has one of the biggest cornerback tandems in NFL with Sherman and Maxwell.

Carroll brought back the bump-and-run technique made famous decades ago by such physical cornerback tandems as Pittsburgh’s Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas, Oakland’s Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes, and Kansas City’s Dale Carter and James Hasty.

The concept is simple: create pressure on the passer with a ferocious pass rush up front, and make the quarterback complete tough throws over the lanky arms of his rangy defensive backs.

Even though guys like Sherman might get beat by a step or two, with their length, they still have an opportunity to recover and get back in the play.

The best example of that is Sherman’s tipped pass on a Colin Kaepernick offering to Michael Crabtree that linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepted, which sealed Seattle’s trip to the Super Bowl last season. Check out the play here.

Sherman was beat by a step on the play, but his length allowed him to knock the pass down.

Maxwell also uses his length to pick off Eli Manning on a shallow cross, which you can check out here.

How to play big

The Chargers have to compensate for their lack of size by playing with great anticipation. And doing that requires good film study, understanding receiver splits, down and distance and what route concepts teams like to run in certain situations.

Few are better at putting this all together than San Diego safety Eric Weddle.

Playing against a much bigger pass-catcher in Dallas tight end Jason Witten, Weddle twice shut him out on third down last year in a win against the Cowboys.

The Chargers played with three safeties, three cornerbacks and a middle linebacker, using a four-man rush, something you might see a lot of this year in passing situations. Check out the video here (starts at the 8-minute mark).

Weddle said better communication will be the key this season in improving San Diego’s play in the back end of the defense, something the young secondary struggled with in 2013.