In today’s football, cornerbacks play a large role on defense due to the heavy passing attack of modern offenses. One specific type of cornerback, a slot cornerback, has become more important over the past 10-20 years as modern offenses have put extra receivers on the field. What is a slot cornerback in football?
A slot cornerback is a defensive back that aligns in the “slot” area on the football field, which is an unmarked area that exists in the space between the outside wide receivers and the offensive line. The slot cornerback often covers the slot receiver. Because the slot cornerback plays in the middle of the field, he needs to possess a different set of skills than outside cornerbacks (see a description of those skills).
In nickel defenses, the slot cornerback is often referred to as a “nickelback”. In dime defenses, the slot cornerback is often referred to as a “dime back”. This is where you can learn more about what the terms nickel and dime mean in football.
In this article let’s take a closer look at how slot cornerbacks are used in football, and discuss why slot cornerbacks have become such an important part of modern football.
Slot Cornerback Explained
What is the Slot in Football?
The “slot” refers to the space on the line of scrimmage between where the outside wide receivers lineup (near the boundary) and where the offensive tackles and/or tight end(s) line up. This “slot” area is not officially marked on a football field, but it is usually very near to the numbers on a football field.
The “slot” exists on both sides of the field. This means that if the slot receiver lines up on the left side of the play or the right side of the play, both sides are still considered the “slot”.
What are Slot Cornerbacks Used For?
When an offense adds a slot receiver to the field, the defense often responds by adding a defensive back used specifically to cover the slot receiver. Because the slot cornerback plays in the middle of the field, he needs to possess a different set of skills compared to regular cornerbacks. This is where we explain those skills.
Is a Nickel Corner the Same as a Slot Corner?
Yes, in short, a nickel cornerback (or “nickelback”) is the same thing as a slot cornerback. The slot cornerback in a nickel defense is referred to as the nickel cornerback. But it is important to understand that a slot cornerback is also used in other types of defenses besides just the nickel. For example, a slot cornerback is also used in a dime defense.
If you are just learning football, the different terminologies can be a bit overwhelming. We won’t do a deep dive on defenses on this page, but quickly here is what you need to know about a nickel and dime defense.
Nickel and dime defenses are when defenses add extra defensive backs to the field, usually done in obvious passing situations when there are more receivers on the field to cover. The nickel is when one extra defensive back is added, and the dime is when two extra defensive backs are added. These extra defensive backs are often referred to as slot cornerbacks because they align in the slot.
The nickel defense is called “nickel” because when that one extra defensive back is added to the field, it creates a total of five defensive backs on the field (hence, “nickel”). A standard “base” defense just has four defensive backs on the field (two safeties and two outside cornerbacks).
It’s also important to note that there are times where defensive coaches may add an extra defensive back to the game, but it isn’t a slot cornerback. For example, a defensive coordinator may add an extra safety to the field if the offense has added extra tight ends (tight ends are bigger than receivers, and sometimes can bully a smaller slot cornerback in both the run and pass). Both safeties and cornerbacks are referred to as “defensive backs”.
History of the Slot Cornerback in Football
Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry first introduced the concept of a “slot” cornerback when he devised the “nickel” package in the 1970s by adding an extra player to his defensive backfield.
San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh innovated the “dime” package in Super Bowl XIX by inserting two extra defensive backs to hold the high-powered Miami Dolphin offense, that set a new single-season touchdown record that year, to just one touchdown.
Since then many variations of these defensive schemes have been used. As recently as 2018, the San Diego Chargers used seven defensive backs in a playoff game to slow down the Baltimore Raven’s passing attack.
What Makes a Good Slot Cornerback?
Certain types of defensive backs are better suited to the slot-corner position than others. The type of players best equipped to play slot cornerback possess both quickness and strength.
While size is always important, speed is everything when playing coverage in the middle of the field. Because slot cornerbacks play in the middle of the field, and do not have the sidelines to help them contain the receiver, the slot corner’s speed and change-of-direction is often more important than his size.
Without adequate quickness, a slot cornerback can’t stay with receivers in coverage and cannot close on players to make tackles or interceptions. Stronger players are much more able to disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage by jamming the receiver before he can make his initial break.
Because slot receivers are most often the quickest players on the field, slot cornerbacks must match up with the slot receiver’s skills to provide effective coverage. In order to be effective at the position, a slot cornerback must be quick enough to stay with the receiver as he breaks across the field and agile enough to change direction on a dime as the receiver executes cuts while running his route.
Regular Cornerback vs Slot Cornerback
The defense lines up in response to the offense’s alignment and the outside cornerback ’s job is to cover the wide receiver that lines up on the outside of the field.
As the rules state, a receiver is not permitted to be the first player to touch the ball after they come back onto the field of play if they should step out of bounds. Because of that, outside cornerbacks have the out-of-bounds “boundaries” to help contain the wide receivers.
This means an outside corner can use the boundary as leverage, and cheat certain areas of the field. It also means that quickness (although still important) is not quite as important for an outside cornerback as it is for a slot cornerback.
Outside cornerbacks are often bigger and more physical than a slot cornerback. In fact, outside cornerbacks that prove to be too small or not physical enough to play on the outside are sometimes moved inside to be a slot cornerback where height and physicality is not as important.
Why is a Slot Cornerback Important in Modern Football?
More and more of today’s new, high-powered offenses are lining up with multiple-receiver sets, which means they are putting a slot receiver on the field. This was not always the case in past decades when a run-heavy approach was popular.
In those run-heavy years, defenses would have three, or sometimes four, linebackers on the field to help stop the run. But linebackers struggle in coverage, and can be a liability in modern football.
To combat this issue, teams often reduce the amount of linebackers on the field, and add the extra defensive back, which is usually a slot cornerback.