Sakamoto: 49ers Jeff Hafley Teaching The Art of The Press-Cover Cornerback via Fundamentals

Fundamentals. It’s a common word often thrown around among San Francisco 49ers HC Chip Kelly and his coaching staff. An often overlooked skill set in the NFL, the 49ers are not taking the rudimentary craft lightly as DC Jim O’Neil confirmed in his introductory press conference. A trickle down effect from the top-down, I can sense the 49ers coaching staff is on the same page, while sharing the same belief system when coaching up their players.

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with 49ers DBC Jeff Hafley. At 37, Hafley has shown the keen ability to relate to the players as a player’s coach. He’s smart, innovative, and passionate. However, it’s his ability to coach up fundamentals that has me excited.

Every drill should serve a purpose. Otherwise, why run the drill? Hafley understands that fundamentals is of the utmost importance, especially when his cornerbacks are playing press-coverage.

“Everything I do [individual drills]. It’s about their eyes, their feet, and their leverage,” Hafley said. “To me. The only thing you can rely on when this game gets hard is your fundamentals. And that’s so important to me. Training their eyes, their feet, and their footwork, and all that stuff.”

If you read my article a month ago, on why I believed 49ers cornerbacks can win coaching staff over with fundamentals, than you would have a better grasp on what Coach Hafley is currently preaching.

But what components does Coach Hafley look for when evaluating a strong press corner? The answer lies in understanding three basic principles. Before we delve deeper into those principles, I think it’s best if we first breakdown the foundation of press-man coverage.

Press-man coverage is when the cornerback is lined up directly across from the wide-receiver usually in bump-and-run. The whole purpose of press-man is to disrupt the timing between quarterback and receiver. In order to accomplish this action it requires fundamentals at the LOS (line of scrimmage).

From there it comes down to being a true technician to play the position.

1. Do the cornerbacks keep their shoulder’s squared at the LOS?

This is extremely important. Just like in basketball when shooting off a screen – a cornerback’s shoulders must be squared in order to maintain proper leverage throughout the jam. If they don’t, they are susceptible to opening up their hips too early defeating the purpose of the initial play-call. (watch video above)


2. Do their feet remain patient?

Many times over I have seen cornerbacks get happy feet when they are up in press coverage. Whether taking false steps or giving up too much ground off the release, it’s imperative the cornerback maintain patient feet throughout, as they try to flat-line the receiver laterally.

Out of the three principles, I believe having patient feet is the most important. I asked Hafley if he agreed in my assessment that having patient feet is the most valued skill set when playing press, and he agreed.

“Yeah, patience at the line [LOS]. Staying square and when to shoot your hands [hand-placement]. That’s really important when to throw ’em. But yeah I think you make a great point, you must’ve played some press corner in your career. You’re on it!”

Which brings me to my third principle — hands.

3. Do they use proper hand-placement?

Using the proper hand to jam or disrupt the timing of the receiver coming out of his stem (route-tree) is key. Whether playing with outside integrity (forcing player back inside) in a press cover-2 or simply playing straight up in press cover-0, the cornerback must be fundamentally sound when jamming the receiver off the line. (watch video above)

But the critique of the jam doesn’t stop with their hands, as footwork plays a vital role in winning their battles at the line of scrimmage. Just like a defensive lineman leveraging his gap integrity, a cornerback must maintain proper leverage with his feet (usually opening up at a 45-degree angle). If the cornerback opens (hips) wider than a 45-degree angle he will likely give the receiver a free-release. My high school coach used to label this type of behavior “matador defense.”

If the 49ers younger cornerbacks can master the art of being a true press-corner, that would do wonders for O’Neil and his aggressive scheme.

But being an elite press corner is more than just mastering fundamentals at the line of scrimmage. More times than not the receiver will re-adjust his route-tree accordingly. In doing so, the play goes on and it’s up to the cornerback to use the fundamentals taught by Coach Hafley when mirroring a wide receiver.

Secondary Fundamentals

Once the receiver comes off the line, the cornerback must keep his pads low maintaining a smooth cadence in his backpedal. From there he must have the COD (Change of Direction) skills to shadow the receiver downfield. Once the ball is up in the air, the fundamentals of locating man then ball come into play. From there it comes down to receptions, interceptions or PBUs depending on your closing speed.

However, it’s important to note that if you get too far up vertically on the receiver, you put yourself at a disadvantage. Why? Because then the wide-receiver has the luxury of running back play-side toward the line of scrimmage, allowing himself a safe cushion for an easy catch. Instead the fundamentally thing to do is stay on his hip slightly in a trail position throughout the play. (watch video above)

Getty Images

Getty Images

Now that you have a better understanding of the press cornerback position, you’re probably asking yourself who the coaching staff covets the most so far in camp. I asked Coach Hafley that very question on who he thought stood out so far in terms of being a true press cover-corner and Hafley gave me three names…

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

“I think Brock’s [CB Tramaine Brock] done a good job working his press. I think a guy who’s got natural press corner skills is Rashard [CB Rashard Robinson]. I mean those guys do a good job at staying square at the line, getting their hands on people, moving their feet. I think Jimmie’s [DB Jimmie Ward] done a good job for not doing it for a while,” Hafley said.

While Hafley would go on and say the group as a whole is doing a “good job,” it was good to hear who the defensive backs coach thought was above the rest so far this off-season.

As the 49ers continue to coach up their young secondary, we will keep you updated on who rises and falls as training camp is right around the corner.

You May Also Like:

49ers Can Win Coaching Staff Over With Fundamentals (May 10)

49ers DC Jim O’Neil Defense Requires Fundamentally Sound Technicians (May 27)

49ers Draft CB Rashard Robinson, Puts CB Keith Reaser on Notice (April 30)

49ers DB Jimmie Ward Exceeding GM Trent Baalke’s 3-Year Window (May 19)

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Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.