This article is part of our Corner Report series.
This article will go game by game for the wild-card round slate looking at the top wide receivers from an offense and, based on the inside/outside and left/right splits in the alignment data of those receivers, identify the cornerbacks most likely to face them in man coverage.
Receivers very rarely see the same corner every play, be it due to formational quirks or zone coverage calls by the defense, so a receiver's fortunes depend on much more than just the quality of the corner they're likely to see the most in a given game. Even against a bad corner, a good receiver can be denied the opportunity if the pass rush or something else outside his control complicates things. But it's part of the puzzle, and it's worth keeping track of.
Receivers are left with an Upgrade, Downgrade, or Even verdict based on their projected matchup. This shouldn't be read as 'good' or 'bad' but rather a measured tweak from the receiver's baseline projection.
CIN vs LV
CINCINNATI WIDE RECEIVERS
There probably isn't a team that can cover Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase – even the blessed can at most only account for one. To negate both you more so need a pass rush that hits Joe Burrow before Higgins and especially Chase reach their customary depth of target. The Raiders are uniquely concerning as far as that goes, because Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue excel at applying pressure from the edges. If those two apply their usual pressure rate then it puts more pressure on the receivers to produce yardage after the catch, because it's not easy to do seven-step drops against the Raiders. Casey Hayward is their best outside corner, but with Higgins and Chase equal threats (and with both having pronounced physical advantages over the smallish, slowish Hayward) it would be weird for Hayward to shadow either one. Hayward is very good at playing the underneath and intermediate, so if the pass rush is hot we might see Hayward make a number of plays, but he is too small to play the rebound drill against Higgins and he really can't run with Chase more than 20 yards. The other outside corner (Brandon Facyson) is not intimidating and is the primary conerback to target in this defense. The slot corner Nate Hobbs has been excellent this year and poses a tough matchup for the otherwise formidable Tyler Boyd.
The cornerback matchups are generally favorable for Higgins and Chase in this one, but it's important to remember that it's only a theoretical consideration unless the offensive line can block long enough for them to run their routes. Joe Burrow really struggled in his first game against the Raiders this year, taking five hits on 29 attempts and completing 20 of 29 passes for just 148 yards and one touchdown. The Bengals still dominated 32-13, but that was while playing a ball-control/field positioning strategy with Joe Mixon doing most of the work.
LAS VEGAS WIDE RECEIVERS
Mike Hilton is not an intimidating cover counter to a route runner like Hunter Renfrow, and there might only be so much help the Bengals can give on Renfrow with Darren Waller serving as the lead target in the same part of the field. While Renfrow only caught four passes for 30 yards on four targets the last time these teams played, that was somewhat the byproduct of The Raiders running just 45 plays. If the Raiders run more plays (they should) then Renfrow should do more this time. Waller ate the last time – perhaps the Bengals place more of an emphasis on stopping Waller this time. Zay Jones has emerged as the top outside receiver for the Raiders – a role that calls for regular downfield routes, which don't suit the more intermediate-oriented Bryan Edwards. Edwards was shut out in the prior meeting while Jones caught just a 20-yard reception. If top corner Chidobe Awuzie shadows anyone it would probably be Jones at this point, and whoever gets Awuzie will find it much tougher than whoever is on Eli Apple, who just plays inexplicably poorly at times.
BUF vs NE
BUFFALO WIDE RECEIVERS
J.C. Jackson is arguably the second-best cornerback in the NFL, but a lot of what makes him good relates to the turnovers he forces. Unlike a turnover machine like Trevon Diggs, Jackson is both a ballhawk and a shutdown threat, but Shutdown Threat is basically something that doesn't exist to the other Diggs brother. Stefon Diggs therefore can draw a player like Jackson without it registering as a downgrade. If anything, Diggs has Jackson's number – that 2020 beatdown in Foxborough was one for the ages. More than the matchup, the concern should sooner be with the temperature, which might fall below five degrees. Gabriel Davis is a better outside option than Emmanuel Sanders at their respective ages, but if the Bills can't see that then they might voluntarily hurt themselves by running Sanders against Jalen Mills instead of Davis. Sanders can beat Mills, but Davis looks like one of the best outside receiver prospects in the NFL and Sanders' decreased speed at this point should be sufficient reason to move him to the slot, where Cole Beasley has been a dud all year. Isaiah McKenzie relative to Beasley is a similar situation to Davis relative to Sanders. If Patriots DB Kyle Dugger (hand) sits out then that probably helps whoever is running in the slot, and it harms the overall New England defense.
NEW ENGLAND WIDE RECEIVERS
Jakobi Meyers seems to have a legitimate thigh injury to play through, which isn't ideal against what's been solid slot coverage by Taron Johnson. Nelson Agholor has the speed to threaten Dane Jackson and especially Levi Wallace deep, but it might take a trick play to capitalize on that fact. Kendrick Bourne has been the Patriots' most efficient receiver by far but his lack of speed tends to limit him to sub-packages, and even then the Bills are much more built to stop receivers like him than ones who threaten vertically.
TB vs PHI
TAMPA BAY WIDE RECEIVERS
Darius Slay might shadow Mike Evans, but it might be an inconsequential detail even if so. The weather is the bigger factor by far, and as good as Slay is he doesn't project against a hulking wideout like Evans as well as a bigger corner like James Bradberry would. Tyler Johnson is not especially threatening to Steven Nelson, but if in the slot he could be a threat to the good but undersized Avonte Maddox. If Breshad Perriman plays it's hard to see him and Johnson on the field at the same time unless Johnson is in the slot. But again, brutal weather either way.
PHILADELPHIA WIDE RECEIVERS
Carlton Davis figures to shadow DeVonta Smith, but to what sort of effect is tough to guess. That's both generally true and especially true because of the weather. It's probably not great for Smith but Smith might be great for his own part, so I personally never want to count him out if the quarterback in question can function in a basic sense. The weather just makes it really difficult to count on the second part here. Quez Watkins and Jalen Reagor are not threatening to Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean.
DAL vs SF
DALLAS WIDE RECEIVERS
Dallas' wide receivers cannot be covered by these corners. If the Dallas wideouts don't get open it's because the Cowboys called a predictable game plan where the 49ers had the luxury of sitting in cautious off-coverages that spam the stem-break points in the Dallas route combos. That's what Arizona did, and the 49ers can win with the exact same model if they're smart. But desperation should lead them to this same conclusion – Josh Norman cannot be left in one-on-one coverage against CeeDee Lamb or Amari Cooper, so it would be surprising if the sharp DeMeco Ryans allowed such a thing to happen. Cedrick Wilson is another potential mismatch against K'Waun Williams in the slot, if only because Williams is built to cover Danny Amendola types rather than lanky 6-foot-2 wideouts like Wilson. Dallas has a pronounced advantage here, but there is reason for extra anxiety because the 49ers pass rush is dangerous and Dallas is coached worse than the 49ers are. Consider these 'upgrade' entries heavily asterisked.
SAN FRANCISCO WIDE RECEIVERS
Trevon Diggs might be dangerous to opposing offenses, but he's not specifically dangerous to opposing wide receivers. You'd still rather have your receiver running against the sometimes seemingly-blindfolded Anthony Brown or modest slot man Jourdan Lewis, but running against Diggs is in any case not a red flag for most starting-caliber wideouts. This doesn't mean much for Deebo Samuel, because matchups apparently don't matter for him at all, but it is good for Brandon Aiyuk and to a lesser extent Jauan Jennings. If the Dallas pass defense puts forth a shutdown effort in terms of yardage and points it's usually because the pass rush went nuts. Maybe it does here, maybe it doesn't.
KC vs PIT
KANSAS CITY WIDE RECEIVERS
Joe Haden got eaten up the last time these teams played, and there's no guarantee he's any safer this time around. The Steelers kept safety Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety pretty much all game – ensuring two safety reps for each play, rather than one-safety reps where Fitzpatrick plays corner and leaves less help to corners like Haden – and it did nothing to protect the Steelers corners. It's at once true that Haden will probably play better this time but remains highly vulnerable. Cameron Sutton and Haden make a decent enough pairing for the Steelers scheme, but neither can run very well and they have no prayer of man coverage against speed like Tyreek Hill or even Byron Pringle/Mecole Hardman. The most athletic Steelers corner might be Ahkello Witherspoon, and even he is too tall to keep his ankles right against Hill/Hardman types in the off chance that he stays within range downfield. As always, Demarcus Robinson can only get open when the defense forgets to cover him, which they sometimes do.
PITTSBURGH WIDE RECEIVERS
Diontae Johnson is a tough cover for a corner like Charvarius Ward, whose height/speed/leaping ability go to waste against Johnson's stout, quicker-than-fast style of play. Rashad Fenton matches Johnson better stylistically but is a lesser player than Ward or L'Jarius Sneed, who tends to move into the slot in nickel looks. The quarterback projection and the tough defensive venue are more concerning to Johnson than the corner matchups specifically, though his target volume arguably offsets any concern. Chase Claypool is better matched by a corner like Ward, though he should be able to beat Fenton and has something like 40-50 pounds on Sneed despite being no less athletic. Ray-Ray McCloud is the only regularly-playing NFL receiver who might be worse than Demarcus Robinson.
LAR vs ARI
RAMS WIDE RECEIVERS
Matchups mostly don't matter for Cooper Kupp, though the Arizona defense might be the one unit closest to providing Kupp a downgrade. Byron Murphy is Arizona's top corner and he plays in the slot on applicable downs, meaning he might in effect shadow Kupp even if not by intention. The Cardinals nearly shut Kupp down in their first matchup, allowing just five catches for 64 yards on 13 targets, but Kupp made up for lost time in the rematch by catching 13 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown on 15 targets. Even in the second game, though, you can see that Kupp had to grind out the yardage and didn't make as many explosive plays as usual. The outside Arizona corners are basically practice squad guys, so there's no reason to think they can cover Odell Beckham or Van Jefferson. Just the same, there's no reason to think Arizona will leave those corners isolated against those receivers. They'll drop back off the snap and play soft downfield coverages while disguised underneath coverages by the LBs attempt to discourage quick passes to the outside. But if the Cardinals do somehow allow Kevin Peterson or Antonio Hamilton to match up with Beckham/Jefferson in honest coverage they are begging to get smoked.
ARIZONA WIDE RECEIVERS
Jalen Ramsey ought to shadow Christian Kirk, the one threat among the Cardinals wideouts still standing. Kirk might be good, but he's not good enough to beat Ramsey with any sort of regularity. A.J. Green and Antoine Wesley are both bad in the same way but for different reasons – Green is washed up and Wesley is a never-was. They do both have major height advantages over Darious Williams and Dont'e Deayon, though, which could matter on a short field. Wesley and Green can't get open, but Williams/Deayon can't win a game of keep-away if the Cardinals offense can line it up. Deayon especially should not be on the field. In the strange event that Deayon is left in the slot to cover Kirk, Kirk would likely beat him.