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Malcolm Butler and the trail technique

Studying Butler’s favorite coverage technique and why it makes him so difficult to beat.

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Minicamp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Malcolm Butler has been one of the stars of Titans training camp so far. He’s made a slew of great plays in coverage while also flashing the feisty, competitive personality that he’s become known for since entering the NFL.

Some of those plays have come while playing in a trail technique, like the two interceptions below.

This technique is Butler’s calling card as a cornerback. It’s an aggressive technique that is among the most difficult for defensive backs to master, but it can also yield some big rewards when done correctly. When Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders called Butler one of the five best cornerbacks he’s ever faced in an article for The Player’s Tribune, he referenced this technique as part of the reason Butler is so tough to beat.

He’s playing you on the inside, so it’s going to be tough to get off the jam on an inside-breaking route — like a slant or a cross. And because he’s trailing you after giving you that step on the outside release, he’s cutting off all out-breaking and comeback routes because he’s in perfect position to undercut them. Throw in the fact that he uses the sideline really well as an extra defender, and that understands where his safety help is over the top, and all it really leaves you is the deep ball down the sideline, which is a low-percentage throw.

This technique pairs particularly well with a rangy, instinctive safety — like, say Kevin Byard — who can help eliminate some of the deep risk with his presence over the top. It’s part of the reason that I believe we will see the Titans be one of the most frequent practitioners of press man coverage in the NFL this year.

So let’s take a look at Butler’s trail technique and break down exactly why it can be such a nuisance to opposing receivers and quarterbacks.

It all starts with positioning. You can see Butler’s typical set up here. He’s tight to the receiver, usually about a yard and a half away from his opponent, and shading him to the inside to take away the inside release.

Taking away the inside release is key because this entire technique relies on keeping yourself between the quarterback and his target. That’s impossible to do if you give up inside leverage right away.

The play below is a good example of fighting for and winning inside leverage. Butler is in press man against Dolphins burner Kenny Stills. Stills is running a dig route and wants an inside release for his in-breaking route, but Butler uses his lateral quickness to take it away, forcing Stills outside and allowing Butler to settle in to the trail. The goal is to prevent the receiver from crossing your face.

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Here is a good shot of what trail technique should look like after the initial press. Butler is a half-step behind Stills with a hand on his inside hip and eyes on his jersey numbers. This allows Butler to mirror Stills’ route.

From this view you can really see Butler’s ability to mirror Stills’ movement. This is much more difficult than Butler makes it look here and this ability is really the secret sauce to his success with this technique. Once the receiver turns his head, Butler turns, finds the ball, and makes the play to break it up.

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If executed correctly, a trail technique eliminates the slant via alignment and forcing an outside release. As you can see from the play above, it also eliminates dig routes due to the corner sitting on the inside hip of the receiver when he wants to break inside.

The practice plays I shared at the top were both out-breaking routes and trail technique can be a problem for offenses there as well. The next play is an out route for Jets receiver Robby Anderson. Butler is playing a trail technique again. After maintaining inside leverage at the release, he again settles in to position a half-step behind on Anderson’s hip.

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The view on All-22 in New York is terrible, but I wanted to give a good overview of Butler’s positioning throughout the route. From the trail position, he’s able to mirror Anderson and essentially run the route underneath him and undercut it for the interception.

Here is a better view of the top of the route. Yes, the throw is poorly placed which allows Butler to make the pick, but that’s the point. This technique puts a ton of pressure on the quarterback to be perfect with his ball placement. After all, a perfect throw is going to beat any coverage. What makes the trail technique dangerous is that poor throws can often lead to interceptions.

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The other key to the trail technique is to use the sideline as an extra defender. Once the cornerback wins inside leverage, he wants to squeeze the stem of the route as close to the sideline as possible.

The next play is a good example. The Colts put T.Y. Hilton in motion which helps keep Butler from being able to get a good jam on him at the line of scrimmage. Hilton releases outside, but Butler presses him to the sideline immediately to take away the space Andrew Luck has to fit this ball in. Hilton has a step on Butler, but the cornerback’s makeup speed allows him to close and get his hands on the pass to break it up.

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The danger with this technique is that it leaves you susceptible to getting beat deep. Butler’s underrated speed helps minimize this risk — as can a good safety — but it can result in a big play from time to time.

Here is an example of trail technique gone wrong. Butler is one on one against Odell Beckham Jr. in a Cover 1 man look. He forces the outside release and is in perfect position, but a nice throw from Eli Manning and a great job of hand fighting allows OBJ to get late separation. The safety takes a poor angle to the play and the result is an 87-yard touchdown catch.

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This Butler-OBJ matchup from 2015 was a really great battle. Beckham got the big touchdown above, but was limited to just 3 catches on 11 targets for 17 yards for the rest of the game. Here is one of those targets as the Giants tried to go back to the same play later in the game. This time Butler wins the hand fight and is able to stay in perfect trail position and prevent the completion. You can really see it all on this rep. Inside leverage, squeeze to the sideline, stay on inside hip, and then make a play on the ball.

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When you look at the typical NFL route tree, you can see why this technique is appealing.

The slant, curl, and dig are essentially taken away at the line of scrimmage with inside leverage. The speed out, comeback, out, and corner can all be undercut using this technique. That leaves the go and the post as the most dangerous routes for a corner in trail. Safety help can mitigate those concerns to an extent, as can makeup speed.

It’s a technique that takes away most of the easy completions and leaves the quarterback low percentage throws. An accurate quarterback can certainly make you pay over the top from time to time, but if a defense wants to be aggressive and make quarterbacks uncomfortable, this is a good way to do it. Butler is one of the best in the NFL at this technique and Titans fans should expect to see it quite a bit in 2018.