There was once a time in the National Football League, not so long ago, when the third receiver and nickel cornerback were not the vastly important positions they presently are in 2012. Dating back even into the 2000s, a majority of offenses stayed heavy in traditional sets, with two receivers, two running backs and a tight end serving as the typical formation.
On obvious passing third downs, a third or fourth receiver might have been called on to help spread the field. As such, nickel cornerbacks rarely saw the field.
How times have changed.
Thanks to the Wes Welkers and Brandon Stokleys of the world, the slot in the NFL has become as important to both sides of the football as any portion of the field. Offenses now spread the field on any down, hoping to negate the evolution of pressure-orientated defenses by forcing the 11 defenders to cover every inch of the field. As defenses naturally spread in response, the middle of the field became an area where offenses can attack relentlessly.
The Green Bay Packers, with 22-year-old receiver Randall Cobb and 23-year-old cornerback Casey Hayward, have a young, talented player on both sides of the issue who can control the slot portion of the field.
Cobb, drafted with the last pick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, has already blossomed into one of the game's best slot receivers.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cobb is currently fifth in the NFL in receptions from the slot with 22. Of the players ahead of Cobb, only Welker—the godfather of the slot position—has been more productive on a per-route-run basis. Cobb has run just 139 routes from the slot, catching a pass on over 18 percent of his slot routes.
Also, Cobb's catch rate from the slot of almost 85 percent is the best in the game through six weeks.
To further highlight just how productive Cobb has been inside this season, consider what the Packers received from its top slot receivers last season. Greg Jennings, who ran roughly half of his routes from inside, caught 33 passes in 2011 from the slot. Donald Driver, running close to 70 percent inside, had just 29. Cobb is on pace to obliterate both numbers this season.
And since Aaron Rodgers became the Packers starting quarterback in 2008, Driver's 52 catches from the slot in 2008 remain the team's high water mark. Cobb, who is taking over the majority of Driver's snaps from the slot this season, should also beat that total in 2012.
The numbers are easy to understand. Cobb is the quintessential slot player; Intelligent and precise in his route running, with lightning-fast feet and an unwillingness to go down after the catch. Rodgers said as much about Cobb Tuesday.
“Very intelligent and deliberate about his preparation," said Rodgers, who also called Cobb potentially GM Ted Thompson's best ever draft pick. "He understands soft spots in zones, he’s very detailed in his route running."
Like Cobb, Hayward is winning consistently inside. Hayward just does it for Dom Capers' defense.
A second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2012, Hayward has quickly established himself as a player worthy of handling the difficult task of covering slot receivers.
For receivers, the slot is a matchup advantage. Many times, receivers get a safety or third or fourth cornerback to work against, and anticipation and reaction are both on their side.
The same can't be said for slot cornerbacks. While outside cornerbacks have the benefit of using the sidelines to their advantage, slot corners must handle any kind of route or route combination. Often times, slot receivers will be given the freedom to react to how a defense is playing the individual matchup, whether it is pushing up the seam, cutting inside or out or sitting down inside a soft zone. The options are endless and work against any kind of coverage. Cornerbacks must be ready for it all.
Hayward, in a somewhat limited sample size, has been up to the task.
According to PFF, Hayward has allowed a passer rating of just 47.6 while covering the slot this season, second best in the NFL. Only Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, who was placed on IR with a torn ACL this week, has been better in terms of passer rating against.
Hayward simply hasn't allowed quarterbacks many chances to beat him inside.
Over 55 snaps from the slot, Hayward has allowed just seven total targets and five catches for 43 yards. He also intercepted a pass while covering Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie from the slot in Week 5. On the play, Wayne ran an out-and-up route, but Hayward stayed in Wayne's hip pocket for the duration, turned his head around on the throw and made the interception. It was picture-perfect coverage on a dangerous receiver and route combination.
Hayward's other two interceptions—both against the Houston Texans Sunday night—came while he playing outside.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy awarded Hayward with a defensive game ball after Green Bay's 42-24 win over the Texans, then had a glowing review of Hayward's progress during his Monday press conference.
"I thought he played very well in his opportunities last night," McCarthy said. "He's a young player, I just think he's a heck of a football player. For a rookie to come in here and play as many positions and to pick it up the way he has. He just need to play. I'm very happy with the progress he's making."
The Packers have trusted Hayward with as many slot snaps (55) as Charles Woodson, who was the NFL's first real master against the slot receiver. Woodson, now 36 years old, had the best passer rating against him in the slot over a four-year span from 2008-11.
Woodson has since moved to safety in 2012, but he still plays against inside receivers when the Packers come out of their base defense. Considering Woodson continues to slow, and his penalties from the slot increase, one could reasonably assume that Capers will have Hayward man the slot more and more as the season progresses.
Capers' best secondary just might be Sam Shields and Tramon Williams on the outside, Hayward inside and Woodson and Morgan Burnett as the deep safeties. Hayward has been that good.
Attention to the slot isn't just a passing fade, either. Having a combination like Hayward and Cobb should continue paying dividends for the foreseeable future.
Although schemes on both sides of the ball are continually evolving as smart football men figure out better ways to win, spread offenses are just starting to get their footing in the NFL. The importance of winning in the slot isn't likely to fade away anytime soon.
Regardless of any changing trends, the Packers should be in golden hands with young, impressive players in Cobb and Hayward on both sides of the equation.