Wide Receivers vs. Cornerbacks: Wild-Card Round Matchups

Wide Receivers vs. Cornerbacks: Wild-Card Round Matchups

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 of those receivers, identify the cornerbacks most likely to face them in man coverage. This post will have to be a little shorter and lean more on speculation/generalities than the entries to come, because teams haven't yet conclusively revealed their personnel tendencies.

Receivers rarely see the same corner every play, be it due to formation 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.

Houston Texans vs. Cleveland Browns (HOU +2)

HOUSTON WIDE RECEIVERS

Denzel Ward (shoulder) is definitely a go and Greg Newsome (knee) is trending toward playing, so between them and Martin Emerson the Browns should be close to full strength at corner. Each of the three players is good, with slightly different trait/skill sets, so there might not be one specifically assigned to Nico Collins. It's actually Emerson (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) who comes closest to matching Collins' 6-foot-4 build, so he might be about as tough of a matchup for Collins as the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Ward. Though not enough to call it a downgrade for Collins, who has proven himself a legitimate WR1 by now, this is likely one of the toughest defenses for Collins league-wide. Guys like Noah Brown, Robert Woods and Xavier Hutchinson do not project well here.

Upgrade: N/A
Downgrade: Xavier Hutchinson
Even: Nico Collins, Noah Brown, Robert Woods


 


 

CLEVELAND WIDE RECEIVERS

Amari Cooper is of such a high caliber that there are very few matchups that warrant a true downgrade in his projection, and this matchup probably isn't bad enough to raise that red flag. With that said, Steven Nelson and especially Derek Stingley have been tough this year, and DeMeco Ryans is probably one of the best defensive coaches in the league. If Cooper thrives here it might be in part due to his experience advantage over Stingley – Cooper is a finished product, whereas Stingley will likely improve for at least another year – but another detail that could help is the durability troubles of the Houston defensive line. Premier pass rushers Will Anderson and Jonathan Greenard might both be active, but them and the starting defensive tackles (Sheldon Rankins and Maliek Collins) are all playing hurt. If the Texans' battered pass rush can't get past Cleveland's standout offensive line then it might give Cooper too much time for the corners to stay with him in some plays. Elijah Moore can probably lose Desmond King in space but getting to space might be easier said than done.

Upgrade: N/A
Downgrade: N/A
Even: Amari Cooper, Elijah Moore

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Miami Dolphins (KC -4.5)

KANSAS CITY WIDE RECEIVERS

Rashee Rice is locked in and, while he can make plays on the boundary if the Chiefs gave him more chances there, it's fine for this matchup if he mostly stays in the slot. Kader Kohou is decent but Rice has quickly established himself as one of the most effective receivers in the NFL, and he's come through already in spots tougher than this one. The concern for Rice and the Chiefs passing game in general would sooner be the weather, which is supposed to feature hostile cold.

The rest of the Chiefs wideout rotation is in a (needless) flux – Mecole Hardman is very clearly, objectively the second-best receiver Kansas City has after Rice. To this point, though, the Chiefs have preferred tempting disaster by giving snaps to Justin Watson and to a decreasing extent Marquez Valdes-Scantling, with MVS tending to lose some snaps to Richie James, whose role may well continue to grow at MVS' expense. Then there's Kadarius Toney, who's a trainwreck nearly every play but is for some reason irresistible to Andy Reid, or at least Brett Veach. Anyway, any of these receivers other than Hardman and to a lesser extent James is unlikely to make a play against any given defense, generally requiring busted coverage to do anything useful.

Upgrade: N/A
Downgrade: N/A
Even: Rashee Rice, Justin Watson, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Richie James, Mecole Hardman


 


 


 

MIAMI WIDE RECEIVERS

L'Jarius Sneed is probably going to follow around Tyreek Hill a good amount, though to what effect isn't clear. It's generally difficult for quarterbacks to travel to Arrowhead even when the weather doesn't suck, so if coverage conditions are challenging in addition to quarterbacking conditions then there could be some considerable amount of stress on the Miami passing game here. If Tua Tagovailoa can travel well, though, then Hill can at some point break almost all coverages, and Sneed is just good, certainly not invincible. With that said, you'd rather see Hill get a shot at the more lumbering boundary duo of Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams, who match up better against size than speed. It would therefore be odd of Kansas City to allow Hill to see anyone other than Sneed or maybe Trent McDuffie. If Sneed is primarily on Hill then McDuffie would probably primarily be on Jaylen Waddle, or the vice versa otherwise. I think Waddle can beat McDuffie normally but Waddle is probably not 100 percent healthy from his high ankle sprain. Watson and Williams can probably hold up reasonably well against Cedrick Wilson.

Upgrade: N/A
Downgrade: N/A
Even: Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle (arguable downgrade for injury/weather reasons), Cedrick Wilson

Buffalo Bills vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (BUF -10)

BUFFALO WIDE RECEIVERS

Last week marked the best game Stefon Diggs had seen in about two months, so hopefully that marked the beginning of a resurgence. Diggs' problem has generally been the oppressive amount of defensive attention that he sees as a result of the Bills' tendency to run a couple crossing routes into each other in the middle of the field while Gabe Davis tries to outrun people much faster than him on the other side. When Davis isn't getting open downfield he effectively poses no threat at all, making the game a 10 on 11 scenario, and then the crossing routes are so flat it might as well be 8 on 11. From this point, we tend to either see things go wrong for the Bills, or they get bailed out by Josh Allen running in improbable fashion. Reestablishing Davis, Khalil Shakir and the Buffalo tight ends as actual receiving threats, in other words, might be the key to Diggs reestablishing his own customary high standards.

Joey Porter can't cover Diggs – it's such a mismatch and Porter is so grabby that there might be no number of double-teams to get the Steelers out of the bind – but in theory if Porter doesn't draw flags then this could be another challenging game for Diggs, assuming Davis can't get open on the other side. I just happen to think Porter is going to get diced up if Pittsburgh assigns him to Diggs – they really shouldn't even do it in my opinion. Davis and Shakir are both better wideouts than their defensive matchups are as corners.

Upgrade: N/A
Downgrade: N/A
Even: Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Khalil Shakir


 


 

PITTSBURGH WIDE RECEIVERS

Rasul Douglas (knee) and Christian Benford are both big corners who are less comfortable the farther into space you take them, as well as the more change-of-direction a route entails. They're both built like and run more like safeties, which makes them difficult to throw against in the intermediate, and the model of the Bills defense theorizes a pass rush that generally makes you throw it before your receivers can get past the intermediate. Whether that theory plays out as true is sometimes the story for whether the Bills defense does well or poorly in a game.

The Steelers offensive line is not particularly good, and neither is Mason Rudolph. That George Pickens can beat these corners deep might not matter if the rush gets to Rudolph before Pickens can run past Douglas or Benford. Diontae Johnson isn't going to get vertical on anyone without getting them to bite on a move underneath first, but if the Bills play with a cushion then Johnson could get consistent looks underneath, and with that he could set up the double move eventually.

Upgrade: N/A
Downgrade: N/A
Even: George Pickens, Diontae Johnson

Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers (DAL -7)

DALLAS WIDE RECEIVERS

CeeDee Lamb would likely outrank Jaire Alexander if the two get matched up, but Lamb is nonetheless a candidate to be shadowed by Alexander on boundary snaps. The Packers have no real history of moving Alexander into the slot, though, and as Dallas' primary slot wideout Lamb would likely avoid the boundary enough, if that's even necessary. As much as Lamb can probably beat Alexander, if you're Dallas you're best off burning a rep for Michael Gallup or Jalen Tolbert against Alexander, leaving Lamb to pummel Keisean Nixon while Brandin Cooks poses trouble to Carrington Valentine.

Upgrade: CeeDee Lamb
Downgrade: N/A
Even: Brandin Cooks, Michael Gallup, Jalen Tolbert


 


 

GREEN BAY WIDE RECEIVERS

It's not immediately clear how Romeo Doubs (chest) or Christian Watson (hamstring) will be handled after dealing with injuries, especially in light of the excellent production from all of Jayden Reed, Dontayvion Wicks and even Bo Melton. As much as it might be a good problem to have, Green Bay really needs to figure out who their best receivers are – a flattened rotation where everyone plays ~30 snaps probably wouldn't help anyone. But someone's playing time and usage must get pinched – the only question is how many get pinched, and how badly.

Reed has been dominant almost all year, and he's the one whose role is most locked-in as the clear top slot wideout in Green Bay. Reed also draws the part of the Dallas defense that's most easily beaten – the slot and slot corner Jourdan Lewis. The other four would more so run against DaRon Bland and Stephon Gilmore on the boundary. Like the Bills corners from earlier, Bland and Gilmore are built to play depths at intermediate or less. They have a pouncing nature in this region of the field, and the Dallas pass rush usually makes quarterbacks throw the ball before any receiver has much time to run past.

Admittedly, the effect of the Dallas pass rush is a concerning detail when projecting the Packers here. Their offensive line isn't very good, and Dallas' pass rush has had particularly good results when playing at home. With that said, if Matt LaFleur can somehow buy Jordan Love some space then there's reason to think Melton, Watson and Doubs can pose downfield threats from the sideline. That's especially true in the cases of Melton (4.34 40) and Watson (4.36 40).

Other than Reed, Green Bay might want to limit the usage of the other wideouts to instead try to move the ball in big personnel, running often and featuring Tucker Kraft and Luke Musgrave to hopefully both (1) tenderize the Dallas front four and (2) get the Dallas safeties creeping up lower than they should, clearing the downfield for one of Green Bay's speedier wideouts.

Upgrade: Jayden Reed
Downgrade: N/A
Even: Romeo Doubs, Dontayvion Wicks, Bo Melton, Christian Watson

Detroit Lions vs. Los Angeles Rams (DET -3)

DETROIT WIDE RECEIVERS

Although the Rams defense has gotten respectable results this year across the board, the fact is they overachieved and were driven by the coaching of coordinator Raheem Morris. The Rams defense is one of the five worst in the NFL in terms of talent sum.

Morris will likely have an effect here, too, but does his presence overrule that of Ben Johnson for the Lions? If great coaching can be a competitive advantage despite poor personnel, then great coaching by the other side should be a way to theoretically neutralize that coaching factor and make the calculation defer instead to the talent question. The talent question is emphatically on the side of the Detroit offense, even with it noted that Jared Goff is a scheme-dependent game manager. The scheme should work here.

Amon-Ra St. Brown has been almost automatic regardless of matchup, and there's no detail here to think this would be one where he falls flat. It helps that the game as at home (re: Goff), and it certainly helps too that the Lions offensive line should be able to give Goff plenty of time. Aaron Donald is still highly dangerous, but if you take care of him the Rams just don't really have a whole lot of ammo otherwise. With enough time anyone can get open, including Josh Reynolds. Jameson Williams doesn't need the extra time to get open but he'd obviously stand to benefit from a comfortable Goff, too. Both Rams boundary corners – Derion Kendrick and Ahkello Witherspoonhave bull's eyes on them begging for a downfield strike from Williams, or even Donovan Peoples-Jones for that matter.

Upgrade: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams
Downgrade: N/A
Even: Josh Reynolds


 


 

RAMS WIDE RECEIVERS

The Lions defense is well-coached and Aaron Glenn has his defensive backs overachieving, but their lack of downfield athleticism can become a glaring issue against capable passing games. The challenge for Sean McVay and the Rams is jarring the Lions corners out of their comfort zone, which is to say intermediate or lower depth and with a downward lean. Jerry Jacobs, Cam Sutton and Brian Branch all want to crash downward rather than turn and run. As much as Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua both have talent advantages over these corners, and as much as the Detroit defense tends to build a pass funnel due to its strong run defense, it's only fair to note that the Lions cornerbacks play best at the depths that Kupp and Nacua draw most of their targets.

McVay is a very clever schemer and is probably already thinking about these things, but rather than their usual looks working to the usual effect, the Rams might need to change something up a bit to jar loose the Detroit secondary. That Detroit's pass rush is poor might present the option of pass plays that take longer and take more liberties with multi-part routes, shaking the Detroit corners laterally in the absence of the downfield option. McVay has enough strong one-off showings in bigger games that there's reason to give him and the Rams wideouts the benefit of the doubt. If the Rams offense sputters it would be an incredible testament to Glenn's abilities as a coach.

Upgrade: Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua
Downgrade: N/A
Even: N/A

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Philadelphia Eagles (TB +3)

TAMPA BAY WIDE RECEIVERS

Darius Slay (knee) is back for this one, so the Eagles should have him on one side and James Bradberry on the other, with Avonte Maddox in the slot. This is the Philadelphia corner rotation as originally designed, but by now it's fair to wonder if it's inadequate anyway. Even if Slay locks down one side, the Eagles have struggled enough throughout their defense to think they still might be vulnerable against wideouts like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. For what it's worth, as one of the tallest and heaviest corners in the league Bradberry is at least a good trait match to Evans, and the few times Evans struggles with coverage tends to be against big corners.

Upgrade: N/A
Downgrade: N/A
Even: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Trey Palmer


 


 

PHILADELPHIA WIDE RECEIVERS

Update: AJ Brown was ruled out (knee) since posting this -- disregard mentions of Brown, assume Quez Watkins and to a lesser extent Julio Jones will replace Brown.

A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith are supposed to be able to manage their respective injuries, and if true it's difficult to see why either should struggle against a Tampa Bay defense that has no one capable of covering either player. And yet, there have been numerous other games lately where the same was true, yet one or both of the star Eagles wideouts managed to struggle anyway.

Situations like these usually are indicative of coaching failures – be it the game planning aspect or the in-game management, something is leading the Eagles to get diminished returns from established talents. Sometimes the coaching corrects and adjusts, sometimes they don't. To this point the Eagles have shown no inclination to adjust. Perhaps that changes, or perhaps even this lesser form of the Eagles offense is still able to move the ball on this Tampa Bay defense, but the Eagles arguably head into this game as a bit of a knuckleball projection due to their in-house issues.

Upgrade: N/A
Downgrade: N/A
Even: A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mario Puig
Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.
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