After spending the vast majority of his six-year career as an outside cornerback in the National Football League, Brandon Flowers has spent the better part of a month trying to learn the intricacies of the nickel corner position.
If you think it’s been easy, well, think again.
“In the slot, the receiver can go any way — inside, outside, over the top,” Flowers said. “Everybody knows the slot has no help. You’ve just got to man up.”
Unlike outside corners, who are protected against having to defend certain routes because of the sideline, nickel corners have to deal with slot receivers who have what football people call a “two-way go,” which essentially opens up the receiver’s entire route tree.
“That means that no matter what hash the quarterback is on, the receiver can run a deep post or a corner and still have a lot of room to get his feet inbounds,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. “They don’t put any slouches in the slot.”
Flowers will see one of the league’s best slot receivers on Sunday, when the undefeated Chiefs head to Denver to face star Wes Welker and the Broncos, 8-1.
“It’s tough because he’s not only quick, he’s crafty,” said Flowers, who said he has matched up with Welker before. “He knows not to give you the same move twice in a game. So you’ve got to be ready to battle.”
Despite his diminutive size (5 foot 9, 185 pounds) and somewhat advanced age for a receiver (32), the five-time Pro Bowler has caught 53 passes for 576 yards and nine touchdowns. At this pace, Welker is on track to finish with 16 touchdowns, which would nearly double his career high of nine, which he set in New England in 2011.
“He’s a smart guy; he was with Tom Brady for so many years,” Flowers said. “But him with Peyton Manning might be even more dangerous.”
Flowers has opened the last three games as the starter at left cornerback in the Chiefs’ base 3-4 package, only to shift inside when they opt to use five or more defensive backs. He figures to see much more time inside this week because the Broncos use three-wide sets almost exclusively.
But Flowers won’t just face a challenge in coverage Sunday. Because nickel corners line up closer to the ball than outside receivers, they must also be physical enough to hold up in the running game, despite the fact they could be at a 100-plus pound disadvantage against oncoming blockers.
“You’ve got to take on pulling guards,” Flowers said with a chuckle.
It’s made for an interesting transition for Flowers, who admits he’s still getting used to playing inside so much.
“This is the most comfortable I’ve felt in a game,” Flowers said after the Chiefs’ 23-13 win over Buffalo on Nov. 3. “I was going against a great slot (receiver) in Stevie Johnson. I was challenged ... (the coaches) are not going to give us help; we know that. We’re going to attack the quarterback.”
Johnson caught five passes for 36 yards on seven targets against the Chiefs, but Flowers was just fine with his performance and was particularly looking forward to spending the bye week resting up his balky right knee and studying film of Denver’s offense.
“You got to spend the extra week to try to gain an edge on Denver,” Flowers said. “They’re so precise, they’re so fluid, you’ve got to find a way to disrupt timing and disrupt what they do.”
But Manning, one of the league’s most rabid film junkies, has been looking at the Chiefs’ defense, too. When asked Wednesday about the Chiefs’ decision to move Flowers to the nickel, Manning said it was a credit to Flowers and his versatility.
“He’s got great speed,” Manning said. “There’s no question it says a lot about the confidence they have in him.”
Manning, however, said he was also impressed with rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper, whose emergence allowed the Chiefs to try Flowers inside in the first place. The Chiefs claimed Cooper off waivers from the 49ers.
“When (a player is) drafted by another team and released in training camp, it’s not very often you see (him going on) and starting on the top defense in the NFL,” Manning said. “He’s playing well, making a lot of plays, breaking up passes.”
Cooper’s stellar play — he improbably has the highest grade (plus-10) of any Chiefs player in the secondary, according to Pro Football Focus — is one of the biggest reasons Flowers has been OK with the move inside.
“The way Marcus Cooper is playing man, we’re just trying to get our best players on the field — and I’m all for it,” Flowers said. “We’re winning, and we haven’t been winning here before. So as long as we’re winning, I have no problem with doing anything they ask me to do.”
On Sunday, there’s little doubt he’ll be asked to use all he’s learned over the past month to contain Welker, one of the league’s premier receivers, while Cooper and Sean Smith take on Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, two bigger Broncos receivers, on the outside.
“I have to make it work for this team to win,” Flowers said, “and these guys on the outside have a hard job, also but we’re going to pull it off.”