In 2020 the Buffalo Bills leaned heavily toward a cornerback-by-committee approach opposite Tre’Davious White. Half of that equation was Josh Norman—the latest member of the “see if we can find someone better than Levi Wallace” club. Let’s check in on how that worked out for Buffalo.
As evidenced by the Bills logo at midfield, this is the regular season matchup between Buffalo and the Kansas City Chiefs. Several versions of this play occurred during this game. Josh Norman often gets a head start when anticipating deeper routes, which is not uncommon for a corner. Kansas City was ready for it.
Here’s the same thing except it actually is a deeper route. As a result, Norman is in much better position.
I wanted a game where Josh Norman was subbing in entirely for the injured Levi Wallace to see what he’d be asked to do when there was no substitute. Not surprisingly, Wallace was asked to be variable. This snap shows a lot less cushion and a little contact near the line. I liked this specific play because Norman shows the value of a veteran. While there is criticism of his physical speed, he process quickly and reacts to the play—which can be a good trade off. Norman was also asked to play a good deal of zone in this game, following the Bills mantra of “versatile.”
There were actually three games where Norman was the primary CB2. Of those three though, only Kansas City got a rematch. More importantly, in the rematch Wallace and Norman were roughly equal in playing time. That gave me a golden opportunity to see if anything changed in how Norman was asked to play. I was expecting something like “Wallace played more man, and Norman played more zone.” Speaking of which, here’s Josh Norman playing zone.
And here’s a play similar to the first couple up above. I highlighted an additional point here, and this actually applied to both games. Sometimes those large cushions are part of the scheme and Norman’s quick reaction time gets highlighted again. He’s frantically pointing at who will be getting the ball (though his teammates shouldn’t really be looking at him). The coverage is already sliding over to account for things and a hit in the nick of time helps break up the pass. This can be very effective in baiting passes but it really helps if your players are faster than their players. Guess which team had the faster players most of the day? Siiiiiiiigh
All that said, there wasn’t a major difference in how Josh Norman was asked to play in comparison to Levi Wallace. In the first half I would say that Wallace played a bit more man coverage with Norman playing a bit more zone. In the second half, both played a lot of man with both even throwing in some press concepts like this snap.
Here’s another game where Norman was the man. Here’s he’s playing pretty tight man coverage.
And here’s he playing some zone. It didn’t really matter what game I took a look at—the Bills asked Norman to play multiple ways.
Josh Norman was asked to play just about every style you can imagine. There were some flaws, the most glaring of which we see in Play 1. Teams content with chunk plays were able to get them with soft coverage. Was some of this a “Norman problem?” I would say yes. I would say that some of it seemed to be scheme issues that could be cleaned up.
With the cornerback rotation nearly even between Norman and Wallace I was expecting different usage, but this didn’t seem to play out in dramatic fashion. There could be some slight differences, but both are asked to be variable. That means the motivation for the committee approach might have simply been fresh legs.
The Buffalo Bills could scheme around Norman’s flaws if he remains in Buffalo and that wouldn’t hurt my feelings any. He played relatively well across multiple styles. It’s easy to envision an upgrade but as Bills fans have seen, harder to become reality. The Bills have tried improving on Wallace for years and always come back to him. Norman seems to be a similar mold, aka “A nice floor.”