The cornerback in the NFL is expected to anticipate the quarterback’s next move by reading the cues of the offense and using athletic skills to disrupt passing lanes, execute single and zone coverage, and ultimately stop the wide receiver’s impact.
If you remove ‘quarterback’ and ‘wide receiver’ from the above sentence, and replace them with AFL-specific terms, that paragraph could be used to describe Jeremy McGovern’s unique skill set.
McGovern was likened to a cornerback this week, which in some ways is an apt comparison to make when referring to the intercept-marking beast.
Another theory and perhaps a more accurate one, is that McGovern is more akin to a safety than a cornerback, according to self-confessed NFL aficionado, and Adelaide Crows forward, Josh Jenkins.
“I think a safety is the perfect analogy because a safety is just reading the quarterback, and that’s all Jeremy does,” Jenkins said. “He lets his man lead to what he will determine as ‘useless space,’ and then he will watch the ball and use his athleticism to fly for his marks.
“He is like a defensive back, but he is more aligned to a safety because he’s less worried about the wide receiver, and more concerned with where the ball will land.”
It’s no secret that McGovern’s impact on Saturday will largely define the result, and there’s many theories within AFL circles as to how to stifle his influence.
Jenkins believes the 26-year-old is more dangerous when playing on a small opponent because they’re more inclined to play front and centre which opens up the ability for McGovern to fly in and mark, but also thinks that a tall, negating forward isn’t the right match-up, either.
“You need to put someone on him who is a capable forward who can kick goals, knows how to compete and doesn’t lead into silly spots and allow him to be a drop-off defender.”
When the Crows met the Eagles at the Adelaide Oval in Round 15, Adelaide put so much planning into curtailing him that Jenkins had to stop and say, ‘Hang on, we need to worry about ourselves here and think about what we’re going to do.’ Which ended up being a waste of resources when McGovern lined up in the forward line that afternoon.
“We didn’t know he was going to play forward, so we basically wasted our time focusing on him,” Jenkins joked.
In Round 23, Brisbane hosted West Coast, and as a forward group, they had one thing on their minds: Stop West Coast’s MOKS (‘marks from opposition kicks,’ in coaching vernacular).
However, it wasn’t just McGovern’s involvement that was planned for, but also the marking prowess of Shannon Hurn and Tom Barrass.
“You don’t want to change too much with your ball movement because you don’t want to disrupt your own forward play,” Brisbane forward coach, Jed Adcock explained. “It was more about making sure we had someone close to McGovern at all times and he wasn’t able to roam around and do his own thing.”
Nevertheless, the plan was different for Brisbane than it was for other teams due to personnel. The Lions like to play with three tall players in attack, which opened the door for all 205 centimetres of Oscar McInerney.
“Jeremy positioned himself wherever he wanted, so we asked Oscar to stand close to him and play from his body. It was about trying to stop him marking, and we felt a taller guy is going to do a better job of that than a smaller guy.”
Brisbane fell short of the Eagles by 26 points, but felt their plan negated McGovern somewhat. He would finish with 14 disposals and eight marks and was far from his damaging self.
The Western Bulldogs endured two looks at the Eagles and McGovern in 2018, and led with the approach that they didn’t want to focus too much energy on him pre-game.
The mantra revolved around making McGovern respect his direct opponent, and reminding him that he has to defend, too.
“You don’t want to suffocate your forward’s natural tendencies and abilities, so it’s a fine line,” Western Bulldogs’ forward coach, Ashley Hansen said. “If you try to take away the instinctive leading patterns of a forward, you can take away one of their greatest strengths and advantages and that is movement.”
Hansen instructed his forwards to monitor McGovern’s movement when they were in possession, particularly when they were about to enter the 50.
Following on from the sheer marking ability, the next element to curtail is the kicking, which Hansen believes is the key component to West Coast’s ball movement.
“There is a stat for scoring chain involvement from possession from turnover,” Hansen added, “I reckon that he would be pretty high because he sees the field in front of him pretty well. He will take a first option as soon as he can and hit that kick which is what creates the overlap. The defence is then behind the ball and out of position because they want to attack and that is why he is so successful at starting those scoring chains.”
“He is an underrated kick,” Jenkins explained. “He doesn’t pierce it like Shannon Hurn, or punch it 55 metres through the car window, but he has really good touch and often he will kick 45s back to half-back, and that’s where the Eagles will get their overlap handball.”
In their two meetings this season, Collingwood tried Brody Mihocek and Chris Mayne with varied success.
McGovern threatened to tear the Qualifying Final to shreds in the first quarter, clunking seven marks before Mayne was moved onto him.
Considering the impact he had on Friday night, it would be a small shock if Mason Cox was asked to play a role on league’s best interceptor, but perhaps Nathan Buckley will look to spring a surprise.
“The profile of the Collingwood forward line is very athletic, and their amount of medium-size forwards provides the potential to wreak some havoc,” Hansen said of this weekend’s encounter.
“It doesn’t matter how good a defender you are if the ball carrier has time to use the ball. He relies heavily on the West Coast midfield playing their part. As long as the Collingwood forward line can bring the ball to ground, that’s going to be a big part of it.”
The AFL differs in many ways to the NFL, where there is a tendency for individuals to have more of an impact on a result.
Eagles coaches have cultivated an environment where it’s not just about McGovern, with the likes of Barrass, Hurn and Will Schofield just as important to their structures.
But when Collingwood midfielders and half forwards lower their eyes on Saturday, they’ll be wary of the defensive disruptor with the unique skill set who wears No. 20.