In September of last year, Andy Benoit with MMQB.com wrote a piece that declared “The Cover 2 is dying.” Well worth the read, Benoit outlined how the rise of 3-WR formations (and 11 personnel) coupled with more sophisticated quarterback play has exposed the flaws in this coverage scheme. Benoit illustrated how teams have shifted to using Cover 2 as a “show” coverage, but then roll to a different coverage at the snap of the ball in an attempt to disguise the defensive scheme.
Key to understanding why Cover 2 “is dying” is the concept of “rolling coverage”. This is a tactic used by defenses to hide their actual intentions or coverage scheme, Because Cover 2 has been such a staple of defensive playbooks, many pre-snap looks are Cover 2 before transitioning to another scheme, like Cover 3 or a hybrid man-zone system. In today’s NFL, more sophisticated offenses are using the concept of option routes on every passing play. These routes depend on the receivers and the quarterback recognizing the coverage scheme and adjusting the play and/or route accordingly to exploit weaknesses. As an example, the play called in the huddle may assign a receiver to a quick five-yard out route against man-to-man coverage. But the play may also call for that receiver to switch to a go route if the defense runs a Cover 2 scheme.
With so many moving parts, the reason a defense tries to roll coverage is not to confuse the quarterback, necessarily, but to confuse… somebody. If the quarterback makes the right read in terms of coverage but the receiver does not, it can lead to an easy interception. Here is one such example from the pre-season:
Here, Tom Brady makes a throw based upon his interpretation of the coverage and throws the ball to the sideline expecting an out cut from his receiver. Tight end Steve Maneri, however, makes an in cut. Cornerback Cary Williams is the beneficiary of the confusion, as he secures an easy interception and is off and running. So the goal of rolling coverage is to cause confusion in somebody’s head, not necessarily the quarterback’s.
Returning to the Cover 2, through the season’s first two weeks teams such as Houston, Buffalo, St. Louis, Atlanta, Oakland and New Orleans incorporated Cover 2 concepts in a number of situations. With teams still using Cover 2, it only makes sense to examine how to beat Cover 2.
This article from Inside The Pylon’s doctor of defense, Dave Archibald, contained some great illustrations (courtesy of Jessica Bell) to explain each coverage concept, including this one of Cover 2.
Looking at Cover 2, focus on the two deep zones (the purple shaded boxes) that each safety is responsible for covering. Now look at the vertical lines created by those boxes. Those lines are the weak spots in Cover 2: Deep middle, and deep outside along the boundaries. These areas are the targets for offenses when they look to throw downfield against Cover 2. Here is how they accomplish this task.
In their Week 1 shootout, both the Saints and Falcons used Cover 2 to try to minimize each other’s explosive offense. In this first example, New Orleans uses a “high-low” concept to attack Cover 2. In this first example, they have Drew Brees in the shotgun using their 11 personnel, and three receivers in trips to the right of their formation. Atlanta shows Cover 2 coverage pre-snap and, as the play develops, they utilize a Cover 2 scheme with a hybrid coverage underneath (the outside defenders play man while the linebackers are in a zone scheme).
To the trips side of the formation, the outside receiver runs a deep route. The cornerback stays with him, but since the route is angled at the strong-side safety, that defender stays home in his deep zone. The other two receivers in the trips formation work the “high-low” concept. The inside receiver runs a deep corner route, while the middle receiver runs a short out route. You can see how this works against the linebacker who drops into that zone; he has a short out route in front of him and the deep corner route behind him. He cannot cover both and, because of the deep route run by the outside receiver, he is occupied and cannot help on the corner route.
Brees makes a poor throw and misses Jimmy Graham on the corner route.forces a throw downfield rather than passing to either the corner route or the shallow route, despite both receivers being wide open in big throwing windows.
Another mechanism of working the deep outside comes from the “four vertical” concept. Atlanta deployed this approach in a play against the Saints in Week 1. On this 3rd and 8 play early in the second quarter, the Falcons have quarterback Matt Ryan in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. They have a trips formation to the left, with Devin Hester the outside receiver. New Orleans shows Cover 2 pre-snap and remains in that coverage for the play.
Atlanta has the inside receiver in the trips formation run a deep post route right at the strong-side safety. Hester, from the outside, runs a simple go route. Because of the deep post route, the strong-side safety needs to maintain his alignment and respect the post route. That responsibility prevents him from providing any help to the cornerback now left one-on-one with Hester. Ryan makes a good throw and Atlanta gets a big third down conversion.
The Bears, in their season opener against the Bills, also used this deep route concept to attack the Cover 2. Buffalo used Cover 2 on a majority of their defensive snaps against the Bears in an effort to keep Chicago’s two most talented receivers, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, in check. On this fourth quarter play, Chicago comes out in 12 personnel. They have a slot formation to the right, with tight end Martellus Bennett in the slot and receiver Santonio Holmes split out wide. The Bills show Cover 2 before the snap and stay with that scheme as the play develops.
Bennett runs a deep seam route directly at the strong-side safety, while on the outside Holmes runs an out-and-up route; Bennett’s route works to keep that defender in his zone, preventing him from providing any help on the outside route. Holmes breaks open along the sideline just as Bears quarterback Jay Cutler forces a throw to Bennett.
These two plays illustrate how well-designed routes can be used to open up space for another player to operate. On each play, a deep route was used to hold the strong-side safety in place, allowing for another receiver to attack the deep outside weak spot of a Cover 2 zone.
Throwing to the Middle
Offenses use similar concepts to attack the deep middle, another soft spot in the Cover 2 zone. In their Week 1 matchup against the Vikings, Shaun Hill was able to complete a big play over the middle against Cover 2. The Rams come out in 12 personnel, with both tight ends in the line and a slot formation to the right side of the offense, which we will designate as the strong side. The Vikings show Cover 2 before the snap, and they stay in that coverage for the play.
As this play develops, the outside receiver runs a “skinny post,” angling the route directly at the strong-side safety. The inside receiver runs a post route as well, angling his route towards the deep middle of the coverage. Watching this play, you see how the two routes work in tandem. The inside route forces the weak-side safety to hold his zone, and he cannot provide help on the outside post route. The outside route forces the strong-side safety to hold his zone, and he cannot provide help on the inside post until after the ball is thrown. The inside route is run from the slot opposite the weak-side safety, and he cannot break any earlier on the route than he does. The result is that the receiver finds the soft spot in the Cover 2 zone and the Rams complete the pass for a fresh set of downs.
Offenses can also use the “high-low” concept to work the middle of the field, as New Orleans did against the Falcons on a play in the first quarter. In Cover 2, linebackers in zone coverage underneath will at times cheat the depth of their zone coverage alignment to help the safeties contend with routes attacking the deep middle. While not technically Tampa 2, the linebackers look first to help deep and come up to make plays on underneath completions. However, the equation changes when the underneath route is run by a tight end like Jimmy Graham.
Here, the Saints send Graham on an in cut from the inside of a trips formation. On the backside of their formation, Marques Colston is the single receiver and he runs a post route over the middle of the field. As this play takes shape, you can see how the throwing window for the post route expands as the linebackers recognize Graham’s route. The linebacker begins the play by getting depth in his zone, but quickly breaks up when he recognizes the route from Graham. There is a window for Brees to hit Colston on the post, but apparently the equation changes for him as well when Graham is on the field. Brees forces a throw into a tight window rather than finding Colston deep over the middle.
While the areas of the field are different, the mechanism of attack is similar. Offenses can use routes to hold defenders in place to free up space for other receivers who may then exploit the soft spots in the zone. Offenses can also run a “high-low” concept to open up the throwing window in a weak area of the coverage. Sometimes an offense might use both concepts on the same play, with a deep route freezing a safety in place while two other receivers “high-low” a defender in a shorter zone.
Playing the Numbers Game
Having covered how a defense can attack Cover 2 downfield, I want to touch on another way of operating against that coverage. If a defense insists on keeping two defenders 15 yards or so away from the line of scrimmage, an offense can “play the numbers” and use check-down routes or screens to capitalize on personnel advantages at or near the line of scrimmage.
In their Week 1 matchup, the Bears used this idea on consecutive plays. On the first, they have Cutler in the shotgun using their 11 personnel. They have Jeffery in a slot formation to the left, but they motion him into the backfield next to the quarterback. Buffalo shows Cover 2 pre-snap, which they remain in for this play.
Chicago sends Jeffery on a very quick swing route out of the backfield and they get him the ball quickly with blockers moving upfield. The receiver only picks up three yards, but it keeps the offense on schedule in terms of down and distance.
On the next play, Chicago has Cutler again in the shotgun with 11 personnel. They have a trips formation to the left, with running back Matt Forte next to Cutler in the backfield. Buffalo remains in their Cover 2 alignment and stays with that coverage for this play. The Bears run their receivers “off,” sending them on routes down the field taking the defenders away from the line of scrimmage and holding the safeties in deep coverage. Chicago then sets up a screen for Forte, and he receives the ball with two pulling linemen in front of him.
Focus on the depth of the safeties while watching this play. They are at least 15 yards from the line of scrimmage when this ball is snapped, and they gain depth in relation to the line of scrimmage as the play unfolds. Having dropped deep, the strong-side safety who eventually assists on the tackle has to come a long way back before making the play after a 13-yard gain.
Offenses can attack the weaknesses of Cover 2 in a number of ways. They can use routes to hold safeties in place as they attack the deep outside. They can design a play to “high-low” a defender to attack either the deep outside or the deep middle. They can use both concepts to attack the outside or the middle. Finally, they can use the numbers to their advantage, and concede the deep part of the field and play 11 on 9 at or near the line of scrimmage. Here they can use check-down routes and screens to get blockers in front of running backs and receivers and reel off yardage while the two deep safeties cover a lot of ground coming up to help make a tackle.
At this point, you may find yourself asking why a defense would employ Cover 2, given the number of ways an offense can attack the coverage. This is a very valid inquiry, and underlines what Benoit was driving at in the piece linked at the beginning of this article. The simple answer is that it varies from team-to-team, game-to-game. Buffalo used Cover 2 in their Week 1 matchup against Chicago to provide help over the top against the Bears’ duo of talented receivers, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. A team may also use Cover 2 based on their personnel. Oakland, for example, has two cornerbacks in Terrell Brown and Carlos Rodgers who tend to play tight and aggressive when in man-to-man schemes. Employing Cover 2 concepts behind them allows these defenders to play to their tendencies without fear of being beaten deep. A final reason is more philosophical. If fewer teams are using Cover 2, quarterbacks and receivers are not seeing the coverage as often and, therefore, their reads may not be as sharp. Mixing in Cover 2 during a game can lead to confusion and, perhaps, a big play.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.