The New England Patriots (9-3) face the San Diego Chargers (8-4) in a crucial AFC matchup Sunday night. The Patriots offense will use different personnel, formations and motion to combat the Chargers defensive schemes, coverages and pass rush.
Two things stand out about the San Diego defense this season: First, while the Chargers are primarily a Cover 1 / Cover 3 team, they implement Cover 2/Cover 4 concepts in two specific situations. Second, last week against Baltimore they were very concerned with tight end Owen Daniels, which opened up other receivers for quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense.
Cover 4 versus Empty
One situation where the Chargers implement a Cover 2 concept is against an empty backfield. On this play the Ravens face 3rd and 7 near midfield. Flacco is in the shotgun and Baltimore empties the backfield. San Diego counters with a dime package and shows Cover 3 before the snap:
Just prior to the snap they roll the coverage to Cover 4:
As the play develops watch the bottom of the screen: a linebacker, safety and cornerback all jump Daniels:
This leaves two free receivers running deep. Kamar Aiken is wide open on his seam route over the middle while the outside receiver is open on his go route. Flacco is flushed from the pocket and cannot deliver the football to Aiken, but he does pick up a roughing the passer penalty:
While the Ravens pick up the first down, this is a good example of a missed opportunity that can haunt an offense at the end of the game.
In the Red Zone
San Diego also runs Cover 2 (or variations thereof) when the offense is in the red zone. Here the Ravens face 2nd and 8 on the Chargers’ 10-yard line. Flacco is under center and the offense has 12 personnel on the field. San Diego counters with a base 3-4 defense and runs Cover 4 from the get go:
Flacco will get a skinny post from his TE and a skinny post from Smith on the outside:
Watch how the defense collapses on Owen Daniels over the middle:
Two linebackers and the safety converge on the TE. This opens up lots of room for Smith on his outside post, and his QB hits him in stride for the touchdown:
If the Chargers collapse on Owen Daniels like this, how do you think they will react to Rob Gronkowski? (Hint: It won’t be one-on-one coverage.)
Empty in the Red Zone
Let’s put it all together. Red zone plus empty backfield. How will the Chargers respond? The Ravens face 3rd and 13 on the San Diego 16-yard line. Initially Flacco is under center:
The QB adjusts to the shotgun and running back Justin Forsett motions out of the backfield. On the other side of the football the Chargers have their nickel defense showing Cover 1 at the outset, but as the running back moves, the secondary adjusts:
The defense rolls their coverage into Red 2, which is a goal-line version of Tampa 2 coverage. The middle linebacker drops deep over the middle while four defensive backs set up in a Cover 2 shell:
Thankfully for Ravens fans, they have the perfect play called to beat the defense: four verticals:
Flacco has the two inside vertical routes to choose from, and he hits wide receiver Torrey Smith for the touchdown.
The two concepts highlighted here are crucial for Sunday night’s Patriots Chargers contest. First, given the weaknesses of Cover 2 and Cover 4 schemes, it will be interesting to see if New England empties the backfield to force San Diego into these coverages. Second, and more importantly, if the Chargers paid this much attention to Owen Daniels, will they collapse four defenders on Rob Gronkowski? From what we have seen on film, Tom Brady and the New England offense might have a big night on NBC.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.