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Banjo coverage is a switch technique used by defenses to counter situations that are difficult for one player to defend. It’s typically used if there is traffic that the player could get caught up in, such as a stacked or bunch formation, or a backfield player. Banjo coverage allows two defenders to switch the players they are covering to avoid getting “picked” on crossing routes or a player running from one side of the backfield out in a route across the formation.
In an era when spread offenses are revolutionizing football, offensive coordinators are having a heyday. And why shouldn’t they? They’re conducting the movement of the ball in an era in which unprecedented freedom is being given to the offense. However, for every bubble screen and package play they develop, defensive coordinators are putting together new responses to the spread offense. One of those is the combo coverage, more commonly known by its NFL audible, “banjo” coverage.
A stack or bunch is often employed to give a receiver a free release and set up a bubble screen more easily. It puts one receiver on the line (typically a bigger-bodied wide receiver or even a move tight end) with another about 2 yards behind him in a stack, and two to three split behind him in a bunch. While defensive great Buddy Ryan was content to play off coverage against these formations, most defensive coordinators do not, as off coverage fails to eat up enough space, and will allow some high-percentage quick throws to the receivers.
Banjo coverage eliminates this concern, as one defensive back plays press on the receiver at the line of scrimmage (varies depending on formation and personnel from a nickelback to a cornerback, to even a rover safety in a 4-2-5 defense), while the other plays off coverage. However, after the snap is where banjo coverage varies dramatically from other schemes or audibles.
In Cover 2 zone, the defender in press coverage would jam and drop laterally toward the middle of the field, while the outside corner steps up. In Cover 3 zone, the defender in press would press and shift to the flats while sinking under the retreating outside corner. And in any man scheme, the corners would stick to their man.
Banjo coverage is a man coverage that plays like zone.
The way banjo coverage is coached is as follows: The up back (defender in press) presses the receiver on the line as much as possible. If he can interrupt the release for the receiver, great, but if he can chew up space and disrupt the second receiver, even better. Ideally, neither receiver gets off cleanly, but particularly the one on the line.
The outside corner has to pat his feet and stay patient, as he has outside contain responsibilities and needs to determine if he needs to fly down and attack. Not only does he have to be ready for any bounced runs, but he is also the free tackler against screens, which is crucial.
If the play is a pass, the press corner will take anything releasing inside and wall the middle of the field, while the outside corner takes anything vertical and outside. They are not confined to any receiver at the snap, only once they release. In that sense, they are really playing a zone hybrid scheme by waiting on the release of receivers. Once the receivers have declared their initial stems, the DBs will lock on and play man coverage from there. This is also useful in the red zone, as it eliminates pick routes by keeping the corners clean.
As an example, let’s look to the Green Bay–Arizona playoff game. On their opening drive, Arizona comes out in 01 personnel and spreads the field five-wide. Note the stack weakside, to Carson Palmer‘s right. Micah Hyde (#33) is the up back, and while he doesn’t press, he also doesn’t run with the first man he’s lined up across from, instead taking the short out to Jaron Brown (#13). Instead, it’s Sam Shields (#37) who picks up Michael Floyd (#15) and forces the incompletion down the field.
Banjo coverage is the basic concept of a switch release. As we see offensive coordinators start to play more and more with stacks, from two-man to three-man bunches and even four-man diamonds, defensive coordinators will rely on it more. In an era of hybrid coverages, banjo is a true hybrid: A man defense that plays like zone.
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Luc Polglaze wrote this entry. Follow Luc on Twitter @LucPolglaze.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.