NFL Preview Week 3: How the Arizona Cardinals Attack Cover 2

Bruce Arians, Carson Palmer, and the Arizona Cardinals are no longer a surprise contender ‒ they are one of the best teams in the NFC. Mark Schofield previews their matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, and will be watching how the Arizona Cardinals attack Cover 2.

The Arizona Cardinals are off to a 2-0 start, with victories over the New Orleans Saints and the Chicago Bears. Their NFC West clash this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers is a critical early season divisional game. Palmer has completed 36 of 56 passes for 492 yards and seven touchdowns, with only one interception. The Cardinals have found a lot of success attacking the middle of the field ‒ particularly when facing Cover 2. You know who has employed a fair amount of Cover 2? The 49ers.

Attacking Tampa 2

On this first play, Arizona faces a 1st and 10 on their own 34-yard line. Palmer is in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel on the field and the backfield empty, with an inverted slot formation on the left, and trips to the right. New Orleans has their 4-2-5 package in the game and use Tampa 2 coverage:


Arizona uses a route combination to bracket the middle linebacker on this play. Both Michael Floyd (#15) and Larry Fitzgerald (#11) run curl routes, from opposite sides of the formation:


As Stephone Anthony (#50), the MLB, drops into the deep middle zone in the Tampa 2 coverage, Brown and Fitzgerald bracket the linebacker, and Palmer has his pick of open receivers:

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Since both receivers break vertically, and then throttle down in an underneath zone, the two safeties have to respect the inside vertical threats before breaking on the shorter routes.

From last week, here are the 49ers using Tampa 2 coverage:

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The concept here is a bit different, but the results are similar. The Pittsburgh Steelers empty the backfield with 11 personnel using trips to the left, and slot formation on the right. From the slot side of the field, DeAngelo Williams (#34) runs a quick out from the inside while Antonio Brown (#84) runs a slant route ‒ aiming underneath the middle linebacker, Michael Wilhoite. As the MLB drops deep, the WR comes under him for an easy completion.

Against Cover 2

Returning to Week 1, for this play the Cardinals have 12 offensive personnel in the game, with Palmer under center and trips formation to the right. The Saints have their 4-2-5 package on the field, showing Cover 2 in the secondary with underneath zone coverage:


The Cardinals have the perfect play drawn up to attack Cover 2 here. From the left, Fitzgerald runs a deep in-cut, while on the right John Brown (#15) runs a deep post:


Against Cover 2, you can see how the safeties are put under pressure by this play. If they react and flow forward on Fitzgerald’s deep in route, Brown will come open deep. But if the safeties maintain depth on the post, then Fitzgerald should find room in front of the safeties and behind the linebackers. Speaking of the linebackers, the offense sets some bait for them using the TE on an underneath crossing route to try and draw them in:

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Which is exactly what happens. The safeties maintain their depth against Brown’s post route, and Fitzgerald is able to exploit the soft spot in the coverage.

Here is a similar look from the Minnesota Vikings, against San Francisco in Week 1. Teddy Bridgewater is under center with 12 personnel on the field, with a tight end and wide receiver to each side of the field. San Francisco has their base 3-4 defense in the game, again showing Cover 2:


The 49ers stay in Cover 2 for this play, with zone coverage underneath:


The Vikings run play action here, and after Bridgewater comes out of his fake he has the following routes to choose from:


On the bottom of the screen, Mike Wallace (#11) runs a straight vertical route, which occupies the cornerback (who sinks under the vertical route in Cover 2) and safety to that side of the field. On the other side, Charles Johnson (#12) releases vertically ‒ causing safety Eric Reid (#35) to retreat in response to the deep threat. But Johnson quickly breaks off this route:

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The receiver settles down in that soft spot in the coverage, behind the linebackers and in front of Reid. Bridgewater hits him with the pass and Minnesota has a nice gain on first down.

Returning to the Steelers and 49ers, on this play Ben Roethlisberger is in the shotgun and Pittsburgh faces a 1st and 10 in the red zone. The offense has 11 personnel on the field with trips to the left, against San Francisco’s 4-2-5 nickel ‒ which employs Cover 2 Man Under:


This play shows that you don’t need a WR to attack the middle of the field in Cover 2. The three wide receivers all run vertical routes, while tight end Heath Miller (#82) runs an option route underneath. As the secondary gains depth in response to the outside threats, Miller is able to work in man coverage underneath against Wilhoite:

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The tight end is able to free himself from coverage and form a big target for Roethlisberger, who delivers a well-timed throw for a solid gain.

To recap: The San Francisco 49ers have employed Cover 2 at times this season ‒ and given up big plays in the passing game. The Arizona Cardinals have faced Cover 2 at times this season ‒ and made big plays in the passing game. Adjust your fantasy lineups accordingly.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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