Patriots Passing Preview: Beating Cover 3

Mark Schofield has completed his three-part Super Bowl XLIX passing preview for the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. First he went deep on the secondary, including a look at the Hawks most-utilized coverage schemes and the four key components of their defensive backfield. Part two illustrated the ways that offenses freed up tight ends against Seattle this season, as well as how teams attacked the slot cornerbacks with the vertical passing game. The final piece of the outlines some of the “Cover 3 beaters” teams implemented against Seattle this season.

Enter Through the Exit Door

One concept used to attack Seattle is the “exit-enter” scheme. This involves running a receiver through a zone to occupy a defender and, as the first receiver and defensive back exit the zone, another receiver trails into the now-vacant area of the field. We saw Washington use this concept for a long touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 5.

Kirk Cousins is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. DeSean Jackson and Niles Paul are in a pro formation to the right. Jackson runs a short out route, while Paul runs a deep post:

Seattle has their nickel defense on the field and Cover 3 in the secondary. Watch how this play unfolds:

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The TE releases vertically and Richard Sherman stays with Paul on his post route, exiting the deep outside zone. Kam Chancellor breaks forward to the outside flat zone, covering Jackson’s short out route. But the WR cuts upfield into the deep outside zone vacated by Sherman.

Having rotated toward the middle of the field to shadow the post route, the cornerback cannot help Chancellor on Jackson. The strong safety tries to stick with the receiver on the deep route, but the speedy WR runs away from him and pulls in the throw for a long scoring play.  Watch for New England to use this concept to attack the outside zones on Sunday night, running multiple receivers into a single zone on each play, trying to draw favorable matchups.

Attack the Intermediate Middle

Every zone coverage has a weak spot or two. In Cover 2, the weak areas an offense can exploit are the deep middle between the safeties and the deep outside between the safety and the sideline. Cover 3 is no exception to this rule of soft spots, and one of the areas to target is the middle of the field on intermediate routes, behind the linebackers in underneath zone and in front of the three deep safeties.

Oakland used a dual crossing route design to attack this area of the field. Derek Carr is under center with 21 personnel on the field, and the Raiders have an inverted slot to the left. Seattle has their base 4-3 defense in the game showing Cover 2 at the outset, which they roll to Cover 3:

The slot receivers each run a crossing route, behind the linebackers but in front of the safeties:


Each receiver is open on this play and the quarterback has a choice. Carr can deliver the ball to the leading receiver near the numbers or hit the trailing receiver between the hash marks. He attempts to find the leading receiver, but overthrows the pass. With a more accurate throw the Raiders have a big gain.

Also, note the position of Chancellor, the deep middle safety on this play. He is over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage as Carr makes his throw. As illustrated in part two of this series, a weakness in Chancellor’s game is his deep zone coverage. Here, he bails very deep to prevent a big play, expanding the throwing window on intermediate routes. If New England is to have success in the passing game Sunday, Tom Brady needs to identify when Chancellor is in deep zone coverage and pounce.

High-Low Concepts

We have talked at length this season about the high-low scheme. This concept can be used against Cover 3 and against any of the deep three defenders. On this play, Mark Sanchez and the Philadelphia Eagles attack Sherman in his deep outside zone. The quarterback is in the shotgun with 12 personnel on the field. On the right, Riley Cooper is lined up in the slot while Jeremy Maclin is split to the outside. The Seahawks have their base 4-3 defense on the field with Cover 3 in the secondary. Sherman is responsible for the deep outside third, while outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (#51) needs to cover the outside flat where Maclin ends up:


Cooper runs a corner route from the slot and Maclin runs a short curl. These two routes form the high-low over Sherman. Sanchez will read the CB and make his throw off of Sherman’s reaction. If the cornerback stays with the corner route he will check the ball down to Maclin. But if Sherman breaks on the curl route, Sanchez has a chance for a big play:


As you might expect, Sherman is a disciplined defender and stays with the deep route. But Irvin is slow to break to the outside flat. Sanchez reads this play properly and gets the ball to his second option. Maclin makes the catch, makes Irvin miss the tackle, and picks up an easy 12-yards for a first down. The Patriots like to use this concept in their offensive system, so you can imagine that Josh McDaniels and company will have a few plays like this ready for Sunday night.

Enter Through the Exit Door, Revisited

Finally, I want to return to the concept of bringing trailing receivers into a vacated zone using this play from Seattle’s first meeting with the Arizona Cardinals. Since the Patriots like to use crossing routes from their receivers, this is a play that McDaniels might draw up for Julian Edelman.

Quarterback Drew Stanton is under center with 12 personnel on the field. One receiver is split to the left while Josh Brown and both tight ends are in a tight alignment to the right. Seattle is in a 3-4 alignment with the secondary using Cover 3:


Wide receiver Steve Breaston runs a vertical route on the outside while Brown runs a crossing route from the right to left. Byron Maxwell stays with Breaston’s route, while the linebackers do a good job of passing Brown off underneath. But Brown is not actually running a crossing route:


Once Brown passes the hash marks, he breaks behind the last underneath zone linebacker and into the deep outside zone. Since Maxwell has run with Breaston’s vertical route, the deep outside zone is now vacant. Stanton does a good job of keeping the throw away from the deep defenders, and Brown secures the pass for a solid gain.

This play is a clear example of the exit-enter concept. Breaston enters the outside deep zone and draws Maxwell deeper into the secondary. As the cornerback gains depth, Brown curls into the shallow part of the zone and is wide open. Look for New England to utilize plays like this to put pressure on Sherman and Maxwell on the boundaries.


While the Legion of Boom is an immensely talented group and able to win most one-on-one matchups, their coverage schemes are not without holes. Teams have created space for their tight ends, attacked slot corners, and used play design to expose holes in Seattle’s Cover 3. It may take a nearly flawless effort from Brady and company to win Super Bowl XLIX, but the schemes and plays outlined in this series are a good road map for making plays against this pass defense.

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 the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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