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What's In A Defensive Scheme? Part III, coverage schemes

We've gone over the more common defensive fronts, so let's finish up by going over coverage schemes.

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There is no quicker way to get fans of the New York Giants fired up than to show Perry Fewell's coverage schemes.

But as offenses continually get more sophisticated, defenses have no choice but to respond. Not only do they need to account for new offensive concepts, they need to disguise their own concepts to make it harder for offenses to attack them.

So, what goes into the various coverage schemes, and why do they work (or not work)?

Man Coverage

There are two basic coverage concepts in the NFL -- man coverage and zone coverage. Let's start with man coverage concepts.

Man coverage is exactly what it says it is: A defender lines up across from an offensive player and tries to stop him from doing his job. Generally any back seven player -- cornerbacks, safeties, or linebacker -- can play man coverage, but there are a few ways to play man coverage.

Press-Man Coverage

Press man coverage is the most aggressive, and riskiest, of the man coverage techniques. Press coverage depends on the defensive player, usually a cornerback getting a good jam on the offensive player at the line of scrimmage, then sticking with them throughout their route. When properly executed, the jam disrupts the receiver's route and the timing with the quarterback. While press-man coverage is athletically demanding, it allows a good corner to effectively take a receiver out of the game.

But, like I said above, press-man coverage has it's risks. First, it puts the defenders back to the quarterback. That means they have to read the receiver to know if or when the ball is coming, or risk a pass interference call. It also means that if the front seven loses contain on an athletic quarterback, they can make big gains before the secondary players realize they've started to run.

If you're looking for a press-man corner, look no further than Prince Amukamara. He has the size to be physical with big NFL receivers, the fluid hips to turn and run with burners, and the intelligence and instincts to make a play on the ball off a receiver's cues.

Off-Man Coverage

The other way to play man coverage is off-man. Unlike press-man coverage, off-man coverage has the defensive back give a cushion to the receiver off the snap. As the receiver uses up the cushion, the corner flips his hips and covers him just as in press-man coverage.

The cushion allows the corner to peek into the backfield off the snap to potentially get some clues about the play, and it also helps to protect the corner against rub routes. Also, because of the cushion, off-man coverage can help the defensive coordinator to disguise his coverage or blitz schemes.

An excellent example of an off-man corner is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. DRC's unique blend of length and athleticism lets him jump quick routes or stay with receivers on deep routes. Off-coverage also keeps physical receivers like Dez Bryant or Brandon Marshall from throwing him of HIS game, and takes away some of their advantage.

Bail Technique

Bail technique, or press-bail, is a blend between man and zone coverages. The defensive back jams the receiver at the snap. Then, depending on the defensive call, either stays with press-man coverage or backs off into a zone coverage. It gives the defense a lot of flexibility in disguising coverage and blitzes. To make this effective, you need a well-rounded corner who can play both man and zone coverage well enough for teams to respect both options.

Zone Coverage

Perry Fewell gave zone coverage a horrible reputation, but is it as bad as he made it look?

While man-coverage has a player covering another player, zone coverage has a defender cover an area of the field, and picking up whoever happens to be in their zone. While defenders still need to be athletic to play zone coverage, the demands are different.

First, zone coverage doesn't need the size or long speed that man coverage does since defenders don't get physical with receivers or run with them down the field. On the other hand, they need to be very quick to stay with receivers in their zone, have good awareness and instincts to read a quarterback's eyes to know if the ball is coming their way, and disciplined in their assignments.

By keeping their eyes in the backfield, zone coverage lends itself to creating turnovers by baiting QB's into making ill-advised throws and helping out in run support. Also, zone coverage is less susceptible to pick routes and better able to deal with bunch formations.

The prototype here is probably Charles "Peanut" Tillman of the Chicago Bears. Despite having great length for a corner, Tillman excelled in dropping back into zones, baiting quarterbacks into throws. He then used his quickness to close on receivers the QB only thought were open and either break up the pass or come away with the turnover.

Coverage Shells

Man and zone coverage are the techniques used by defenders, but what about how they're used in defensive schemes? Well, that is described with coverage shells. There are five basic coverage shells defenses use.

Cover 0

The "Cover 0" shell isn't really a shell at all. There are no deep safeties and at most five defensive players are in man coverage with the five eligible receivers. Essentially a Cover-0 call declares that the defense has either has no respect for the offense's ability to throw the ball deep, or they don't care. Instead, the defense is opting to bring the maximum of pressure in the hopes of either getting a sack or forcing a rushed, incomplete pass. This is an all-out blitz and as such, is a huge risk-reward call for the defense.

Cover 1

Cover 1 is the second-most aggressive coverage shell. In the Cover 1 shell, the free safety drops back to play a deep zone and take away a deep pass. The cornerbacks, strong safety, and linebackers are usually either in man coverage underneath, blitzing, or defending the run.

The free safety needs to be a good athlete to cover that much field, have a strong understanding of route concepts, and good awareness to see what the quarterback is doing so he knows where to go, and not allow themselves to beat deep. The prototype here is Kenny Phillips.

Cover 2

If the Cover 1 shell has one defensive back dropping into a zone coverage, then the Cover 2 must have two dropping into zones, right?

That's exactly right.

In the Cover 2, both the free safety and strong safety drop into zone coverage. The two safeties divide the field in half and either cover receivers coming into their zone or help cornerbacks with double teams.

Defenses can play either man coverage, zone coverage or a combination of the two underneath. If the defense is playing zone coverage underneath, the safeties need to be both aware and disciplined to take responsibility for receivers as they move out of the underneath zones. If they aren't, there's a coverage breakdown and the defense is going to give up a huge play. Also, the Cover 2 is vulnerable to athletic tight ends who can threaten the seams between the zones.

Cover 3

By now I think you can see where this is going. The Cover 3 has three players drop into zone coverage and divide the field into thirds.

Usually it's the three most athletic defenders, the cornerbacks and the free safey. Usually the strong safety comes down to play run support or plays coverage underneath with the most athletic linebacker. This is usually a nickel defense, so there is a third defensive back on the field to play coverage along with the strong safety and linebacker. The Cover 3 usually goes with zone coverage underneath, as in the gif above, though mixed coverages can be called as well. The strength of the Cover 3 is that it takes away the deep pass while not easily giving up the run.

The weakness is that with the defense's three best coverage players deep, the defense is vulnerable to passes underneath.

Tampa 2

If zone coverage got a bad name under Perry Fewell, I suspect you're all getting your torches lit and pitchforks ready at the mention of the Tampa 2. The Tampa 2 isn't a coverage scheme in and of itself, but it needs the right players to function correctly.

I'm bringing the Tampa 2 coverage up now because it is basically a blend of Cover 2 and Cover 3 concepts.

The defense starts the play in a Cover 2 shell, but at the snap a linebacker -- usually the middle linebacker -- will drop back into a zone coverage turning it into a Cover 3 shell.

For the Tampa 2 to work properly, you need a middle linebacker able to cover a third of the field, safeties and corners who can excel in zone coverage, and a defensive line that can control the line of scrimmage. The problem with the Tampa 2 is how demanding it is on the defense. The whole scheme depends on the middle linebacker, and linebackers like Brian Urlacher -- the prototypical Tampa 2 MIKE -- just don't come around very often.

For most of Perry Fewell's tenure in New York, the Giants just didn't have the personnel to run his preferred defensive scheme.

Cover 4

This is the hated "Prevent Defense". The Cover 4 features both safeties and both corners dropping dropping into deep zone coverage while the linebackers drop into coverage as well.

The Prevent defense freely allows five-yard runs or passes over the middle. It should only be used when your team has the lead and you want to force the opposing offense to use as much of the clock as possible. This is also a coverage scheme that lends itself to the hated three man rush.

Final Thoughts

Under Perry Fewell, the Giants were primarily a Cover 2 team that featured zone coverage underneath. With the hiring of Steve Spagnuolo, I would expect to see much more Cover 1 with man coverage underneath. Also, while Tom Coughlin admitted that Spags' defensive philosophies have evolved since 2008, I would certainly expect to see more, and more creative, blitzes out of the Giants' defense.

So, there you have it. The Giants have their new coordinator back, and now we have a foundation to look at what kind of defense he installs.