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Spotlight: 2-Man coverage - What it is, and how to beat it

The Giants have seen a lot of 2-Man coverage this year, so let’s break down how it works

NFL: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

By week 17 it is news to precisely nobody that the New York Giants’ offense has struggled in 2016.

There are a lot of reasons why — penalties, poor execution, and breakdowns in communication.

Those all played a role. But there is another, and that is that there is a fairly simple and flexible defensive scheme that seems almost tailor made to frustrate the Giants’ offense.

2-Man coverage

What is 2-Man coverage?

Put simply, 2-Man is a variation of the venerable “Cover-2” defense. In the traditional “Cover-2”, the defense plays with two safeties in deep zones, each covering one half of the field. Meanwhile, the cornerbacks play zone coverage underneath the safeties. Having the corners play zone coverage helps to make up for athletic limitations while also making it harder for receivers to block them in the running game. The safeties playing deep helps to take away the vertical aspect of the offense, allowing them to cover downfield routes.

2-Man coverage

2-Man uses the same concept of deep safeties taking away vertical passes, but instead of playing zone coverage on the outside, the cornerbacks play man coverage (hence the name). Playing tighter coverage frustrates quick timing routes such as those favored by the Giants, while also protecting corners in case they can’t keep up with the wide receivers on deeper routes.

I used a base defense in the above example, but if the defense were in a nickel package, the third DB would likely be in man coverage on the slot receiver. The two remaining linebackers would be in man coverage on the running back and tight end.

How to beat it?

Run the ball!

Simply handing the ball off might be the best way to beat 2-Man coverage.

2-Man, particularly out of a nickel package, which is how it is most often used, presents a light box for the running game. At best there are seven defenders available to stop the run, and one of them is likely a defensive back.

Running the ball does two things. First, it moves the ball and keeps the offense on schedule. Second, the threat of a running game will eventually, depending on how effective said rushing attack is, open up play-action passes down field. By forcing the linebackers and safeties to bite on the run fake, it will open up either the middle of the field or the deep portion of the field to the passing game.

Use your tight end and running back

Tight ends present some of the biggest (no pun intended) size and athleticism mismatches on the field. Against 2-Man they are, in all likelihood, being covered by a linebacker. The offense should take advantage of that mismatch, possibly to clear out space over the middle of the field for the slot receiver or running back.

They can also use the size and athleticism of the tight end to attack the seam created between the two deep safeties.

While they don’t create the same kind of size and speed mismatches as tight ends, athletic pass-catching running backs can pose similar problems. Like the tight end, the running back will likely be covered by a linebacker. The back has the advantage of being in the backfield, so he doesn’t have to worry about getting off the line of scrimmage.

Play as a team

When we think of offensive plays, we think of receivers each running their routes independently of each other, their individual match-ups with defenders. That, however, isn’t the way it always works in the NFL. Offensive coaches will often use their players more like chess pieces than checkers.

In those cases, offensive coaches will have receivers run routes for the specific purpose of creating openings for their teammates. Sometimes those receivers are decoys, never intended to be targets for the quarterback. That would be something like a wide receiver running a post route down the field while a running back runs a wheel route behind him. The attention paid to a receiver like Odell Beckham Jr. creates the opening for the running back, but Beckham wouldn’t be part of the quarterback’s progression.

Other times their mere presence blocks for their teammate, such as in a “rub route.”

Let’s take a look at one of the most famous rub routes in recent history for the Giants.

The Eagles are playing man coverage underneath with a safety over the top. Hakeem Nicks runs the slant route while Victor Cruz runs the quick out. Nicks’ slant route creates the space necessary for Cruz to catch the ball and take off down the sideline.

Route combinations can be tricky to pull off correctly, especially rub routes. “Decoy” receivers need to sell their roles, make the defense believe that they are getting the ball, otherwise the decoy doesn’t work. In the case of “rub routes,” the timing needs to be perfect, and the receiver can’t physically impede the defensive back before the catch is made or it becomes an illegal “pick play.”

Final thoughts

Man coverage under a Cover-2 shell is an effective defense, especially against a team like the Giants. The man coverage can disrupt quick timing passes, while the deep coverage provides protection against one of the corners getting burned. The Giants don’t run the ball much, nor do they involve their tight ends much beyond using them on crossing routes to simulate a run game.

Going into the playoffs, the Giants are sure to see plenty of this coverage scheme. It isn’t unbeatable, and the rigid nature of having all five of the underneath defenders in coverage makes it easily identifiable when the offense uses motion. The Giants should have wrinkles in their offense to combat this defense.

Of course, it’s up to the players to execute.