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Summer School 2020: Cover 2 defense — what it is, and how to beat it

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Cover 2 has advantages and disadvantages

New York Giants Introduce New Head Coach Joe Judge Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Cover 2 defense is a basic zone coverage that features two deep safeties with half field responsibilities. This defense is a middle of the field open (MOFO) type of defense; this is important because NFL teams look at defenses as MOFO, like Cover 2 or MOFC (Middle of the Field Closed), like Cover 3/Cover 1, even though the former is a zone defense and the latter is man-to-man. Pre-snap, the safeties play at a depth of around 14 yards, albeit that does vary, and the outside cornerbacks squat underneath to eliminate flat throws, while three other defenders sit in mid-hook zones. The defense is two-high, five underneath, like we see below:

The five short zones can do a lot to disrupt releases at the line of scrimmage and effectively clog up the short to intermediate passing games for offense, which has forced quarterbacks over the years to rely on touch, precision, and better deep accuracy. Offenses had to adapt their quick game styles to have wide receivers sit in short windows between zones. Short lateral read route combinations like curl/flat, double out, and stick/out were eliminated with corners sinking, and many great quarterbacks threw tough interceptions to squatting corners in the flat, which is one reason why disguising this coverage is very important.

Out routes from No. 2 receivers used to be commonplace in the NFL, but corners now force turnovers on those speed outs that were once a bang-bang type of play. The corners squatting can also line up in press and force receivers inside towards other zone coverages, while not having to worry about bailing to a deep section of the field. The entire defense can attempt to keep the receivers in front of them, rather than in man coverage where they have to follow a receiver. This limits the quarterback’s ability to break off big runs, like they tend to do against Cover 1 and other types of man-to-man defenses.

The Steelers defense of the 1970s, the Steel Curtain, won four Super-Bowls using a Cover 2 defense that was very innovative at the time. The defense was devised in large part by Bud Carson, the defensive coordinator for the team and a former United States Marine. The defense was talented and filled with ideal personnel. Mel Blount was the prototypical corner (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) who could reroute wide receivers inside toward linebackers Jack Ham, Andy Russell, and later the ideal inside linebacker for the defense Jack Lambert.

In Cover 2, defensive lines have to be able to win with four pass rushers because blitzing can be a bit tricky and will mess up the continuity of the defense. The Steelers had a defensive line that consisted of Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, and Dwight White, so four-man pressure packages were enough. Offenses have become much better over the last several decades and have been able to exploit the Cover 2 defense. Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense and the Greatest Show on Turf started dominating the sport and defenses were falling by the wayside. Then Monte Kiffen and Tony Dungy conceived a defensive adaptation to the Cover 2 whilst working for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The defense was called the Tampa-2 and the main alteration was dropping the middle linebacker to a further depth to eliminate the vulnerability in the middle of the field. The middle linebacker in a Tamp-2 must be able to be athletic enough to drop to a depth up to 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to remove the deep crossing routes.

The ideal modern day linebacker for this scheme was the Chicago Bears Brian Urlacher. The Bears went to Super Bowl XLI because of their dominant Cover 2 base defense, but lost to the Peyton Manning led Colts. Tony Dungy became the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers in large part due to the defensive strategy. Cover 2 is still used in the NFL today, but not as much as a base defense due to offenses utilizing much more 3x1 sets, but you’ll see it used here and there on Sunday.

(From Smart Football with Paint alteration made by the writer).

As I just alluded to, there’s been a proliferation of 3x1 and other types of overloaded sets in the NFL. These types of offensive formations have rendered Cover 2 ineffective. Good luck trying to use a Cover 2 defense against a 3x1 set.

With that said, there are natural voids in a Cover 2 defense, which prompted the transformation to Tampa-2. The biggest void is that deep middle red circle in the base Cover 2 defense. Seam routes and any route that splits the safety can easily lead to six points for an offense. Another big vulnerability is the yellow circle, which is known as the honey hole. Offenses can use simple flat routes to keep cornerbacks up towards the line of scrimmage, while the deep half safeties are dropping to their respective coverages. This leaves an unguarded area of about 12-15 yards (varies) in between the numbers and the sideline. This is a big problem. With quarterbacks who are very accurate, this can be heavily exploited for big gains. Another very common issue in Cover 2 is the propensity for the corners to be high-lowed. Cover 2 is entirely too susceptible to high-low isolation routes where the defender either drops deep or sinks down, and then the quarterback throws based on his decision. If the corner keeps dropping deep, the offense can nickel and dime its way up the field. If the corner sinks down, then big chunk yardage plays happen over the head of the defender and in between the safety.

(From Smart Football)

Look to the right of the diagram; this is a simple smash pattern which puts the corner into conflict. The safety doesn’t have the leverage to make a realistic play on the 7 route (flag) and if the corner fades away from the Z he is surrendering enough yards to make it a negative play for the defense. These types of isolation plays really hurt Cover 2 defenses.

There are also combinations, both 2x2 on either side of the field that can manipulate the defense. Here we see a smash concept to the weak side with a seam/dig combination to the strength. Either the strong safety or the free safety will have to make a tough choice that will be wrong no matter what. The weak side corner will account for the No. 1 receiver to the weak side, leaving a huge void behind him for the free safety to try and cover up, with little leverage from the hash to the sideline on the 7 route. While that is going on, the tight end occupies the strong safety and possibly the middle linebacker, if he carries him up the seam, while the strong side receiver runs a dig behind the linebackers with no safeties to account for him. These combinations would be maximized with play-action.

Here is another play that will take advantage of the honey hole. The H could also run a seam route to occupy the deep half safety, while the R runs into the flat for an easy chunk of yardage. Again, putting that cornerback into conflict really hurts the defense. These post corner (POCO) are Cover 2 killers, as are most routes that are over the top of the corner, yet close to the sideline and away from the safety in the deep intermediate parts of the field.

The Double China route is common in the red zone, but can also work if the cornerback gets sucked forward, attempting to reroute the outside receiver in the 3x1 set. Football is a game of numbers and there’s not enough defenders to guard three receivers flooding a Cover 2 zone. Granted in the red zone the field is condensed, but this could be used throughout other portions of the field. Any route combination, whether it be two or three receivers, is going to be difficult if the defender is put into conflict where he’s going to be wrong no matter what.

Three streak routes where two receivers go up the sideline, one just off the numbers and one outside of the numbers, while a tight end splits the safeties in the middle of the field creates a 3v2, so any type of vertical route will be effective against this coverage, too. Creating 2v1 isolation routes on the safeties is easy against this coverage, especially if the team runs four verticals, with one of the inside receivers bending his vertical into a deep post, as we’ll see below.

(from collegeandmagnolia.com)

The running back can either stay in for protection or flare out to either side, which would prevent the corner from gaining depth, but this is common in Air Raid offenses and would really hinder the success of Ccover 2 against even 2x2 sets.

Cover 2 is especially vulnerable against play-action passes where the defense gets sucked up towards the line of scrimmage and the offense hits them with a deep horizontal crosser from the backside. Widening the five underneath defenders with short crossers, quick hitches, and other short to intermediate routes is another way to effectively move the ball against Cover 2. Using every inch of the field is typically a good way to have success. Play-action, move the pocket, isolation route combinations, and flooding zones are some of the best ways to take advantage of the coverage, other than throwing to the areas that are voided by players. Isolating a safety with a vertical/dig combination is also a way to have success against the coverage.

The free safety is really put into a bind here because the strong safety has to take the streak to the outside. The middle linebacker can’t get to the necessary depth to take away the dig because the tight end is running an OTB route (over the ball/snag), so that free safety is going to have to take the vertical and surrender the dig.

Isolating the cornerback while using quick game (three step/half field read) is a common way to defeat good pass rushing teams that are using cover 2. It’s a simple quarterback read, whatever the corner does, throw to the opposite receiver. These are all examples from 2x2 sets with a tight end in 11 Personnel.

The deep comeback outside, with a receiving option heading towards the flat is a good way to make some money in the honey hole. The comeback, paired with the deep vertical from the No. 2 receiver, forces the safety to drop and cover. To the strength of this play, the offense can also look to take advantage of that ever giving honey hole with a 7 route and a flat from the tight end, effectively creating a high-low isolation on the cornerback.

Offenses today have their receivers sit in voids when they see the defense play zone coverage, so a lot of man beating plays are devised to take advantage of zone too. The mesh concept is a common man beating play cause it features two drag routes that cause traffic running horizontally, which is difficult to cover. As we can see below, this mesh concept had zone beaters put into the play where the receiver reacts to what he sees and the quarterback is well aware of where he’ll be once the coverage is recognized.

Offenses like the Run ‘n Shoot were known for having receivers and quarterbacks reacting to the defense. These players had to be on the same page because routes were dictated on the coverage that was being shown. This is why we saw Eli Manning throw so many interceptions while targeting Reuben Randle in Kevin Gilbride’s offense. Some Giants’ receivers struggled to recognize the coverage and Manning was the one to always take the hit, but the essence of the offense was built on cohesion. Option-isolation routes and common man beaters like the under concept, drive concept, cross concept, Texas concept, and deep curl concept are all ways to beat Cover 2 if the specific playbooks account for sitting in zone.

The prevalence of Cover 2 has faded, but it’s still seen today. Having five defenders underneath in zone coverage is a good way to affect the quick game. Sure, the defense secures the flats and corners dictate the receiver’s initial stems with press, but the defense has vulnerabilities, as we’ve seen. 3x1 sets have eliminated a lot of Cover 2 and vulnerabilities in the deep middle and on the sidelines between the corners and safeties have really been exploited. High-Low combinations, deep isolations, the vertical passing attack (four deep receivers, two cover men), the widening of the five horizontal defenders, play-action’s effectiveness against the hook zones, the need for the defense to have quality four-man pressure packages, and the overall manipulation of the deep coverage are the flaws of Cover 2. It has its place in the NFL, and teams certainly still employ the coverage, but the days of the dominant Tampa-2 defense seem like a while ago.