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Inverted Cover-2 defense: What is it?

Also referred to as Tampa-2 Robber, how did Patrick Graham win last season because of this adjustment?

New York Giants v Washington Football Team Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

New York Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham made the most of his 2020 personnel. The unit finished the season strong after ranking 15th in the NFL in EPA (Expected Points Added) through the first half of the season, before slotting as the seventh- best EPA towards the latter half of the year. Big Blue’s third down defense also took a substantial jump forward from the 23rd to the 10th ranked defense in the same time frame, according to Pro Football Focus.

This phenomenon was achieved, in part, because the defense was more judicious with its blitzing and man coverage calls, while relying more on zone defenses that fit their personnel. I expect a bit more man coverage in 2021, with the additions of Adoree’ Jackson and Aaron Robinson, but 2020 man coverage from the New York Giants wasn’t conducive to success.

The Giants ran a lot of three-deep, middle of the field closed, Cover 3 defenses and some split safety, middle of the field open, looks. One of their more unique play calls for the latter was the Inverted Cover-2, or Tampa-2 Robber, that was a well disguised pre-snap look to confuse quarterbacks and force ill-advised throws to the middle of the field.

This is the Madden look of Inverted Cover-2. Before we explore how Graham utilized the coverage, let’s get into a brief origin of the Tampa-2 defense that started with Bud Carson. Carson was the defensive coordinator for Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1973-1977. Carson was the innovator for the Steel Curtain and he really knew how to best employ a talented group of players.

The core philosophy for Carson was to force the offense to dump the football underneath, which would require the offense to execute well and display patience. In Tim Layden’s great 2010 book ‘Blood, Sweat and Chalk’, five commandments are discussed to run an effective Tampa-2 defense.

  1. The front four must be able to rush the quarterback, allowing the linebackers freedom.
  2. The middle linebacker must be able, and willing, to frequently drop as deep as 30 yards, filling the deep crossing zone between the safeties.
  3. The OLBs have to be smart enough, and athletic enough, to not only cover receivers in the middle zone, but rally to runs at the line of scrimmage.
  4. The cornerbacks must be physical enough to jam wideouts at the line of scrimmage and tackle ball carriers.
  5. The safeties must be smart enough to break properly on balls in the air.

Here’s what it looks like on paper:

These core principles were adopted by the Chicago Bears, with Brian Urlacher, and, more famously, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin. A more extensive history on the origins of the base Tampa-2 defense, and how these teams had success, may be an article for another day - but the framework and intention of the Inverted Cover-2 is rooted within the Tampa-2 defense.

The Inverted Cover-2/Tampa-2 Robber is a two-high defense with the presumed middle of the field closed player dropping closer to the line of scrimmage and using his eyes to read the quarterback’s intentions. Instead of forcing a lesser athletic linebacker to back-pedal to depth, this defense allows the safety to click and close downhill on passes while acting as a robber who can be disguised.

In order for the defense to work, there have to be two other players that can hastily get to the depth needed in order to execute deep half responsibilities. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the two outside cornerbacks, like our Madden example displays, but it could be a combination of a corner and a nickel or a safety and a corner. Let’s take a look at one of the bigger defensive plays the Giants earned in the 2020 season - a game sealing interception by Logan Ryan off an Inverted Cover-2/Tampa-2 Robber call:

This picture is about a second before the snap; Ryan is circled in red and the other four secondary pieces, excluding Darnay Holmes who is relating to the No. 2 receiver pre-snap to the field, are circled in blue. It appears to be Cover-3, possibly Sky or Buzz, with the possibility of Jabrill Peppers (arrowed) coming on a blitz. Both James Bradberry and Isaac Yiadom have their backsides to the sidelines, signifying zone, and Julian Love is in a position to act as a robber or drop to the boundary flat.

After the snap, that will not happen; The four man pressure package will ensue with an end/tackle stunt from Leonard Williams and B.J. Hill. Ryan will drop down to the bottom of the “L” in “NFL” while Bradberry and Love assume deep half responsibilities. Here’s the play once Alex Smith hits his back foot:

Bradberry and Love bail quickly and Ryan subtly sneaks forward to eliminate any deep crossers - the job of the MIKE in Tampa-2. Peppers, who looked like he could be blitzing, acts as a trap against any back side intermediate crossing routes (digs, slants, skinny posts), while looking to relate to any crossers that come in front of him.

Yiadom sinks and jams the receiver while getting his eyes up to see crossing routes. Blake Martinez, who is on the three-receiver side, gets the correct depth to eliminate seam routes, but still keeps himself in arm’s reach of the leak out. Holmes flips his hips and gains depth in a wide space between himself and Bradberry to the strength - something that can be an issue with this coverage. Here’s the end result once quarterback Alex Smith releases the football:

Ryan is baiting the quarterback to throw towards either in breaking route - there are two - while watching his every movement to put himself into an advantageous position to intercept the pass. Both Martinez and Peppers relate to the underneath passes and match their routes. Bradberry and Love both have plenty of depth over the top of the offense. There was no account of Ryan robbing Smith and the quarterback failed to see him in that area of the field. Here’s the video:

Ryan did a fantastic job using patience to force this throw. If he had started flowing towards the direction of Smith’s eyes right away, there’s no shot that Smith pulls the trigger. Smith sees Peppers bite up on the underneath coverage, and Smith thought he was being High-Lowed, but the trap was set and Ryan obliged in a timely manner.

The Inverted Cover-2 has been popularized in the Big-12 with teams like Iowa State and Baylor. Football in general is a copycat league and there are different methods to the inverted Cover-2 as well. The pre-snap look can be middle of the field open (split safety) signifying to the quarterback basic Cover-2 or quarters coverage (Cover 4).

Right before the snap occurs the safeties can cheat up just a bit before taking flat responsibilities allowing the corners to bail to their deep half responsibilities. With this alignment pre-snap, there generally isn’t a trap coverage coming from the middle of the field, but the safeties will be moving to the flat - kind of like a double sky.

The Inverted Cover-2 run in this manner leaves the deep middle of the field vulnerable, since there’s no pre-snap safety to rotate downward; instead, the MIKE has to drop to significant depth, and I trust a receiver running vertically more than a linebacker in the backpedal.

There are other vulnerabilities to this coverage and there’s a reason why it’s not used more often. The Giants employed the coverage a lot against Washington and Cincinnati. Brandon Allen and the Bengals were able to find the voids in coverage and attack them.

Weaknesses

Cincinnati comes out in a 3x1 set and the Giants are showing a possible quarters look that’s disguised well. The Giants bail Julian Love at the last second to a deep half and then, at the snap, Yiadom flows to a deep half responsibility from the strong side boundary. This puts a lot of stress on Darnay Holmes as a defender who has to cover the flat in a 3x1 to the field.

Holmes flows outside, gets his eyes on the quarterback, and sees the quick hitch from A.J. Green (18) which holds him in place. Yiadom is bailing deep and has to gain the necessary depth to not get beat deep by Tee Higgins (85). The route combination of Green and Higgins holds Holmes, while the dig from Higgins finds a nice crease between the bailing Yiadom and the distracted Holmes. Brandon Allen does a good job seeing this materialize and he puts a high pass to Higgins. Holmes struggles to feel Higgins’ route and executes a sub-optimal break on the pass.

Against 3x1 sets, the flat defender will be put in stress to the strength when this coverage is ran. Below is another situation where Holmes has to dart to the field flat with Yiadom bailing against a 3x1.

Washington runs a mesh concept with Logan Thomas (No. 82) as the No. 2 and the backside receiver; Holmes initially does a good job restricting space on Cam Sims (89), but the rookie cornerback sees the backside receiver crossing into the flat, and that causes hesitation from Holmes. Holmes can’t stay with Sims and Yiadom is still stabilizing from his bail; Sims finds the perfect spot for the post and makes an easy catch for a solid gain. These vulnerabilities exist with inverted Cover-2/Tampa-2 Robber. It’s not a base coverage to run because it can be figured out if used too often.

Football is a game of numbers and space. When Yiadom bails it leaves Holmes and Blake Martinez, who is on the hash, as the only defenders to the field with three eligible receivers to that side. The timing of two defenders bailing to far hashmarks leaves too much room for mistakes. If offensive coordinators can game plan against this coverage, they can flood a deep half or use other vertical concepts to get huge explosive plays. The two bailing defenders are put into a very precarious situation and deep crossers, combined with streaks, can lead to long offensive touchdowns.

This Inverted Cover-2/Tampa-2 Robber is a great adjustment off Cover-3. For teams, like the 2020 Giants, who ran a lot of Cover-3, the adjustment baits quarterbacks into trusting a pre-snap look that they’ve become accustomed to seeing throughout a game. When used sparingly, Tampa-2 Robber acts as an effective trap coverage that can result in offensive mistakes and turnovers. I expect the Giants to run a bit more man coverage in 2021, due to the additions of Jackson and Robinson. Cover-3 will still be a part of the playbook. Therefore, against younger less experienced quarterbacks, I expect to see the Tampa-2 Robber adjustment persist in the coming season.