Today, Cover 2 and Cover 2 Invert.
Let's start with a huge disclaimer. These two coverages are two schemes many high schools use to play pass defense with four DB's. This summary will barely scratch the surface of the "Tampa 2" played so well in the NFL right now, or ND's options in their various Cover 2 schemes. These coverages can be played in so many different ways, I welcome any questions on the variables. Feel free to ezmail me, I'll do my best to answer.
Like the previous three coverages mentioned in my first article, the coverage number mirrors the number of DB's in deep coverage. So obviously this is a "two deep" coverage. This coverage is played with four DB's playing zones. The two safeties are each responsible for deep coverage on their half of the field. In a traditional Cover 2, the corners are walked up closer to the line of scrimmage, allowing them to provide immediate run support if flow comes their way.
In it's most basic form, Cover 2 can be a very effective defense against the running game. I'll start with the corners. While their alignment can vary depending on the offense's tendencies, many DC's use the term "squat corners". This means they are aligned much closer to the No. 1 receiver to their side, and they squat in the flat if the No. 1 receiver runs a deep route. The corners often align only a few yards off the receiver, and either on his outside shoulder or one yard outside of him. Against the pass, they cover the flat. Many times they are taught to punish the No. 1 receiver as he leaves the line of scrimmage, forcing him to the inside. The area 15 to 20 yards from the line of scrimmage down each sideline is called the "void". In a traditional Cover 2, if a receiver gets a free release to the outside and runs a quick fade route, it is nearly impossible for the safety to make the play in time. Funnelling the receiver to the inside takes away this voided area, and makes things a lot easier on the safety. When you see a corner get a "K.O." hit on a back out of the backfield, or a TE or slot receiver running a quick out, it is usually due to his position in Cover 2.
Back to the run support responsibilities of the corners. They have their eyes in the backfield, reading the QB and the ball. Against option teams, they go through a series of reads, not unlike a QB. Without getting too detailed, if they see a running play coming their way, they attack the deepest back immediately. The corner would be responsible for the pitchback on an option play, or the running back on a toss sweep. It's a great way to get another run support player coming from a new angle, hopefully confusing the offensive blocking scheme.
As far as the safeties are concerned, they align approximately 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. They are often taught to line up as far inside as they can, as long as they can still cover the #1 receiver on a quick fade route. They play pass first, and have a lot of ground to cover. The safeties read the QB, and cannot let any receiver get behind them.
As I said earlier, the "Tampa 2" and most of the Cover 2 we see watching college football is played at a much more complex level. Inside LB's run like madmen underneath TE vertical routes, forcing the QB to put air under the ball and giving their safeties time to fly to the ball to make plays. Corners have various additional responsibilities as well, mostly in the passing game.
While the linebackers are usually responsible for the underneath zones (the "hook" and "curl" zones), Cover 2 can also be played with a "man under" scheme. This results in two deep players defending the vertical routes, while each receiver is covered man to man by the other defenders. The possibilities are endless, so I'll stop here.
Strengths of Cover 2:
At the high school level, Cover 2 takes away most of the short passing routes. This is also true to a certain extent at the college level. There is no cushion between the WR and the DB, so the slip screen or bubble pass isn't as attractive. If taught in the fashion I mentioned earlier, it can also be a strong run defense, bringing another defender from a new angle. This is especially effective if it is used in conjunction with other coverages, confusing the offense by bringing defensive run support from multiple angles. Cover 2 is very flexible, allowing for numerous looks and adjustments.
Weaknesses of Cover 2:
Multiple vertical routes by the receivers can spell doom for Cover 2. If both WR's run go routes up each sideline, the middle of the field can be a playground for a TE or slot receiver running up the seam. The complex Cover 2 run by colleges and pros have answers for this, but at the HS level, it is difficult to defend. In these advanced Cover 2 schemes, the safeties have various run responsibilities. Play action passes can catch a safety cheating up to stop the run, and the rest is history.
Cover 2 Invert
If a HS defense plays Cover 2, they most likely have Cover 2 Invert as a complimentary coverage. The responsibilities of the corners and safeties are exchanged, but it's more complicated than it sounds.
Now the Corners have deep ½ coverage on their side of the field. They allow a much bigger cushion off the #1 receiver to their side, as they now need to be able to cover the deepest man in their zone. They are focused on the passing game, and will need to slow play any run support to their side of the field, guarding against play action, or dare I say it, the dreaded halfback pass.
The safeties in Cover 2 Invert play what is often called "Robber" technique. This can be done numerous ways. Some are taught to read the #2 receiver to their side of the field, or if only one receiver exists, read the block of the tackle. Others are taught to read the backfield action or the flow of the ball. To explain this easier, let's label the #2 receiver as the TE. If the safety is reading the TE, some of his reads may include: TE blocks down, S runs the alley immediately (S attacks the LOS just outside the tackle-box), providing run support from the inside-out; TE drive blocks out, S flies to C-gap (gap between TE & tackle) for run support; TE arc blocks (tries to hook or reach the outside defender on the line of scrimmage), S runs the alley, trying to scrape off the TE's rear end to provide run support; TE releases on a vertical pass route, S covers him man to man; TE releases into the flat on a pass route, S looks to "rob" the #1 receiver, who is often running a slant pattern back towards him (looking for the INT or a "light's out" hit); and there are more reads as well.
When considering the safety away from the flow of the ball on a running play, he is often taught to approach the line of scrimmage and take away the cut-back alleys of the runner. To illustrate this, let's consider a basic toss sweep to the strong side of the field. In this case, due to the TE's block, the safety nearest the play will attack immediately, providing alley run support. The safety away from the play will approach the line of scrimmage from the backside, scraping down the line like a linebacker, guarding against cutback.
This can be a very complicated coverage package, but it is extremely flexible and goes hand in hand with the traditional Cover 2.
Strengths of Cover 2 Invert:
ND's No. 9 is a poster boy for this coverage. Having a safety attacking the running game helps to shut down the running lanes. When used in conjunction with Cover 2, defensive run support comes from different angles, confusing the blocking schemes. If played correctly, the safeties also are available to help with vertical routes. A sure-tackling, hard nosed safety can fill up a highlight reel in Cover 2 Invert.
Weaknesses of Cover 2 Invert:
Incorrect reads by the safeties can lead to disaster. At the HS level, the quick passing game can dink and dunk in the flat. Most importantly, the reads by the safety take a lot of time and effort to master. I can't stress this enough. In a perfect world, the front seven (or 8 in a 4-4 or 5-3 defense) would stop the run, leaving pass defense as the DB's only concern. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case in high school, and nearly impossible to achieve at the college level. Play action passing can fool the Safeties. You've all seen TE's and slot receivers block down for an instant, then release into their pass routes. This is done to give the defenders a "false key", leading them expect a running play. Some TE's even dive to the ground, whiffing at the defender on purpose, then escape to the flat or curl zone. These people obviously have no self-respect, and deserve to be duct-taped to the goalposts.
Up next: Cover 4, Robber coverage, combination coverages and some final thoughts.