Bears fans are well aware of Smith’s Cover 2. It’s a zone defense in which the safeties split the field, the MIKE linebacker drops to the deep middle, and outside linebackers and cornerbacks form a wall in the intermediate zone.
It’s a simple system, one built around speed, pursuit and sure tackling. For nine years in Chicago, Smith and the Bears were a consistent Cover 2 force, which resulted in one of the most dominant defensive eras in franchise history.
That defense still exists in Tampa Bay yet the scheme you’ll see on Sunday won’t be a carbon copy of its predecessor. Let’s go to the film room and break down coaches tape to outline a familiar system with plenty of new wrinkles.
Play I: Shutting Down the Engine
In the Lovie 2, the penetrating defensive tackle, or 3-technique, is the engine that makes the defense run. Smith’s Chicago defenses were at their best when Tommie Harris was collapsing pockets in the face of the quarterback.
Such is the case in Tampa Bay, where Gerald McCoy is the centerpiece. Against both the run and the pass, McCoy is a beast, one that regularly eats up one-on-one blocks. Very few players in the NFL can be as disruptive in the backfield as McCoy.
“The greatest challenge against Tampa is the pass protection,” coordinator Aaron Kromer said this week. “McCoy obviously leads that rush with his athleticism and size. They really penetrate well. It’s what Lovie Smith’s defenses have done over the years and he’s a good 3-technique for them to use in that defense.”
On this snap, the Redskins will run RB Alfred Morris off-tackle left. McCoy (blue) is lined up on the outside shoulder of the left guard, also known as the “B” or “3” gap (thus the name “3-technique”).
Notice McCoy’s penetration at the snap. He explodes off the ball and puts the guard on his heels, allowing him to leverage the outside shoulder.
The Redskins attempt to use the fullback to seal McCoy inside, yet he keeps his legs moving and rips right through the double team.
Here McCoy makes the play on Morris, taking the ball carrier down for no gain.
Analysis: Single blocks will do no good against McCoy, who is lightning fast off the ball and extremely quick with both his hands and feet after contact. On this play, the Redskins attempt to double-team him but McCoy sheds both blocks with ease. If the Bears try to single block him, the results will be the same.
Play II: Man-to-Zone
The Buccaneers use a lot of man coverage, more than Smith used in Chicago. In fact, the film shows Tampa Bay using man coverage frequently on third downs, which used to be the down in which Smith fell back on his bread-and-butter Cover 2.
“They’ve played a lot of man-to-man coverage, more than you’d think,” head coach Marc Trestman said. “You look at where they’ve been defensively, and they’re moving to man-to-man coverage significantly. And not just on first and second down, but on third down.
“That’s the way it was over the last three or four weeks: that they’ve lined up against some top receivers and played them man-to-man on third down in all situations and on first and second down as well. We’ll see how that goes this Sunday.”
This play is 3rd and 5. Notice the Bucs line up in press man with a single safety over the top.
Yet this isn’t actually man coverage, as the nickel and split corner, as well as the three linebackers, all drop into zone after the snap. The only one playing man is the cornerback at the top of the screen.
The success of this play comes from the front four, McCoy (blue) in particular.
“They’re going to rely on that front four to get the pressure,” Jay Cutler said this week.
That’s what we see here, with just four rushers and disguised coverage on the back end.
McCoy immediately works up-field on the outside shoulder of the right guard. He’s setting him up for an inside move.
McCoy uses a quick hand slap and rip move to blow past his blocker and into the face of the quarterback. This forces a quick throw that falls incomplete.
Analysis: Like Tommie Harris before him, and to a lesser extent Henry Melton, McCoy is one of the main reasons the Lovie 2 is successful. On this play, he gets the opposing guard to lean outside before quickly shooting the A gap, leaving the blocker in his wake.
“He does a good job of lining up real wide on a guard and then getting up the field and then he’ll come inside,” said Kromer.
On this play, Robert Griffin III has no time to complete the pass, as he’s forced to get rid of the ball before his receiver can get open.
“The 3-technique can kind of wreck your day. Pressure from the outside, you can kind of step up, chip those guys. When a 3-technique or 1-technique starts getting up the middle, they can get you off your spot. That can get really difficult,” said Cutler. “And that’s what they do. They do a great job of getting off the ball quickly.”
In addition, the pre-snap look of man coverage morphing into zone forced RGIII to hesitate initially, which allowed McCoy the time to collapse the pocket.
That’s the chess game that will go on Sunday between Smith and Cutler, a coach and quarterback who know a whole lot about each other. Cutler has struggled against zone sets this season. Lovie knows that, and he also knows Cutler is easy to rattle, so expect Smith to do his best to disguise his defensive sets with false looks that confuse Cutler.
Play III: Beating the Blitz
The Bucs don’t blitz often but when they do, they’ve had success. With Chicago’s patchwork offensive line, extra pass rushers could create chaos in the backfield, so expect Cutler to see plenty of five- and six-man rushes.
Here is the famous Lovie “mug” look, with two linebackers lined up over the nose of the ball. Notice the strong safety creeping toward the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, the Bucs bring six, with one of the inside linebacker and the safety adding pressure in the A gap and C gap. This is an overload look that attempts to bring more rushers than blockers from one side of the offensive line.
The best way to beat an all-out blitz is with a screen pass. On this play, the Redskins exploit the pressure, allowing six rushers into the backfield. RGIII throws this pass over the top to RB Roy Helu (black) who has three blockers in front of him.
As Helu releases up the field, he has just two defenders to beat and a cavalry of blockers in front of him. He makes one cut and goes untouched 40-plus yards to the end zone. Notice the gaggle of Buccaneers watching the play from behind.
Analysis: Smith relies a lot on his front four to create pressure but he’s not afraid to blitz. On this play, he gives the mug look and overloads the left side.
Yet the Redskins were ready for it and executed perfectly a screen pass over the top of the rush. It’s a recipe the Bears would be wise to follow on Sunday.
“[Screen passes] slow down the rush,” Cutler said. “I think if you look at some really good offenses, they’re mixing it up, a lot of screens, moving the pocket, they’re running the ball, being unpredictable. We’ve got to keep incorporating all of those different phases of the offense for us to keep rolling.”
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.