Chalk Talk: the Cover 2

Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith gets a lot of credit as one of the masterminds of the Cover 2 defense, but the scheme's NFL lineage can be traced all the way back to the Steel Curtain Steelers of the 1970s. If it was good enough for Jack Lambert, then it's good enough for Brian Urlacher. Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz breaks down the brilliance of the Cover 2.

This much is a given: offenses and defenses in the NFL change constantly.

From week to week, coaching philosophies develop and expand in order to keep opposing teams off balance. This is especially true of a defensive coordinator, who must stay abreast of the numerous offensive schemes in the league and develop creative ways of stopping them – lest he lose his job. Out of this necessity came one of the most popular defenses in today's game: the Cover 2.

Many current teams use the Cover 2 as their primary defensive set, but no team runs it more effectively than the Chicago Bears.

The Cover 2's lineage can be traced back to Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense of the 70s. Their defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, brought the system with him from his days as head coach at Georgia Tech. The result was four Super Bowl titles for the Steel City.

The 1978 championship team just happened to include a smart young safety named Tony Dungy, who would eventually take what he learned from Carson and use it to propel himself through the NFL coaching ranks. Dungy's ascent led him to Tampa Bay in 1996, where he was named head coach of the Buccaneers. With the help of his defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, who Dungy had met four years earlier while coaching for the Minnesota Vikings, Dungy created a defensive monster.

"What Monte and Tony did in Tampa was to almost revolutionize defense," says USC coach Pete Carroll, who worked with Kiffin at Arkansas in 1977. "They took a good, simple system and made it very, very precise."

It was then that Dungy hired a young linebackers coach named Lovie Smith, who immediately grasped how successful the system could be. Now in only his third season in Chicago, Smith's version of the Cover 2 defense has helped lead the Bears to two straight NFC North Division titles and a Super Bowl berth. Nevertheless, even though seemingly everyone in and around the NFL talks about it, many fans still don't understand what the Cover 2 is.

In essence, the Cover 2 is a base zone defense with four defensive linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties. The four defensive linemen should have more quickness than size and must excel at getting pressure on the quarterback. This cannot be overstated. Pressure from the front four is important to any defensive scheme, but it is especially crucial to the Cover 2. As you'll soon find out, there are holes in this defense's secondary that any quarterback will be able to exploit if given enough time. The defensive ends and tackles must take it upon themselves to not let this happen, as they'll be getting zero pass rush help from the linebackers.

The outside linebackers are asked to cover a zone 8-12 yards off the line of scrimmage. They must be speedy linebackers who are sure tacklers in the open field. Their job is to discourage tight ends and slot receivers from running underneath crossing routes. They do so by using an inside coverage technique that forces receivers towards the cornerback.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The cornerback's duty is to line up in the face of the wide receiver and use a bump-and-run coverage technique, using his hands to jam the wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. This disrupts the timing between the receiver and the quarterback and slows down the execution of the play. The cornerback then passes off the receiver to the safety playing behind him. Cornerbacks in the Cover 2 are not normally asked to run stride-for-stride with speedy receivers, so they tend to be larger and more physical than the average player at their position – like Charles Tillman at 6'1" and 196 pounds.

The two deep safeties line up 15-20 yards off the line of scrimmage. Each is responsible for covering half the width of the field. They pick up wide receivers in pass coverage after they're jammed by the corners. Like the corners, Cover 2 safeties don't need to have blazing speed, just the ability to break quickly on thrown balls. They also need to be hard hitters who are capable of creating and withstanding massive collisions after racing up the field nearly 20 yards to tackle the ball-carrier.

The major area of weakness in the Cover 2 defense is the open zone between the safeties in the deep middle of the field. If the quarterback can throw over the middle linebacker into that zone, then the defense is vulnerable. That is why Brian Urlacher is so critical to the success of the Bears. He has the speed and coverage ability to drop back 20-30 yards on every pass play to cover that deep middle zone.

"My primary purpose in that defense," says Urlacher, "is to run back to the huddle and congratulate somebody for making a play while I was running down the field with the tight end."

When the defense is clicking on all cylinders, the only areas that the offense can consistently attack are the underneath zones just 3-4 yards past the line of scrimmage – exactly what the defense wants them to do. When a quarterback throws to an underneath receiver, the outside linebackers and cornerbacks – who are roaming the zones just beyond that point – fly up to tackle the receiver as he catches the ball, severely limiting his yards after the catch.

That means if the opposing offense is to have any success, it must continually move the ball in these 3-4 yard increments – something most quarterbacks and offensive coordinators don't have the patience to do. This is what makes this defense so successful.

The Cover 2 has cost offensive coordinators their jobs for over 30 years, and at this stage in its development, it's nearly unbeatable. Just ask Urlacher.

"The best thing about this defense? It works, man."

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey

Bear Report Top Stories