Facing a rookie quarterback, the buzzword of the week is "confuse".
Confuse the quarterback by disguising the coverage.
Confuse the rookie by pouring sugar in the gaps and changing the safety's depth pre-snap.
Confuse the rookie by blitzing from multiple angles and gaps.
While offensive coaches will design a game plan to minimize the processing, vision, and decision-making required of their first-year signal-caller, at some point you have to throw the ball.
Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Cody Kessler came into last Sunday's 30-24 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins knowing the defensive game plan would be built around coverages and blitzes designed to make him careless with the ball. The rookie responded well giving the circumstances, completing 21 of 33 passes for 244 yards and no interceptions (although he did put the ball on the ground twice, losing one fumble).
The Browns' second possession of the fourth quarter provides us with a great example of a defense disguising the coverage shell pre-snap in order to bait the rookie into a throw he should not make, but before we get into the play let's briefly familiarize ourselves with trap coverages.
As The ORB has previously written:
Base pass shells like Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, and Cover 4 are too limited to stop the college and NFL passing game in this age of instant offense.
Creative offensive minds have identified and ruthlessly exploited the weaknesses in the various coverage groups using triangle (and rub concepts against man defense) in order to vertically and horizontally stretch defenders, creating defined progression and reads for the quarterback. Any offensive coach worth his (or her) salt has several ‘coverage beaters’ in the playbook that take advantage of schematic weaknesses within all of the aforementioned coverage families (think the ‘smash’ concept against Cover 2 or the curl-flat against Cover 3).
To counter ultra-efficient offensive play calling, most defensive coordinators have integrated ‘pattern matching’ rules into their defense that require the pass defenders to read the receiver’s release at the line of scrimmage to determine who guards who (like a matchup zone in basketball).
Even these complex modern-day pattern matching rules can be defeated with creative route design. How do defensive coaches counter these concepts while maintaining tried-and-true base coverages? The answer lies in trap coverages.
Trap coverage has been used up and down the college ranks for a number of years, but only within the last half-decade have we seen widespread matriculation into the NFL coaching ranks. College coaches like TCU's Gary Patterson (whose Blue Special and Two Read are likely the most popular versions of trap coverage at the movement) have led the charge in modifying coverage rules within base concepts like Cover 4, both preserving the basic integrity and rules of the defense while changing individual rules and responsibilities. Trap coverages rely on three principles:
- Disguise the coverage pre-snap
- “Show” the quarterback a specific coverage before rotating to something different after the snap
- Change the defenders base read rules that determine individual responsibility after the receivers release at the snap .
Down by three points midway through the 4th quarter, and facing a 2nd and 10 deep in their own territory, the Browns' offense has put itself in position where the aggressive Jackson is likely to throw the ball. When the unit shows an 'Empty' right formation, the time is ripe for Miami to spring the trap.
The defense likely chose to attempt the trap coverage on this particular play for several reasons:
- Hue Jackson is a very aggressive play caller and will likely throw the ball here.
- The empty formation screams "pass", as quarterback Cody Kessler is not a running threat and has been hit hard several times already. Jackson is not running his quarterback here.
- The Browns' offense often run a specific route combination out of a three receiver surface on 1st/2nd and 10, a common 'Y-Stick' concept. When Miami sees the three-receiver surface, they are betting the play concept is forthcoming.
- If the play is called as anticipated, the ball is going to tight end Gary Barndige.
The specific coverage concept we see here is known as a 'Trap Flat' call.
The idea is to "show" Kessler man coverage - in this case Cover 2 - before the snap, then rotate into a double team on the #3 receiver with the cornerback robbing the flat on the #2 receiver.
Let's see how the coverage plays out in action.
Start with the cornerback. His job is to reroute the #1 receiver while keeping his eyes in the backfield to read and break on a throw. Notice that he shows man depth and alignment in order to sell the man look. He will carry the #1 receiver to 8-10 yards, then pass him off and look for the ball.
The field safety will 'top' the #1 receiver after the cornerback passes him off at the proper depth. While this looks risky, most three-level routes out of trips utilize the #1 receiver as a 'clear out' player, making a throw to him unlikely. The safety likely does not top the route here because Kequicklyuikcly moves to the weakside of the formation.
The slot defender will pass off the #2 receiver on any outside breaking routes (remember the cornerback is sitting at 10 yards waiting to break on any route towards the flat) and get his head around to the inside, looking to rob a throw to the #3 receiver. If the pass-catcher were to continue vertical (like a seam route) the slot defensive back would man him up.
The linebacker over the #3 receiver will play man using a 'cut' technique. playing him from inside leverage and cutting any outside-breaking routes. In standard man coverage, this puts the defender in poor position to play the pass because his leverage and the receivers’ break to the outside creates natural separation, but the cut technique actually encourages the quarterback to throw the ball into that area. This is exactly what the defense wants, as the slot defender should be sitting in the area after passing off his outside breaking route.
When the individual technique and responsibilities from the four are put together, the defense has created a double-team on the most-likely target (tight end Gary Barnidge) with a cornerback aggressively breaking on any throws to the #2 receiver. Because the offense shows a STRONG tendency towards targeting Barnidge via this concept, the table is set for a costly turnover.
So why does Kessler not take the bait here?
If you go back to the full play, you will see Kessler glance at Barnidge before targeting the two-man route combo. Why did he come off his primary read and target?
The answer lies in the concept of 'coverage beaters'.
The idea behind packaging coverage beaters is to provide an effective route combination within each play, regardless of whether the defense is in a man or zone-based coverage shell. The easiest way to accomplish this is to run a man-beater concept to one side of the formation and a zone-beater concept to the other.
The strong-side 'Y-Stick' concept is a great zone-beater, but relies on individual route running and defender leverage against man coverage. On the other hand, the weak-side speed out to tailback Duke Johnson Jr. is a much better personnel matchup against man.
The Miami defense actually did their job too well. The disguise likely fooled Kessler into reading "man", so he correctly pivoted and targeted his man route (it is impossible to say for certain why he immediately came off his primary, but it is extremely unlikely he recognized complex trap flat coverage that quickly).
Although the pass was not completed, the result could have been far worse had Kessler targeted his primary read. At the very least the ball would have likely been incomplete, but a cornerback and slot defender with ball skills could have easily made the interception and returned it for six here.