In a sport in which this fad or that fad is all the rage for a few years until teams find the answers, Cover-2 remains one of the NFL's tried-and-true defensive schemes. That's the base look of the Minnesota Vikings' defense, and Green Bay is certain to see it throughout Sunday's game in light of their struggles against it throughout the season, in general, and Sunday night at New York, in particular.
"It's not a very complicated system and it's really predicated on how well you can rush the passer," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said in a conference call on Wednesday. "If you can rush the passer, you have a chance to make it work. If you don't, it can be exploited. For the teams that are still running it -- that number has dwindled over the years -- what makes it a good fit with this age of free agency and turning over players so often in the offseason is you have a system that you can stay with and it's pretty easy to pick up. Even if you sign a guy during the season, it's pretty easy for him to pick that system up and be incorporated into your defense relatively with some ease. So, I think the simplicity of it and then having the right personnel lends itself to the longevity of it."
On his weekly radio show with ESPNMilwaukee.com's Jason Wilde, quarterback Aaron Rodgers called questions about the offense's difficult beating Cover-2 "silly."
"If everybody could run Cover-2 with a good pass rush with their front four and be able to stop the run with their front six and sub packages, they would do it," Rodgers said. "It doesn't matter if they're playing us or another team, that would be designed and desired."
The premise is simple. Apply pressure with your front four and drop seven into coverage. Beat up the receivers at the line of scrimmage, with two deep safeties to take away the deep plays. Make offenses have to move the ball step by step down the field, rather than in large chunks, and then get off the field, whether it's a third-down stop, forcing a penalty to create long-yardage situations or making a big play.
It works "because it puts seven guys dropping back," Rodgers explained. "And you can play outside, you can jam some receivers with your corners, you can cover the flats with your corners, you can have the safeties over the top, you can run an athletic middle linebacker down the middle of the field. And if you have two guys who are good with reading with their eyes as the outside backer and the nickel, you can cover some spots underneath. So, there's not a ton of holes in that defense. It's a bend-but-don't-break idea. Keeping things in front of you, rallying up, making plays, tackling, stripping the ball, making teams go on long drives to score on you. Every team would love to do that if you could get pressure with your front four. Now, it doesn't always happen."
It happened for the Giants, who sacked Rodgers five times and pressured him on 16 of the team's 33 dropbacks, according to ProFootballFocus.com's game review. The Vikings' pass rush is good but not great. It starts, of course, with Jared Allen, who has seven sacks this season. Brian Robison has added 5.5 and Everson Griffen four. In all, the Vikings ranks 15th with 27 sacks and also are 15th with a defensive sack percentage of 6.38. On the other hand, Green Bay ranks 29th with a sack percentage allowed of 8.81.
Cover-2 isn't foolproof. Nothing is, of course. If you can run the ball, it prevents the middle linebacker from racing back into coverage and it prevents the front four from having a race to the quarterback. And if you can pass protect, it negates the pass rush and allows the receivers time to get open. That, in turn, forces the defensive coordinator to send an extra rusher.
"We haven't been effective enough protecting against teams that can get after us with four rushers," Rodgers said, "and we haven't been effective enough running the football against a six-man front in our sub packages. As long as those two things stay the same, that's the defenses we're going to see."
The Packers haven't found the answers yet. Only Arizona has allowed more sacks than the 37 yielded by Green Bay – a pace of 54 that would be the second-most in franchise history. Meanwhile, the Packers haven't been able to run defenses out of Cover-2 with their 23rd-ranked 3.8 yards per rushing attempt.
"I don't know if you can put your finger on one point," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said on Monday. "Obviously, a team that plays Cover-2, they're in defend mode. Hopefully, what they're trying to do is get a pass rush with their front four. They have five guys underneath and two guys deep. A lot of times, the holes aren't there underneath and where it's vulnerable, obviously down the middle and the side, they try to take that into account as they play those defenses and hoping that you have to hold the ball a little longer then their rush can impact the timing of the play."
Chicago counteracted Minnesota's Cover-2 and pass rush by dinking and dunking their way to a 28-10 victory last week. Jay Cutler completed an impressive 23-of-31 but those completions covered just 188 yards. It wasn't explosive – their longest completion covered 20 yards and they had only two pass plays longer than 15 -- but Cutler was only sacked once. That allowed Chicago to have scoring drives of 10, 14 and 12 plays.
In light of Green Bay's pass protection issues, that's the tact Frazier expects to see on Sunday.
"I wouldn't be surprised," Frazier said. "I thought about it. Our staff has talked about it. But part of what helped the Giants is they got off to an early lead. Then you force teams to have to throw when they don't want to throw. That's the kind of game you want if you have a pass rush. I'm sure they're working as hard as they can to not fall into a situation like they were in a week ago, so we've got to do a very good job of trying to counter some of the things that we expect them to do."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.