AbsolutAnalysis – "Uncovering Coverages"

Matt Lathrop, .NET's "Xs and Os Guru", takes an in-depth look at defensive coverages. Part One shows base coverage schemes...stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow!

When Ray Rhodes showed up in the Northwest two years ago, the term "Cover 2" turned into Google's third most-searched phrase, and became a staple of SoDo barroom conversation. Even though by addressing it now I'm about a year behind the cover 2 wave, I thought could go over the most common base coverages in football, by showing you each players coverage assignments, the pros and cons of each, as well as how to determine which coverage set is being employed on a particular play. I will go over Cover 1 through 3 in this column, as well as quarters coverage. In order to make the learning easier, I have included color coded visuals, on the advice of our good friend and .net staff member Gandalf. We'll start basic, and move on from there in future columns. Now that you've taken the time to read this intro, I'm sure you're ready to get started, so let's giddyup.


Cover 2


Assignments
As you can see in the diagram above, Cover 2 is based on the idea of having two safeties [Free (FS) and Strong (SS)] covering the deep portions of the field. Their zones split the field in half down the middle, each taking their respective side. These are called the "deep halves" of the field, and are the zones the safeties are responsible for. The Cornerbacks (CB) on the other hand, line up closer to the WR and are responsible for the flats. They can afford to line up close to the LOS and jam the receiver off the snap, because they have no deep responsibilities and have deep safety help behind them. If a wide receiver releases on a route into a deep half, such as a fade, the CB hands coverage over to the safety. The Linebackers have symmetrical coverage underneath the safeties, with the outside backers dropping at an angle to the has marks, covering the intermediate hook to curl (route) zone. They have to be sure not to drop too deep, because that will open up a large window for a receiver to slide into underneath them. Taking a good drop angle allows them to recognize any intermediate routes and react before they are too deep. The middle linebacker has a drop to cover the middle of the field, which is often vacated by the safeties. He will usually cheat to the strong side in order to compensate for the TE, and cannot let anything get behind him. If he does, he has no deep help, and it will most likely be six points for the opposition.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Strengths:
The most obvious and possibly the most helpful strength of this coverage is the ability for CBs to attack and jam a WR right off the snap. Doing so can disrupt the timing and precision of the routes being run, thereby making an offense very uncomfortable and intimidated. With so many offenses and schemes predicated on timing and precise routes, this can be an incredibly effective means of not allowing an offense to get in rhythm. Second, the ability to have five men underneath two deep defenders can be a big advantage when playing a team that likes to keep their plays quick, or when facing a QB that has trouble throwing over top of defenders. One of the most difficult throws for a quarterback to make is one overtop of one or more defenders, yet underneath a safety. It forces a great touch and sense of anticipation to be able to hit the small windows that open up in the coverage. Another strong point of this scheme is the solid coverage of the flats. The CBs stay up field and protect against short WR and TE routes, and the more common running backs into the flats. This is a very important area against west coast teams who utilize flat reads into their offense. If run properly, it can take away initial slant and hitch routes, while allowing access to the flats as the QB checks down his reads.

Weaknesses: The main problems with a 5 under 2 deep coverage such as this are the windows created in the deep secondary. Not only is half the field a lot of ground for one person to cover, it also creates a couple of very distinct vulnerabilities that can be exploited by a savvy offense. The biggest threat to a cover 2 is the deep middle, which is opened when the safeties have to cover towards the sidelines. The most obvious way to attack that is by running fades on both sides of the field to pull the safeties from the middle, and run a fast TE up the seam or on a post route.

When utilized correctly, a terrible mismatch can occur with a MLB covering the deep middle. The next biggest window in the secondary is the gap between the safeties and CB's down the sidelines, otherwise known as the fade area. It's called this because it is susceptible to fade routes, due to the fact a good release by the WR can get him by the CB, making it almost impossible for the Safety to reach him on his route before the ball does. On the other side of that coin, though, is the fact the fade route is one of, if not the, least completed pass in the game. Nonetheless, it is still a dangerous play and the possibility is always there. The final basic weakness of this coverage is the strong side curl area. The fact that only the Mike LB and CB occupy the curl and flat zones, creates a natural offensive flood by releasing the WR, TE and strong side RB on pass routes. The curl zone is especially vulnerable because a TE release will most likely occupy the Mike while the WR can release into his zone. C-gap BOB run support can also be an issue versus this scheme, mainly due to the fact that the SS is first concerned about covering his deep half, and is not an immediate factor in supporting the run. If the SS does become a factor in the run game as the game progresses, a does of quality play-action can help keep him honest and open up the off-tackle runs again.


Cover 3

Assignments
The fundamental difference between cover 3 and cover 2 is an easy one; cover 3 has three defenders with deep secondary responsibilities, as opposed to just two. In this case, the field is divided into "deep thirds" rather than halves. The CB's each cover the outer thirds, towards their respective sidelines, and the FS mans the deep middle, between the CB's zones. The SS lines up closer, if not in, the box, slightly outside of the TE, allowing the Mike to slide inside a bit. In this coverage, the CB's line up approx. 8 yards off the LOS, giving the WR some cushion since they absolutely cannot get beat deep. Unlike cover 2, the CB's have no help behind them, and are totally responsible for not letting anyone get deep in their third. Of course, the FS cannot let anyone behind him, as he is the only man covering the deep middle of the field. In this scheme, there are four men covering underneath the deep secondary, as displayed above. In somewhat of an invert look, the SS is now responsible for covering the hook to curl zone, as well as that flats. I really liked Ken Hamlin in this type of look, he is a great player up towards the LOS, and does a great job of making plays near the line. In situations like this, it's a great advantage having interchangeable safeties. On the opposite side, the Will has the same duties as the SS, only without a TE to exploit the curl zone if he has to race to flat coverage. The Mike and Will both have intermediate hook coverage, which can become a problem on the strong side, as I will address later.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Strengths:
The first positive of a 3 deep coverage is just that: three defenders covering the deep secondary. The alignment of the DB's makes it more difficult for receivers to get behind them than in a 2 deep coverage. It's especially hard to get behind a fundamentally sound CB with the initial cushion provided. Next, having run support from your Safety provides a distinct advantage against the run. Not only does it allow you to put eight men in the box, but it gives you the flexibility to have three men in deep coverage, as well.

Weaknesses: Although having 8 men in the box with a 3 deep coverage has it's advantages, there are several ways to exploit this coverage. When playing against a young or a CB who isn't of the "cover corner" mold, this coverage can be attacked with various dig and square-in type routes. Routes of this type push towards the corner, driving him backwards, before cutting off towards the middle of the field, with the receiver entering the middle third, underneath the CB and safety. This allows the QB to attack passing lanes against a look that only has four men covering underneath, as well as a 3 deep secondary playing with a cushion. With the practice and precision it takes for any offense to work, these types of well run routes that push the secondary before making a cut that crosses zones a dangerous tool for the offense. Cover 3 zone is also susceptible to an offensive package that includes 4 vertical routes. With only three men deep, sending four players vertically down the field will create at least one favorable match up for the offense, most likely a HB on a LB.

Although this type of package isn't applied in the NFL as often as it is when you play Madden, it can lead to very explosive plays when used properly at the right times. The offense also holds leverage against the weak side of the formation, which is vulnerable in the curl and flat areas, with only a weak side LB with those coverage responsibilities. Utilizing a WR and HB against this weakness can be very a effective, although not likely explosive, method of attacking, or at least nickel and diming, the defense. A lack of weak side run support is also a concern for a Cover 3 scheme. With the SS lined up to the TE side, it once again provides leverage for the offense, only this time in the running game. The offense can make a simple 'switch' call in a split set to get the FB on the weak side, allowing for an easy BOB run off tackle. The offense could not only use iso's to attack the weak side, but zone sweeps and pulling linemen would be a good way to exploit the weak side on the ground. Flood routes, in which the offense overloads one side of the field with receivers exposes another weakness of the Cover 3. To flood one side of the field, the offense would most likely use motion and\or close back sets in order to quickly exploit the defense concentrated on that particular side.


Quarters


Assignments
This is probably the most flexible of all the schemes covered in this article. It provides the defense with the ability to perform a number of coverages out of this shell. In my next article, I will go over hiding coverages, rotations, etc. Most of which, if not all, are capable of being executed from this coverage. In a quarters coverage base, the CB's will play man coverage on #1, as shown above. (#1 being the player lined up to furthest out to their side, counting down to the inside) The CB's will play aggressively on deep routes as well as intermediates, such as hooks and outs. They can do so because they likely have safety help over top, and obviously don't need to play shy against shorter routes. The safeties have two basic reads, first of which is on the #2 to their side. If that player runs a vertical route down field, he becomes their responsibility. This leaves the CB in man coverage with no deep help, and the CB must be aware and compensate as to protect against getting beat deep. However, if the #2 stays in on pass protection, or releases into the flats or an underneath route, the LB's become responsible for him, and the safeties are available to double team the #1 receiver. As I previously mentioned, the LB's are responsible for the flats and underneath routes. Specifically, the OLB both have to cover their respective flat areas, while the Mike must get in front of routes that come underneath, such as drag, crossing and texas routes.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Strengths:
The obvious strength of this coverage is the ability to leave all your DBs in the secondary to create a 4 deep coverage scheme. Having four men covering deep not only limits the offenses chance to complete a deep pass, it also provides a good amount of flexibility. For example, secondary rotations and hiding coverages are all options in quarters coverage, which I will address in a future column. On the same token as having four men deep, quarters allows double coverage of a teams #1 receiver. As we all know, by pressuring a teams top play maker, it strains the rest of the offense to make up the difference, which often leads to frustration and turnovers. In the event the #2 doesn't release vertically, which is often the case in today's NFL, the CB's have the room to play the #1 aggressively because they have safety help over top and don’t have to be primarily concerned with not getting beat deep. This allows them to squat routes and play in the hip pocket of the receiver, forcing the QB to be sharp and precise with his passes, with an even smaller window to throw into. Safety run support is another plus of this coverage. Because their first read comes on the TE or RB, (in a regular formation) they are able to quickly attack the LOS if their read shows a run. If the TE blocks or the RB they are reading heads to the LOS, they are to approach the box and assist the front seven in defending the run.

Weaknesses: When looking at this coverage, two things pop out to me at glaring weaknesses. I suppose you could say there's two sides to every coin. Although the safeties are capable of double teaming the #1, and are quick to support the run, the contrary to each is true. First, as I mentioned, the CB's are allowed to play aggressively, assuming deep help. However, if the #2 does in fact run vertically, the safety must abandon deep help for the CB to cover #2. If there is a misread by the CB and he is late in recognition, there is the possibility he could play too tight and allow the WR gain depth behind him. As you know, this would be disastrous for the defense, by opening up the opportunity for the offense to complete an explosive play and gain a large chunk of yardage at once. Similarly, the safeties are quite susceptible to quality play action fakes. Aggressive, quick reacting safeties run the risk of getting sucked into a play action fake, by leaving their deep zones in run support. For example, if a CB is playing a tight coverage on the #1, and the safety reads run while the WR releases, it could present a problem with the CB expecting deep help, but the safety attacking, abandoning the help. The flat areas are also an area of concern in this scheme. It is up to the OLB's to race to that area on a pass read in order to provide adequate coverage. This is especially a problem on the strong side, where the 3 eligible receivers can create rubs and natural picks to help clear out the flats and hook areas. Flooding that area can be effective as well, not only with the possibilities of a mismatch, but by purely outnumbering the defense.


Cover 1 Free


Assignments
As you may have guessed, Cover 1 is straight man coverage. Although, this coverage utilizes a FS covering the deep middle with no immediate man to man responsibilities. A quick look at the graphic shows you who is covering whom, so I won't take up more time by typing it out for. Man coverage is usually used in a blitzing situation, because by blitzing defenders, you are forfeiting the zone coverage that those players are responsible for, and must either depend entirely on man overage, or couple it with a zone. As you can see in the diagram, the Sam has no direct coverage duties, as this is often when you would see him used as a pass rusher. Of course, if you wanted to blitz another player, you have the flexibility to do so, since the FS has no direct duties either, and can pick up the blitzers coverage.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Strengths:
As I just stated, the most obvious strength of this scheme is the ability to rush 6 men while still having every eligible receiver covered. Many different combinations of blitzes are available due to the FS playing a true free zone. Dropping linemen into coverage allows the coordinator to send multiple linebackers and DB's, all while keeping the coverage ratio in tact. As the year progressed, Ray Rhodes liked to drop Chike off the line on various stunts, taking advantage of his athleticism, and allowing him to flood the opposite side with blitzing linebackers. This cover 1 look is very similar to a cover 3 shell. The SS is up near or in the box, which again gives the defense an advantage against the run. Having the SS lined up close to the TE and making him the primary read allows for the SS to make a quick decision to attack the run if that's what the TE shows.

Weaknesses:
In man coverage, what I see as the biggest weakness is the lack of dedicated underneath coverage. In zone coverages, the intermediate areas, especially between the hash marks, are sure to be covered. But in a man coverage, there is a strong chance that the underneath areas could be abandoned, which could make a well executed quick passing game very dangerous to the defense. Routes such as crossing routes and those that create natural rubs and picks are especially dangerous, because getting one defender to slow up or change his course in man coverage can be deadly by leaving the receiver wide open. As with quarters coverage, play action pass can present a problem in this coverage as well. Not only by having 8 in the box, but in man coverage when a defender is reading one specific person, run fakes can quickly suck in the second level of the defense. The main way to combat getting faked by play action is by studying your opponents habits throughout the week, and recognizing certain habits and signals that show run or pass on a given play. Of course as we all know, in the middle of a game, even after studying, well executed play action can always catch an aggressive defense and put them on their heels.

Well, that wraps up this edition of AbsolutAnalysis, I hope you were able to learn a thing or two, or at least spark a question or idea. Please feel free to email me or send a PM my way with any comments or questions. Next time we will go over coverage adjustments, hiding coverage, and rotations you'd see during a game. Thanks again, I'll see you next time.

Matt Lathrop, .NET's "Xs and Os Guru", writes "AbsolutAnalysis" every week. Feel free to send him feedback at mattl@seahawks.net.


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