To Cover-2 Or Not To?

Some teams have had success against Randy Moss and Nate Burleson using the "Tampa Cover-2" defense against the Vikings while other teams have shied away from it. Whether it shuts down the Vikings' receivers or just confuses quarterback Daunte Culpepper is a key question.

The wild-card playoff game might hinge on whether the Vikings do a better job attacking the Cover 2 zone defense than they have in the last game and a half.

There would be no good reason for the Packers to start out playing anything but Cover 2. When coordinator Bob Slowik moved from man-to-man to zone coverage at halftime on Christmas Eve at the Metrodome, his unit had been shredded by the Vikings for 52 points in the last six quarters.

Slowik's switch was the best decision that he made all season. The Vikings' offense had to settle for a field goal and an average of 6 yards per play after scoring 21 points and averaging an unbelievable 13.4 in the first half.

On Sunday, Redskins defensive coach Gregg Williams essentially did the same thing in a 21-18 victory over Minnesota. The Vikings had 10 points and an average gain of 4.3 before a Hail Mary touchdown pass of 38 yards with two seconds left padded the final numbers.

"(Washington) ran a lot of bracket-type stuff against the Vikings that really gave them some problems," one scout said. "They had a corner on those receivers early and then would pass them off to somebody over the top.

"There were times when I said, ‘(Daunte) Culpepper doesn't know what he's seeing.' I still think you can get Culpepper confused. And I think that had a lot to do with what happened."

Unlike the Packers, who match Al Harris against Randy Moss wherever he lines up, the Redskins kept Shawn Springs at left cornerback and veteran Walt Harris, subbing for injured Fred Smoot, at right cornerback.

To Moss' side the Redskins put safety Sean Taylor, their multi-talented rookie. Free agent Ryan Clark played over the top of Nate Burleson. Until the late touchdown pass to Marcus Robinson, the Vikings' longest completion was a 28-yard touchdown to Moss on an incredible end-zone catch with Taylor all over him.

Another scout said Moss again loafed much of the game and that Culpepper appeared uncomfortable.

"For a while there was nobody in the league who was having a better year than Culpepper with the exception of Peyton Manning," the scout said. "Culpepper looked to me like he was just afraid to pull the string. I think he was trying not to screw up. He was trying to be so precise."

A second look at the Vikings' second-half performance against the Packers bears out the same pattern.

The longest of Culpepper's first 10 passes of the second half carried merely nine yards in the air on a bootleg.

The Vikings' second possession of the second half bogged down inside the red zone when Culpepper held the ball for 5.1, 5.0 and 3.1 seconds before he dumped the ball three times and took a field goal.

When the Vikings got the ball back, they had second and 4 at the Green Bay 45. On the next two plays, Culpepper had 7.6 and 6.9 seconds to scan the field but ended up throwing the ball away when the rush arrived.

Moss was able to escape coverage from Harris by shifting close to the line and then catching a sideline pass for 18 yards in front of Darren Sharper. Culpepper's only longer pass of the half carried 45 yards but fluttered incomplete when Nick Barnett ran deep with Moss.

In the days leading up to the Redskins game, Vikings coach Mike Tice acknowledged problems against the Cover 2 scheme, which gained fame in Tampa Bay.

In the last meeting, Green Bay kept Sharper over the top of Moss and Mark Roman over the top of Burleson.

Not once in the second half did either safety come down into the box.

By steadfastly keeping the safeties deep, Slowik gambled that his front seven could handle the run. The Vikings did rush 15 times for 69 yards in the second half, but four offensive penalties and stubborn defense foiled that idea.

"They played just a basic Tampa Cover 2," Culpepper said after the game. "We just weren't able to run the ball as effectively as we wanted to. They made us be patient. Really, it was senseless to take shots when there's six or seven guys way deep and I've got three guys running deep."

The Vikings had their worst rushing day (18-52) of the season in Washington. The Redskins' defense is far better than the Packers', but the Vikings haven't surpassed 146 yards rushing since Week 5 and ranked 18th on the ground, a far cry from their No. 1 ranking in 2002 and No. 4 in ‘03.

Are the Vikings, who rushed on merely 39.3% of their snaps but still averaged a hefty 4.7, patient enough to use the run and try forcing the Packers out of Cover 2?

"They weren't this past weekend," one scout said. "There are some good players to run the football, but I'm not a big proponent of them being in the shotgun as much as they are. It takes away from your run game and you become more one-dimensional."

In the Nov. 14 meeting at Lambeau Field, which the Packers also won by a 34-31 score, Slowik blitzed on 34% of dropbacks and the Vikings feasted on both man and zone-blitz coverages.

"They came out very aggressive," Culpepper said after the first game. "We knew they were going to come up and challenge us. We had some big plays because of that."

Moss didn't become Moss and Culpepper didn't set the league record this season for passing and rushing yards with 5,123 by not having answers for Cover 2. There have been games in the past when they've eaten it up.

"Randy's such a great athlete and so is Culpepper that they're going to make plays on you just athletically," one scout said. "But, structurally, I don't know if they can beat you."

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