Last time on How to spot what a defense is doing we discussed the Cover 3 defense, one of the most popular defenses used at the High School and College level. This time I’ll look at the Cover 2. It’s a versatile shell that has both man and zone forms and I’ll try and explain how it’s key advantages and disadvantages work to defend an offense. I’ll also look at one of the most popular variants that’s just clinging to relevance in today’s NFL; the Tampa 2.
The basic form of the Cover 2 is a zonal defense which like the Cover 3 has four defenders assigned to rush the quarterback and seven to defend the pass. The main difference between the 2 shells is that in Cover 2 the two safeties are responsible for defending deep zones splitting the field in half. The other five defenders are responsible for shorter zones (see image 1 below)
This, of course, is an over simplification of the Cover 2 which can be an extremely versatile defense. If you look at the image above you can see one of the key advantages of the Cover 2 is the protection the 2 safeties provide to the short zone defenders. It allows the short zone defenders to be extremely aggressive in trying to force turnovers and support the run.
The other key advantage to Cover 2 is the ability of the defense to flood the shorter zones and make passes much more difficult. The “flats” (the areas behind the line of scrimmage near the sideline) are much better protected than in the Cover 3 with the presence of the cornerbacks close to the line of scrimmage.
In fact the cornerbacks are generally described as “hard corners” in Cover 2. This means they are relied upon to support the run more so than in Cover 3. Although the cornerbacks have responsibility for a short zone they are still key defenders against the deep pass. They must protect the safeties by forcing receivers inside and preventing completions to the 7 route (see image 2 below). This is of course opposite to where they want to route receivers in the Cover 3.
As I’ve discussed above the Cover 2 is an extremely versatile and strong defense, but it also has some key weaknesses that can be exploited and it’s one of the key reasons why the “vanilla” version of the defense is rarely seen at the higher levels.
The most obvious disadvantage is the weakness between the two safeties in the deep middle of the field (coloured yellow on image 3) and the 2 flag routes (or 7 routes) behind the outside short zones and in front of the two deep zones. This weak point is extremely vulnerable to “seam splitting” tight ends (essentially quick, athletic pass catching receivers) and becomes even more so when an offense has two dangerous deep threats on the outside.
The second weakness of the Cover 3 is the number of defenders near the line of scrimmage to defend the run (seven as opposed eight in Cover 3). Off-tackle runs are also a particular problem for Cover 2 defenses (reliance on smaller cornerbacks to “seal the edge” i.e. take on lead blockers and stop runs heading to the sideline). The third major weakness is the reliance on the 4 rushers to generate pressure on the passer. Blitzes are rare (and dangerous) in Cover 2.
With that said the Cover 2 is not a defense that has stood still. A number of evolution’s of the basic defense have taken place which adapt the basic advantages and protect the weaknesses of the Cover 2.
The Tampa 2 defense made famous by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers SuperBowl winning team in the late 90s was resurrected to hide the weaknesses of the Cover 2. Originally created by Bud Carson (defensive coordinator for the Steelers) in the 1970s where he used future Hall of Famer Jack Lambert to drop deeper into the centre of the field to help the safeties. This in turn allowed the safeties to concentrate more on defending the weak sidelines and allowed the rest of the defenders to play more aggressively. An example of the Tampa 2 is shown in image 3 below. As you can probably see it’s very close in design to Cover 3.
The Tampa 2 evolved as an antidote to the proliferation of short timing route offenses, but as defenses evolve so do offenses. Today the number of offenses using 3 and 4 receiver sets has almost assigned the Tampa 2 to the history books.
Our second adaptation of the Cover 2 is
Cover 2 Man
Cover 2 Man is an adaptation of the basic underneath zone coverage of the Cover 2 where the safeties provide deep help and the underneath defenders match up with receivers in man to man coverage. This allows a number of advantages to the defense including the ability to use blitzes and double coverage (2 defenders to a single receiver). It also allows defenders to “bump or press” receivers at the line of scrimmage (this is effective in disrupting timing). However it has a significant weakness in defending the run and exposing linebackers against good receiving running backs.
So how do you spot the Cover 2 defense?
The first key is position of the two safeties. They’ll naturally take up positions near the hash marks and be at least 10-15 yards back from the line of scrimmage.
The second key is the positioning of the two cornerbacks. Generally they’ll take an outside position to the receivers (back towards sideline or head facing QB) and will attempt to delay the receiver at the line of scrimmage. If they’re in a man scheme they’ll immediately take up tight coverage and try to force receivers outside rather than inside if they’re in a zonal scheme. Of course motion by receivers will usually identify a man scheme pre-snap.
For the Tampa 2 the linebacker allocated the middle zone will become an additional key read. On pass plays they will immediately take a deep drop towards the centre of the field in an effort to protect the weak point in the defense.
That’s the end of our second article on defensive coverage shells. Next time we’ll look at man-to-man schemes such Cover 1 and Cover 0.