Regular Cheesehead TV reader (and all-too-infrequent commenter) "Paul Ott Carruth", a former player and coach who wishes to remain anonymous, breaks down different aspects of the Packers from an X's and O's standpoint. Today he looks at various forms of Cover 3.
Since we looked at the various aspects of Cover Two, I thought it might be a good idea to look at Cover Three. Cover Three doesn’t see much use today because of the spread formations deployed by offenses. Nevertheless, Cover Three is useful and is in any defensive coordinator’s toolbox.
I’ve drawn up the classic example of Cover 3. It’s really a simple coverage by design. The idea is to keep all routes in front of the defensive coverage, forcing a short throw and rallying up to make the tackle. Teams will usually set up in a 2 deep look and roll the safety down. In this case, the Strong Safety is rolled down (Packers usually roll down the Free Safety – Collins & Peprah…it really is semantics. It just depends on what attributes you’re looking for from the guy you have at either safety position and what you call them……Free or Strong). At the snap, the FS will roll to the deep middle third. The corners are playing about 7 yards off the #1s. They will drop to the deep outside thirds on their respective sides. The corners execute a zone turn (turning their rears to the sideline so as to keep their eyes on the ball and the receiver distribution). The SS and W take drops relative to the number of receivers to their sides. In this case the Will has a single receiver to his side so he will drop for depth and width, looking to get under the route of #1 on any inside breaking route. Should the receiver run a speed out the Will reacts late to the throw and rally to the flat to make the tackle. The SS executes the same type of drop but since he has a TE to his side, he will drop more for depth and work with the Sam to squeeze any vertical route by the TE. The Sam and Mike will execute Hook to Curl drops looking for crossers and relating to the #2 receiver.
Diagram 2 (Roll Strong)
This shows a variation to Cover 3. As we discussed in the article on Cover 2, football is a game of chess. By design and intent, Cover 3 is weak in the flat and seams. Defenses are taught to collision and reroute seam runners. However, they are not taught to run up and guard the flat area. It’s something the defense has to be willing to live with. As long as the opponent doesn’t get vertical on them, they will live with 5 yard routes to the flat. But let’s say you are getting nickel and dimed down the field and you want to stop that yet, maintain sound vertical coverage. Rolling to Cover 3 is a good change-up. In this diagram we’ve rolled the coverage to the Z and TE. The corner will give the appearance of dropping to his outside third but will actually slow pedal out or squat to take away any quick throw to the flanker or any out breaking route by #2. The SS assumes the corners outside third responsibility while nothing changes for the FS or backside corner. The Will takes his drop relating to the single receiver as usual. The Sam will execute a collision on the TE if he runs a seam route. The Mike, who I’ve centered up a little bit will execute his normal drop as well. The main difference, as you can see, is the exchange of responsibilities between the SS and the strong side corner. If the down, distance, and tendency allow for it, this is a great change up. The run game does factor in to this coverage a little bit. Why? Because your corner to that side now becomes a secondary run force player or a primary run force player depending on the alignment of your OLB or DE if you have 3-4 or 4-3 personnel. If your corner is not a great end force run player this can be a problem.
Diagram 3 (Roll Weak)
Same as Diagram 2 but with some minor adjustments. On the right side you see the squatting/slow playing corner. The main difference is the matchup on the back side. The Sam has to relate his drop to the route of #2. He has deep help from the SS on any vertical but anything 10 yards and under and breaking to the outside requires the Sam to run with the TE. I know this may sound contrary to what the scheme is designed to protect and give up but imagine if the Sam just dropped for depth and the #1 ran off the Corner to that side. The #2 would be wide open with great leverage on the Sam. As a result, the Sam has to get good width as well in order to rally up to the flat should the #2 go there. For all intents and purposes, he’s playing man to man on the TE on anything short and out.
Diagram 4 (2 x 2)
This just shows how the coverage would relate to a 2 x 2 set and what coach Holmgren and Walsh called “All Go.” The Will and SS have to drop for depth, bang those seam routes and level off. You should be able to see how the flat areas open up due to the depth of the drops.
Diagram 5 (Robber Coverage)
This looks like Cover 3 by alignment but it’s not. The corners look as though they are bailing to their deep outside thirds. In reality, they are responsible for the deep halves to their sides, while the FS is executing what is called “Robber” This is an interesting coverage that is dictated by one man. In this case, the #2 receiver. That may sound counterintuitive but it’s true. The FS for taking the #2 receiver man to man if the receiver should get beyond 10 yards vertically. If this would occur, the FS would take him on any route he breaks to, whether it is the post or the corner or a deep in route. In this diagram the #2 receiver runs a “bang/arrow” to the flat. The #1 receiver runs an in route to the curl area. Because the FS isn’t threatened vertically by the TE and he knows the corners will always have the deep half, he is free to jump the curl route. Should the #1 continue to run deep on a post the corner would cover him deep because that is his area of responsibility. In essence, this coverage allows the FS to be very aggressive and jump routes when the #2 receiver stays shallow. The SS executes a drop as in true Cover 3. He gets depth before gaining width and will rally to the flat. His depth of drop assists the FS by closing the curl window momentarily to give the FS time to break to the curl.
Diagram 6 (Robber Coverage)
Same as Diagram 5 but showing a different route concept. This is a Smash/China concept. Because #2 has threatened vertically, the FS will play him man for man but on the inside and low shoulder. Why? Because he has help from the corner who should be over the top and on the high side executing his coverage in the deep half. The SS executes his drop as usual.
Diagram 7 (Robber Coverage)
This is still Robber but look who is being aggressive in the curl window. This change up can be made if the defense anticipates some type of out breaking route by the TE in to the curl area (think TE “Stick” route). The SS is doing his thing, dropping and waiting for the ball to be thrown to the flat in order to rally and make the tackle. Because #1 runs a shallow cross the inside linebackers will handle him. Now it comes down to what #2 will do after his vertical release. Will he run a stick route to the curl? Will he break to the corner on a flag route? Will he break to the deep middle? This is where the defense has to make an educated decision based on scouting and tendencies. If the TE shows a high propensity to run to the curl on this type of route combination, it might be a nice change up to run that corner in to the curl expecting a throw to the outside and run the FS over top. If the TE runs to the flag, maybe the CB should sink to his deep half and let the FS play the low side shoulder with inside leverage. Same could be said if he runs a post. It just depends on what the defense is trying to accomplish. A little change up and risk taking can be good…..as long as there is communication noting that change.
What category does Robber fall in to? Cover Two, Cover 3, Man?
If you really break down this coverage you can see that there are cover two principles in the structure with the corners playing deep half responsibility. We also see cover three principles as well. The SS and Will do not jump the flats, rather they get depth and rally to the flat when the ball declares. The FS has a unique responsibility in that he is playing a man but playing an area as well depending on the release of the specific player (#2). Most coaches will tell you that Robber doesn’t fall anywhere. Instead, it is a category all its own.
Diagram 8 (SS rush)
This diagram shows how Cover 3 would be executed is the SS was in on the rush. Capers does use this specific call, albeit sparingly. The Sam has to execute a drop similar to that in the Cover 3 Roll Weak because he is now the seam/flat player. You might ask, “Why wouldn’t you just rush the Sam or the Will to give you the fourth guy?” Valid question. Here’s the answer in the form of a question: Do offenses account for safeties that are lined up at 12 yards from the line of scrimmage in their protections? If Charles Woodson is hovering around the LOS like he does when he’s in the slot, then you bet they’ll account for him. They won’t if he’s deep and that’s why this change up can pay dividends while staying safe on the backend with 3 deep coverage. Why do corner blitzes from the edge, when timed out well, work? Because the offense doesn’t account for corners in their protection schemes. If the SS should tip his hand too soon….well, then this type of call can be neutralized. The key to this rush is the ability of the SS to be a good poker player and not give the other guys at the table a “tell.”
If you were to scour any defensive playbook in the NFL you’d see some or all of these coverages. The question is “Do the Packers USE these coverages?” Yes. How much? That depends. Most of the time when teams go to a single high safety look they are playing some form of man-free (Cover 1). There is no team in the NFL today that runs Cover 3 exclusively. Cover 3 against the spread formations of today is not the best coverage to be in from down to down. The seams are stressed too much. Cover 3 is more effective against 2 back offensive formations and used situational. The same holds true for Robber coverage. This coverage was used quite a bit in the mid to late 90s at the college level. But as teams began to go to more spread formations, this coverage was not as effective due to the stress placed on the structure. TCU is a team that continues to run Robber coverage. They and Virginia Tech, have had to adapt the scheme a little to account for the prevalence of 2 x 2 and 3 x1 sets in college. Cover 3 is there and it is used, but exactly how much….I don’t have a definitive answer to that. What I can say is that there is practical use for the Cover 3. For instance, it wouldn’t shock me one bit if the Packers used some time of roll coverage (strong or weak) from time to time on Thanksgiving. Go back to Diagram 3. Envision Calvin Johnson as that single receiver. The man is a match-up nightmare. I could see Capers looking to get a jam on him to reroute and give help over the top in case the jam fails. Making him run into coverage is certainly a good thing. But what about Pettigrew on the other side? Who matches up with him? Is he the lesser of two athletes? Is the other corner good enough to play man coverage on their #2? Is it pure Cover 3 zone to the weak side and man coverage on the backside? These are all questions that crop up when you decide to run any type of coverage, be it man, man/zone, zone, robber, bracket, etc.