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X's & O's: Cover 2 - Much More Than You Think

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X's & O's: Cover 2 - Much More Than You Think

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 and their opponents from an X's and O's standpoint. Today he looks at the many different aspects of what is known as Cover 2.

When fans hear a broadcaster say, “the defense was in cover two” people will think one of three things.  If you have more intricate knowledge of defense you will know that the defense had 2 deep defenders (safeties) splitting the deep passing zones in half for which each of those deep defenders is responsible.  That’s a pretty good sign that you understand the game better than someone who would say that based on how the defense looked they had two guys back deep.  That statement is true as well but not as detailed.  The third thought is “the defense only covered two guys?”  Ok, I’ve never heard someone actually say that but the odds are that someone, somewhere in our universe has thought or uttered those words.

The interesting thing about cover two is that it doesn’t often end up like it starts out.  Cover two simply describes a basic structure in which the coverage men operate.  To make matters more complex, cover two can be run in combination with man coverage.   By the end of this X and O segment hopefully you will have a better understanding of the structure, variations and purpose of what is called cover two.  But before we dive in to the diagrams and their respective explanations, I want to clarify that I am not talking about a pure zone coverage.  What I intend to say is that this is not about what your old high school coach might have taught you way back when.  This is not a coverage in which you might sprint to a spot, turn around and look for the quarterback to throw the ball.  This is called “spot dropping.”  In today’s game “spot dropping” is all but non-existent.  The reason for this is due to the spacious windows created by the stretch in the defense due to this technique.

To give you a picture of what I mean think of this:  Spot dropping is to giving Aaron Rodgers a bay window to throw through at a distance of 5 feet as pattern matching is to placing Aaron Rodgers 40 yards away from the Ultimate Football Toss at the local arcade.  Ok, he’d do well at that distance and small target too.  Not necessarily a bad example just a poor use of the player.  Substitute Aaron Rodgers for….let’s say….Jay Cutler.  Although I doubt he’d be able to make it through the bay window when you finally figure in the 7 step drop and poor protections, but I digress.  What I’m talking about is called pattern matching.  As you’ll discover in the diagrams, pattern matching is about relating your coverage responsibility based on the releases, patterns, and distribution of receivers.

Let’s proceed.

Diagram 1In diagram 1 I have drawn the cover two shell.  We won’t be addressing the interior core coverage players.  Here are the basic rules.  The corners are reading the #2 to #1 receiver.  If #2 releases to the outside, the corner will take him man to man in his area.  If he would “wheel” up the field after his release the corner would run with him.  Now, if the #2 receiver releases vertical or inside and across the field, the corner would then “sink.”  This means that the corner will get depth to help on a route concept called “smash” or “china” (means the same thing essentially).  More on that later.  On the left side of the formation in this diagram, the corner jams and reroutes #1 toward the safety.  He will then sink for depth until #2 breaks to the outside.  At this point, the corner will take the outside break of the #2 receiver.  The safety will backpedal between #1 and #2 at the snap.  In this case, because #2 broke out and shallow, the safety is responsible for playing man to man on #1 who has run a vertical route.

On the right side of the formation in diagram 1, the corner executes the same technique of jam, reroute, funnel, and sink.  Again, the corner is reading #2 as he does this.  Because #2 either runs a shallow cross or remains vertical, the corner will then hug #1 throughout his route.  The safety, also reading #2, will hug #2 if he remains vertical.  Should #2 run a shallow cross, the safety can then hug up on the lone vertical by #1.
Diagram 2 (Smash/China)

Versus this route concept the offense tries to suck the corner up to jump the quick 5-7 yard route by the #1 receiver.  The #2 receiver, after releasing up field vertically for about 10-12 yards will break his route off to the outside and angle at about a 45 degree angle to the sideline.    If the corner doesn’t sink, the offense will almost have a sure completion of about 18 yards.  The safety is stressed when the corner doesn’t sink because there is a natural dead zone in the coverage that safety cannot cover without corner help.   On the left side of the diagram we see poorly executed technique by the corner.  Instead of sinking for depth, the corner hugs up the hitch route by #1.  The #2 receiver runs a corner route.  There is a natural dead zone from 12 to 18 yards on this concept.  Because the corner did not sink and the safety is leveraged by alignment (2 yards outside the hash), the window created is vast.  However, if we take a look at the opposite side, we see a much smaller window due to the sinking corner.  Now, you might be asking, “doesn’t this leave the hitch route wide open?”  It does, but if you’re trying to stop the vertical threat, then you’ll be content with giving up the 3 to 5 yard gain as long as you prevent Y.A.C (Yards After the Catch).  Just remember, football is a game of chess… and mouse.  There are ways to stop that short throw on the edges.

Diagram 3 (Squat)

Ok….so you want to stop that quick hitch since your corner has been sinking all day long.  Squat the corners and roll the safeties.  That’s all you do.  The corners are jam/flat defenders and become primary force players in the running game.  The Nickel and Dime backs will play man coverage on #2 if both #1 and #2 are vertical.  Why?  Because the safeties are reading #1 to their side instead of #2 as usual.  If #1 goes vertical, the safety will stay on top of the route and play #1 man to man.  If #2 should go vertical with #1 then the Nickel and/or Dime would need to run with #2 man for man because the safety is on #1 vertical.  Now, if #1 should run a shallow cross inside, the Nickel and/or Dime would look to jump the shallow route by #1.  As this is occurring, the safety turns his attention to #2 as #1 is no longer a vertical threat.  If #2 is vertical the safety takes him.  Essentially, the Nickel and Dime backs along with the safeties are reading #1 to their sides.

Diagram 4 (Bracket)

Bracket coverage involves doubling a receiver.  In this diagram we will be doubling the #2 receiver.  This bracket becomes a cover two zone on the #2 receiver.  The corners will play man to man coverage on the #1 receivers to their respective sides.  The bracket cover two will occur between the safety and Nickel or Dime back to each side on the #2 receiver.  The basic rules are this.  The Nickel and Dime backs will cover the #2 receiver on any shallow route to the outside and pass him off to the Mike on any shallow to the inside.  If #2 should go vertical, the Nickel and/or Dime will wall off and carry #2 and then zone off and read the quarterback.  The safety is man to man on any vertical route by the #2 receiver.  If the #2 receiver runs a shallow route inside or outside, the safety can then zone off and read the quarterback’s eyes.  This type of coverage is something that the New England Patriots use to utilize often against the Colts in their early 2000 match-ups.  Bracket coverage can be used on the #1 (outside) receiver as well.  In that case the Nickel/Dime backs play man coverage on #2 all over the field and the safety and corner to each side play cover two on the #1 receiver.

Diagram 5 (Tampa 2)

The Kiffin, Dungy, Smith Tampa 2 defense is quite simple.  Simple apply the rules from Diagram 1 but now add deep coverage to the middle by the Mike linebacker.  In the Kiffin/Dungy/Smith lexicon, this is called covering the “pipe.”  Essentially you can see that the end result is a 3 deep coverage which is great against 3 vertical sets (2 x 1 formations).  The Mike linebacker adjusts his drop to relate to the TE in this diagram (#2 receiver).   The weakness in this coverage is 5 yards from the line of scrimmage to the low hole about 3 yards deeper.  The route I have drawn is a classic Holmgren era concept called 22 Texas with the back running an angle route to the inside.  The back threatens the Sam linebacker to the outside and because of the leverage he has and the vacating Mike a window opens up underneath.  Teams like Chicago will give that up all day.  They are betting on an impatient offensive coordinator and quarterback.   There’s nothing really fancy about this form of cover two.  It works great against teams with average tight ends.  The problem a defense will face is when they see a fast TE (Finley, Gates) that can beat a Mike up the seam.   A competent running attack is also beneficial as it opens up play action, which is perhaps the best way to attack this coverage.


There are a few other variations of cover two but this is the bulk of it. Teams will use different nomenclature to call their cover two. Some teams may call it “52” to mean 5 man under two deep. Regardless of what teams call it cover two can be conservative like the Tampa 2 or it can have an element of deception such as bracket coverage or squat.  The point is that not all cover two has the same intent despite having the same or similar pre-snap looks.

When coach Capers calls up a cover two defense don’t be so sure he’s playing vanilla. True he may not be sending fifth rusher but maybe he’s trying to take advantage of an overzealous coordinator or quarterback. When, where, and against who coverages are called goes a long way to the success of a defense.  While playing cover two isn’t as flashy as a double A gap blitz, running blitz schemes the majority of the time isn’t smart defense either.  Defenses learn to play to their strengths but they also know when to pick their spots.

Any coverage, regardless of the call, is suspect to poor play. A great blitz coverage becomes a liability if technique is not executed. The same holds true for a coverage first defense. So while watching the Packers from this point forward, instead of screaming for a blitz instead of that tired old cover two again, check out the technique before ”throwing out the baby with the bath water.”  You just might discover that the “tired old cover two” has become “Mr. Reliable.”

Food for thought.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (13) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

cuqui's picture

Fabulous post. Many thanks.

jack in jersey city's picture

thanks for dropping your knowledge on us! i really appreciate it

Jay's picture

The Enola Gay of knowledge bombs!

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

Wasn't that the airplane that flew over Hiroshima? I thought the bomb was something like fat man? Could be wrong... I'm due. Too lazy to Google.

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

Had to do it. Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, Little Boy on Hiroshima. I feel better now.

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

I sure the Hell was impressed by Romeo Crennel's use of "bracket" coverage last night on Gates. Sure Gates got his 70 yards but Crennel was not going to let Gates touch the ball in the Red Zone. Wouldn't mind seeing some of that on Sunday.



Tarynfor 12's picture

Would it be safe to assume then,that other than some blown coverages by the players which happens,it comes more upon Capers mis-reading the OC and QB tendencies.

Would this also shed light as to why our pass rush seems hesitant or confused because of a misread by Capers defensive call with the players on the field on offense.

Many are upset that CM3 doesn't have double digit sack numbers as yet and perhaps his speed rush has been slowed by a hesitation of seeing something that wasn't suppose to be via the defense package called and is playing the run better by accident and not design.

I'm probably grasping at straws but...I'm at least grasping for a reason for this defense this year.

Bernard Shuford's picture

Awesome article. We semi-knowledgeable people need more of this. There's SO much about football that I don't know how to even SEE.

George's picture

Great explanation of the various defensive schemes. Yes, it is a chess match and what separates the great defensive coordinators from the not-so-great ones. The right defense must be called to match the offensive scheme for that particular play. The GB defense this year on alot of occasions is getting it wrong. They only savior is that they are coming up with the big turnover in the nick of time. They are in essence walking on a tightrope with nitro in their hands.

B4lombardi's picture

So which ones are us? The X's or the O's?

PackersRS's picture

I swear I tried to read the whole thing, and I promise I'll do it someday. But I ended up just reading the intro and the summary. Don't you have a "cover 2 for dummies"?

(You know the content is good when you can't understand it all without having to really focus on it. Great article POC)

Greg C.'s picture

After reading this, my question is: What ISN'T Cover Two? I wonder if Cover Two is one of those things, like the West Coast Offense, that has been around so long and has been modified in so many different ways that the term doesn't really mean a whole lot anymore. I guess what it boils down to is that the safeties are both playing deep when the ball is snapped, and they don't blitz. Other than that, it's anything goes.

packeraaron's picture

"What ISN'T Cover Two?"

Cover 1, Cover 3 , Cover Four - and Cover Zero.


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