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X's & O's: Cover 7

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X's & O's: Cover 7

Frequent Cheesehead TV commenter "Paul Ott Carruth", a former player and coach, breaks down a different aspect of the Packers and their opponents from an X's and O's standpoint. Today, he looks at Dom Capers' use of Cover 7.

“Running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”  Euphemism for “these @$$lkj!!  don’t have a clue as to what they’re doing!"

But is that really the case?  Watch Troy Polamalu do his little spinner dance and jig around the line of scrimmage on a Sunday and you might say, “what the [email protected]”  But that’s until he makes a nice interception or game changing sack.  Then it doesn’t look so bad…..if you’re a Steelers fan of course.  Raise your hand if it has ever appeared that Packers defense has had more than 11 players on the field with all the movement and guys standing up and the success they had on a particular defensive stop.  I’m raising mine right now.  By the end of this X and O session you might start to understand why.

To begin, let’s look at a staple single high coverage in the Capers playbook.  He calls it Cover 7.  Why is it called that?  I really don’t know.  What I do know is that each team and coach run similar things but call them different things.  For instance, a high school team may call their defense a 5-2 while at the professional and college level it will most likely be called a 3-4.  What it’s called isn’t as important as to how the scheme is implemented and what a coach has his players do within the given scheme.

What is Cover 7?  Well, to sum it up, it is this:  4 men rushing the QB with the intent of having the weakside OLB rush along with 3 other men, a safety that will always cover the middle of the field, and the corners locked up man to man on the X and Z receivers wherever they align.

Before you look at the diagrams, here is what is represented on them.  First, Capers calls his inside backers the Mac and the Buck with the Buck aligned strongside and the Mac weakside.  In Capers terminology he calls the OLB to the TE the closed side backer (TE present giving a 3 man surface with the TE, OT, and OG).  The other side is the open side backer (no TE giving a 2 man surface with the OG and OT).  I’ve called them the Sam and Will for learning purposes.  The yellow circles represent eligible receivers.  The “star” receiver will represent D. Jackson from the Eagles.  The blue lines show receiver route concepts or blocking and the red lines show the coverage drops by the Packer defense.  The orange hour glass shapes show men locked up in man to man coverage prior to the snap and receiver distribution post snap.  The green lines show defensive players that will be in on the rush.  For the majority of the diagrams it will show the Will rushing.

That’s about it.  Before I forget, if you ever have questions just let me know.  If you ever have a question about certain vernacular I’ll be happy to clarify.

Here we go.

Diagram 1:

The corners are locked on man to man with #1 to their respective sides.  Based on the route combination presented by the offense, The Sam will man up on #2 to the flat while the Buck will collision the TE on the under route and pass him off to the Mac who will now carry the TE across the field.  The Buck will then zone off (sluff off) and keep his eyes on the half back who has set up in protection  or will be used in a screening or checkdown capacity.  The Free Safety will rotate to the middle of the field (center field) and will peek at the closed side (TE side) of the formation as he drops.  The  Strong Safety (having no vertical threat by the TE will sluff off and read.  By game plan he could read the QB or give help elsewhere (most likely reading the route of the flanker).  The Will is rushing giving the Packers a 4 man rush.

Diagram 2:

This look is similar to Diagram #1 with the exception of the route by the TE.  Here we have the TE running what is called a “stick-nod” route (WCO nomenclature).  You can be sure the Eagles have this in their offense seeing as how Reid is running the most pure form of the WCO today.  Again, the corners are locked up man to man on the 1’s.  The Sam will sink a little on the TE release but jump to #2 to the flat  as he crosses his face.  The Buck and Mac react to the strongside run action and then sluff off looking for a check down.  The Buck helps out the Strong Safety by getting under the TE’s route.  The Strong Safety plays outside-in leverage on the TE.  The Free Safety rotates to the middle of the field.  The Will rushes giving a 4 man pressure.

Diagram 3:

The offense presents what is called a “Far” backfield set (Halfback is away from the TE).  The corners are in man coverage on the 1’s.  With the threat of a release by the halfback, the Free Safety plays man coverage on him.  This means that the Strong Safety now rotates to the middle of the field.  The Mac will pick up the fullback should he release, otherwise, he can sluff off and keep his eyes on the fullback should he release after setting up in the protection scheme.  The Sam maintains outside leverage on the TE running a vertical route in to a flag, while the Buck helps out by maintaining inside leverage on the TE.  The Will rushes giving a 4 man balanced rush.

Diagram 4:

The offense presents what is called a “Far” backfield set (Halfback is away from the TE) just as they did in diagram 3.  However, because a back motions out to the TE we now have a 3 x1 set created that forces the Strong Safety to cover the displaced back man for man. The corners are in man coverage on the 1’s.  The Free Safety will now assume the middle of the field coverage.  This now forces the Mac to cover the releasing halfback out on the weakside.  This is a tough proposition as the Mac is leveraged by alignment.  It is possible to change the responsibilities of the Will and the Mac (Mac rushes off the edge while Will covers the halfback out) to alleviate this concern but it also can take one of your better rushers out of the rush (i.e Matthews).  The Sam bangs the TE on his under route and sluffs off to help on anything that might come into the seam area.  The Buck will pick up the TE on his under route and run with it.  Again, the Will or Mac will rush depending on how Capers chooses to handle the threat of the halfback releasing.  Either way, it becomes a 4 man rush.

Diagram 5:

Here we have what is commonly referred to as a “King” backfield set (FB off set to the TE).  Again, the corners are locked man for man on the 1s.  The Sam will take the fullback in the flat.   The Buck will drop in relation to the TE but come off of him as soon as he sees the flanker run a drive route underneath.  The Buck will help the corner as the corner has a lot of trash to get through.  The Strong Safety plays outside in leverage on the TE.  The Mac will take the releasing halfback to the flat on the weakside should he release.  The Free Safety rotates to the middle of the field.  The Will rushes giving a 4 man rush.

Diagram 6:

The offense presents what can be called a “Spread” formation.  The corners have the 1s man to man.  The Strong Safety has the displaced back man for man.  If you notice, the route concept on the left side is the same as in diagram 5 (Dig route by the TE and a Flat route by a back).  The difference between the two approaches is that the Sam will run vertical with the TE and maintain outside-in leverage.  The Buck will run to cover the flat route whereas he stayed inside on the TE in diagram 5.  Instead, the Mac will drop and relate to the TE and maintain inside leverage.  Basically, the Mac and the Buck are exchanging responsibilities due to the formation and where the back released.  The Free Safety plays the deep middle third and the Will rushes presenting a 4 man rush.

Diagram 7:

This diagram is the same formation presented in diagram 6.  The route concepts are the same as diagram 5 with the absence of a flat route to the TE side of the formation.  Even though the Mac is not leveraged by alignment, this formation and back release can present a problem.  There is the threat of the Mac getting picked off as he tries to navigate his way through potential shallow crosses being run by the receivers on that side of the formation.  A simple exchange of responsibilities by the Will and Mac can alleviate this concern, however, there is a potential to lose something by way of the rush depending on the personnel at each position.  It’s kind of like “robbing Peter to pay Paul” (no pun intended) in a sense.

Diagram 8:

I suspect the Eagles will put Jackson in the slot to get a one on one matchup.  Even though the Packers will align like this vs. a static formation (Jackson already set and not in motion), this is the best way for Reid to get Jackson a free release without immediate safety help over the top in the deep half of the field.

Diagram 9:

Here the Eagles put Jackson in the backfield and motion him out to get a favorable match-up on a Strong Safety rotating down to cover the displaced back who happens to be Jackson.  Remember when coach Holmgren used to put Sterling Sharpe in the backfield and motion him out?  Well, here you go.  Walsh did that with Rice too.  Makes a lot of sense to try this tactic.  Don’t be surprised if you see this on Sunday.  Don’t be surprised  to see Capers have an answer to this.

Diagram 10:

Finally, when we break down what Capers has called Cover 7 we see 3 consistent concepts.  First, there will always be a middle of the field defender.  Second, the corners will be locked on man to man with #1 to their respective sides (they will always man up on the X and Z receivers and no one else).  Third, the weakside (open side) outside linebacker (Will) will always be in the rush provided that an exchange in responsibilities is not taking place between the Mac and the Will.

Diagram 11:

In this diagram, I’ve put the Packers in their base package of 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers.  Take a moment to again see who is rushing the passer and who is playing coverage.

Diagram 12:

In this diagram I’ve put the Packers in their sub front of 2 down lineman, 4 linebackers and 5 defensive backs.  Imagine, for a moment, that the nickel back (N) is Charles Woodson and now he gets in on the rush because we’ve substituted him for a down lineman.  Even better, imagine now that the Sam will rush and Woodson will play coverage.  The concept of Cover 7 stays the same but the athletes executing the scheme are different.

Diagram 13:

How about we put Woodson in a deep half field safety position?  Then let’s creep him down right before the snap and have him rush the weak side of the formation.  But we have to slant the line to the strong side of the formation to get a balanced rush.   This diagram shows how the varying possibilities to this coverage and how creative Capers can get with his personnel.

Diagram 14:

Let’s drop off a defensive Tackle to play underneath the TE in the hook/seam area and send the Buck on the rush (as long as it’s not Howard Green!)

In conclusion, I hope this gives everyone an idea just how complex a simple coverage like this can be to an opposing quarterback.  When looking at a defensive structure do just that…..look at the structure.  Ask yourself questions.  “Do they always have a deep middle safety?” “ Are they always bringing a guy off the weakside (open side)?”   “Are the corners playing man?”    I have always looked at the secondary first when trying to determine what a team is doing defensively.  There is a simple saying among coaches.  “Your coverage determines your front.”

When you’re watching the game this weekend with your friends look at the deep middle of the field.  If a guy starts there and stays there you can bet that it is some form of man-free coverage (Cover 7 or Cover 1).  If a man rotates to the middle of the field you can bet it is some form of man-free coverage or quite possibly a fire zone (5 man rush with a 3 under 3 deep coverage shell (I’ll discuss fire zones in the next installment….that or the zone blocking system.  We can also look at the “Psycho” package down the road).

If you’re interested, copy off the diagrams as is and then change the coverage responsibilities of those not in man to man coverage and see what different variations you can come up with.  Change up who is rushing, who is covering where and whom and ask yourself, “is this even plausible?”  You might find that what you have come up with is actually workable.  In other cases, not so much.  But that’s the fun with a flexible defense like the Packers.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Capers will run Cover 7 because, well, after all, it is one of his primary coverages.  Dick LeBeau and the Steelers still run this coverage.  It’s one of the primary single high safety coverages from the Capers/LeBeau defensive lineage.  It is a sound coverage yet provides some creative flexibility.  Practically any player on the field can assume the various responsibilities (Diagram 13) depending on their skill sets and favorable match-ups.

Don’t be surprised to see some firezones from Capers against Vick.  I’m still not convinced Vick is that great of a passer and I believe he will struggle on Sunday against the exotic looks Capers will present him.  I’m also not convinced that Capers will always have a spy on Vick and that when he does spy him, that it will be relegated to one player (i.e. Woodson).

The beauty of a Capers defense is the complexity that appears.  When broken down though, we see the consistent concepts.  Who ends up in those positions is determined by the aforementioned items and that is what gives the appearance of organized chaos (i.e. “running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”)  Will Capers sit in Cover 7 all day?  You can bet your sweet arse he won’t.  Football is a game of chess, not checkers, and you can be assured that Capers will have his counters ready for Reid and Vick.  Capers and this defense have been prepared each and every game.

As the great Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, said, “Win the war, then fight the war.”  Truer words have never been spoken.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (36) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

jeremy's picture

Nice work Paul/Aaron. And, just a taste of the impressive complexity that players in Capers D need to know instinctively. He's obviously a very good teacher.

lambeau the lab's picture

This is not the right thread for this, but is anyone on here actully going to the game. I would love to meet before and tail gate. I'm driving up from DC around 10 on gameday. Section 116 row 23. Let's hope I make it out alive!

packeraaron's picture

Corey is going. I am not. :(

lambeau the lab's picture

thats too bad Aaron. Though I do not post much on this site, I love your work and this is site and packernet are my number one sites for packers news. I would have loved to buy( or give) you a beer at the game. Thanks for the great work! now lets hope for one more week of packer action!

JK's picture

Eagles fan here. The mean, nasty Philly fan thing is a little over-done. If you wear Packers gear, you're guaranteed to hear chants of "Asssssssss-hooooooooole," and you're guaranteed to hear a lot of crap if the Eagles win. If the Packers win, just keep your mouth in check and you'll be fine. Of course you can avoid all possible confrontation if you dress neutrally, but that's kind of being a puss. These people live and breathe the Eagles just like I'm sure you live and breathe the Packers, so my advice would be to just be respectful if the Packers happen to end the Eagles season. Cheers, and good luck (to you, not the Packers).

Shootz's picture

If the Packers advance to the next round against the Bears, I’ll be going to that game. Anyone else?

NickGBP's picture

Great stuff. Seems like Capers is running a lot more of this than he ever was last year. Seems odd to me that he didn't do more of this last year especially since our team was coming from a man to man scheme. I guess injuries/lack of talent led him to mostly soft zone coverage especially facing good QBs. Curious on your take because I think we've run predominantly man coverage this year vs predominantly zone last year based on my uneducated cursory glance at our D. I guess when Tramon makes the turnaround that he did, and Shields surprises the way he has then you have more confidence to go into man coverage.

Looking forward to the zone blitzing looks.

PackersRS's picture

My guess is the linebackers took a while to completely grasp the man-zone responsibilities, when to follow the TE covering him on top, underneat, when playing the flat route, etc...

It's much more complex than the little I know about zone schemes. Much different than simply playing a zone of the field like in a Tampa 2 (yes, I know even then it's not as simple as that, but it's much simplier than having to play 5 yards off, 15 yards off or playing the flat, depending on the alignment and release...)

Anyway, again an awesome job P.O.C. This is really gold stuff, I don't know if the "pundits" don't know as much as you do, but they certainly do not show it. Any reason for that? TV exec. just try to dumb things up so that the average joe can understand, or they just don't know it?

Paul Ott Caruth's picture

Well, most TV pundits aren't going to bore the average viewer with the intracies of the game. Overall, I think they do a pretty decent job in game. I like guys like Billick and Gruden (execept when he says, "that guy" and "this guy right here".....get back to the sidelines PLEASE). They do a pretty nice job of explaining things briefly. Believe me, they know quite a bit (you'd have to win a Super Bowl). It's just not feasible to go in to detail during a broadcast. It takes incredible time to teach this stuff. That's why position and unit meetings can go for hours on end.

PackersRS's picture

I'm not saying in boot. But, for instance, when you read a piece of breakdown, or when you see recorded videos, from a show like NFL playbook, they rarely talk this much in depth. They mention about routes and coverages, but they never say WHY it happened. They stay in the common ground of "this was able to happen because of the threat of the running game" and "this int happenend because the front 4 was able to harass he QB" and such.

They never go into detail that X player covered Y guy because Z read was made.

Paul Ott Carruth's picture

Yes, I'd agree with your viewpoint. I think there are a lot of people out there that would love to see more detail about the know, the real "meaty" stuff. Maybe I could market my own show? I could do it from behind a curtain ala Wizard of Oz. I prefer to remain anonymous. (Of course I'm kidding about the show).

Paul Ott Caruth's picture

Well, you'd be correct in saying that Tampa 2 is not as complicated but it really is a simple coverage. I can explain that in a future post if you'd like. Cover 7 is basically man to man on the edges and a matchup zone inside. All zones really turn in to man to man. If a man comes in to your zone, you cover him man to man. In essence, the internal coverage men (linebackers and coverage safety) man up in relation to the release of the routes. If the OLB were to run with a vertical streaking TE and the FB were to release to the flat on the same side the FB would be open immediately. It's all about keep their eyes focused on the ball and breaking when their area is threatened.

Paul Ott Caruth's picture

Fire zones and an explanation of what constitutes a zone blitz will be presented soon. I'm currently working on the diagrams and explanations for the zone blocking scheme. Stay tuned.

misterj's picture

Love the article. For once we get to see someone focused and very in depth about how coverage is treated and less focus on "BLITZ BONANZA" junk. Still, love the work, and the thoroughness of the article is amazing. Hope we can get videos in with this soon. :)

DasDuck's picture

Great article my question is how personal will change these concepts. For instance, if a d lineman drops back in coverage does he assume the will/sam role

Rob_UK's picture

Brilliant stuff.

Charles's picture


Tarynfor 12's picture

To be running this offense at the level they are is a credit to Capers and the intelligence of the players,especially the guys who weren't in play last year at it's initial install.

Tarynfor 12's picture

Defense,geez.I didn't use the edit

cole's picture

Wow, this makes my head spin. Now I can see why the great QB's tore us up last year. The responsibilities are so much to learn for the defensive players. I see why it takes two years before you can install it completely. Also, it helps having shields and tramon playing very well, so that we can have man coverage on the two outside WR's.

foundinidaho's picture

Me too. I am completely confused, but impressed as well.

Cuphound's picture

Me three. I've printed the damned thing out and am taking notes, trying to take it apart. Once I figured out the defensive line was omitted for simplicity, it helped a little!!!

Let me see if I'm getting the terms down correctly:

Consulting the venerable source of <I>Football for Women</I>, it seems that the designation <I>strong-side</I> simply refers to the side of the field that the offense chooses to stick the tight-end. That can change. Likewise, the side of the field that lacks the tight-end is all the weaker for it, so it is the <I>weak-side</I>.

The letters, S, B, M and W are refer to the four defensive linebackers.

S: Strong-side linebacker (nicknamed Sam, a male name that starts with S). Obviously lines up on the side of the field the tight-end is on.

B: Middle-linebacker that's closer to the strong side (nicknamed Buck. I have no idea where that nickname comes from. The exalted source of Wikipedia tells us that this guy can also be referred to as Rush, Rover or Jack, again no idea why)

M: Middle-linebacker on the weak side, or when there are only three linebackers, this guy is just the plain-old middle-linebacker (Nicknamed Mac here and Mike other places, but the M stands for middle).

W: Weak-side linebacker (nicknamed Will, as W stands for Weak-side).

SS: Strong-side safety. The safety lined up on the same side as the tight-end.

FS:: Free Safety. While this safety is on the weak-side, i.e. the side without the tight-end, he nonetheless is allowed to roam and is hence called "free" rather than "weak." We like to accentuate the positive. One day we may call Will "Fred," but not today.

C: is for cornerback and these are the defensive linebackers who line up most close to the sidelines. We care nothing for their proximity to the tight-end, even though there are two on opposite sides of the field, they both get labeled "C."

So when you see a defense, you need to look at the secondary (all the players who are not on the defensive line) and if you see the following, you know Capers is running Cover 7:

(1) Will, the weak-side linebacker, will join the three defensive linemen in rushing the quarterback.

(2) One of the safeties will be in the middle of the field (this is apparently true of Cover 1 as well)

(3) The corners lock up in man-to-man coverage with the wide receivers wherever the wide-receivers manage to line up.

The players who do different things are: Sam, Buck, Mac and whichever safety who doesn't move to the middle of the field. These leads to many, many variations which I will study and hopefully learn, but probably not by Sunday. But the key point, as Sun-Tzu would have said, "The musical notes are only five in number, but their melodies are so numerous that one cannot count them all. The primary colors are only five in number, but their combinations are so infinite that one cannot visualize them all. The flavors are only five in number, but their blends are so various that one cannot taste them all." While the number of players in Cover 7 who can vary their position are only five in number, the number of plays that can be run are infinite in number and will hopefully confuse Vick enough to get him sacked.

So did I understand anything at all, POC? I worked on it, I swear.

Paul Ott Carruth's picture

You did very well. Corners are not considered linebackers. Linebackers are defensive players that play directly behind the defensive line or in close proximity on the edges of the defensive line, backing up the defensive line, hence line-backer. Corners are players that play out wider in the defensive structure (on the corners of the defense). Very nice work.

Paul Ott Caruth's picture

Cole, this is exactly correct. The ability to run single high coverages is dependent on the abilities of your cornerbacks. As much as Al Harris was loved and respected by Packer fans, he was simply slowing down. That, combined with the knee injury, would not have been the ideal fit for this type of scheme. If you recall last year, the struggles really occurred with our secondary and linebackers. This second year has been much better due to the health of our corners (knock on wood) and the learning curve of the units as a whole.

Oppy's picture


I read somewhere a while back that Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme that he still runs pretty much the same as when he installed it at PIT differs from the transmutation that Dick LeBeau now runs in PIT, in the coverage schemes.

Mainly, that Capers' original 3-4 relies heavily on more zone coverages, with a little combination coverage, where as LeBeau's version has far more match/man coverages.

It was written somewhere back when the D staff was being assembled that the acquisition of Darren Perry as Dom's safety coach was not only a great fit because of his ties to the 3-4 having played the position at PIT, but also due to the fact that he brought with him a sound understanding of LeBeau's twists on Dom's original schemes- mainly, LeBeau's match/man coverages, and how they are intertwined with the defensive front.

Is this all just hoopla or is there something to this? From your perspective, are the differences (from a coverage perspective) that great between LeBeau and Capers?

Paul Ott Carruth's picture

Depends what you call zone. If you're talking about 2 deep safeties and 5 men spot dropping to a zone underneath, then no, Capers won't do that. In fact, most teams don't do that any more. Even the Bears and their Cover 2 is about playing a pattern match in the underneath coverage. Athletes are too good to be given HUGE windows to settle in to. A linebacker will "zone off" to his zone but will do it in relation to the route concept he is seeing. It's much more different than having the OLB opening his hips and running at 45 degree angle to the numbers each and every play.

Capers and LeBeau were on that first staff in Pittsburgh with Capers as the DC and LeBeau running the secondary. LeBeau infused the concept of the zone blitz (fire zone) and Capers incorporated that in to the playbook. If you watch the Packers D vs. the Pitt. D you'll see LeBeau run far more firezone pressures than Capers, BUT, go back and watch the Dallas game this year and you'll see a lot of firezones being run by the Packers in that game.

Ian's picture

This is a gold mine of information. Aaron should have this page bookmarked the next time anyone wonders aloud why we don't go pick up Veteran Linebacker X.

TNPackerFan's picture

Now I really cant wait till Sunday to see this play out on the field!

FITZCORE1252's picture

One word can best describe this, and the man I strive to emulate every day of my life says it the best...

"Excellent" - C. Montgomery Burns

Nice work Hoodie

PackersRS's picture
Lucas Mayer's picture

Seems like one of the main constants in every diagram is the corners playing man to man. There are so many shifts to the middle of the field by the free or strong safety that leaves the corner backs without help over the top. Would Capers be as willing to do this consistently without such great players in Woodson and Williams. The thought of Michael Vick with just a little bit of time and having Desean Jackson one on one in a deep go route is pretty scary....

Paul Ott Carruth's picture

Having corners that can play man to man well is the key to running single high safety looks (man free). I believe we have seen much more of this in 2010 because of the development of Shields and Williams. As much as I respected Al Harris, he was getting too long in the tooth to do what these two guys can do. Shields has been amazing for the simple fact that Woodson has been able to play in the slot much more often which I think is his greatest strength in this point of his career. Could he still play corner much more often? Yes, I believe so, but his versatility in the pressure schemes and coverage schemes makes him an "X factor" in the slot.

Pbr's picture

Cover 7 bc 7 drop back in a man-zone combo coverage. It is weird though given what cover 2/3 mean.

cheese5's picture

Nice work- this is awesome

Oppy's picture


Thanks for the lead in with the diagramming symbol break down. Excellent.

One suggestion, however:

It might be best to create a separate, single, illustrated and comprehensive document that covers all diagramming elements that could be linked to at the beginning of every X's and O's article you write.

In this way, it will reduce the clutter in the intro to your article and allow the reader to dive right in- and if they need a "key" to read the diagramming, it is available with the click of a mouse button over a link. A one sentence line like "If you have any questions about the diagramming, you'll find the play diagramming key HERE", Here being the link.

Would be REALLY great if Corey and Aaron had a way to make it open up in a window of to the side of the article so you can see both at once, but that probably requires some sort of tedious coding magic that is time consuming and that I wouldn't understand. :)

I understand it would be a big time investment up front, but in the long term it would save you untold hours, since I'm sure you'll be educating us all on the nuances of the game for a long time to come :) :)

Shootz's picture

If the Packers advance to the next round against the Bears, I'll be going to that game. Anyone else?

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