In today’s installment of the “nfl 101” series, former nfl defenseman matt bowen explains the basics of cover 2 to give you a better understanding of the game.
click here for an introduction to cover 1 basics.
Reading: What is cover 2 in football
Cover 2 is a two-deep, five-low zone defense with no base staff and sub-pack (tell me, nickel) at the pro level.
By running four and laying seven in coverage (with an eye on the quarterback), the defense can eliminate vertical concepts while forcing the ball under to the flat or down option.
in the nfl the tampa 2 scheme is the most common two-depth shell we see on Sundays with the mic back running up the inside vertical seam to give the defense a three-depth look.
Today, we’ll introduce the basics of Coverage 2 with a focus on setpoints, zone drops, and techniques that are vital to producing results and limiting explosive plays.
Using the 22 coaches tape, let’s take a look at tampa 2, red 2 and green 2 while also breaking down top deck 2 beaters and discussing some important keys for safeties in their initial run/pass readings.
To get a better idea of tampa 2, let’s look at a pre-snap example from last season’s bears-steelers matchup and break down the defense’s back seven.
bears are on their base front 4-3 vs steelers ace/12 staff (2wr-2te-1rb) in a unit wing lineup.
– In Cover 2, both safeties (free/strong) are responsible for the deep halves of the field and fill the “alley” (between the cornerback and the edge of the formation) in front of the running game. they line up at a depth of 15 yards and work 18 yards on center with the tops of the numbers as their zone reference point. insurance read the release of no. 1 wide receiver for your run/pass key and play “top down” while overlapping any shots to the deep middle of the field.
– cornerbacks line up on the press and block the no. 1 receives the snap to force an inner release. this is crucial to prevent an external release, as that will stretch the safeties out of their setpoints and open up the midfield. after the jam, both cornerbacks dig in hard at a 45 degree angle to protect/cushion safeties on a potential 9 or 7 (corner) route while reacting to any flat shots.
– To create that “three depths” look, the microphone backing runs along the interior vertical seam. he will open his hips to the force of the pass (side of two tight ends in this example) and lead/match the path of the seam down the middle of the field. the mic has to show athleticism and hip flexibility in tampa 2 to redirect if the quarterback returns to the open (weak) side of the formation.
– the two outside linebackers (sam/will ‘backers) are the “seam hook” defenders. they sink to a depth of 10 to 12 yards between the numbers and markings to cushion the interior vertical seam and react to any pitch below. both linebackers read the quarterback once they reach their zone benchmarks and “cheat” the throw (drive into the opposite hash to get into the throwing lanes).
– With any zone coverage, the running of the forward four is vital to the success of the defense. If you give an NFL quarterback time in the pocket, he can light up coverage from two depths. however, when you have a run of four forwards coming home, plus seven defenders falling into coverage with their eyes on the quarterback, coverage 2 is a scheme that will limit the offense’s ability to produce explosive plays. .
tampa 2 vs. slot training
Let’s take a quick look at Tampa 2 vs. a slot formation to focus on the cornerback and the strong safety aligned with the tight end side.
here is an example of the cowboys and chiefs matchup with kansas city showing a slot formation on the open side of the field.
– In Cover 1 (no men), cornerbacks “travel” in front of a space formation and match their coverage. however, in Cover 2, cornerbacks stay on the tight (strong) side of the formation. and because of that, the cornerback becomes the “main” rim support player versus the running game. that means they have to take on the fullback or shooting guard and establish/constrain the edge of the defense. if they read a pass, the cornerback sinks in and protects the safety against a possible route 7 from the tight end while reacting to any flat throw.
– check out the strong security. instead of dropping at the top of the numbers milestone (as we see from free safety to the open side of the formation), he will drop into the tight end (safety always lines up/falls into the #1 receiver) . and against the running game, the strong security fills up to the “c” space on the closed side.
– If a defense is going to play coverage 2 early and away, it’s important to find cornerbacks who are willing to tackle, fill and defend the rim when the offense lines up in a slot formation. that’s not an easy job when an offensive guard throws to kick the cornerback. It’s time to duck, play with leverage, and restrict that running lane.
once the ball moves into the deep red zone (15+ yard line), tampa 2 becomes red 2 with safeties and cornerbacks adjusting their technique to account for shortstop and lines reduced launch times.
Using an example from the Cowboys versus Broncos matchup, let’s focus on cornerbacks and safeties.
– in red 2, the defense is creating a “five side by side” look to protect the goal line using the deep two deep halfbacks, the mike ‘backer and the two cornerbacks with the nickel/will’ backer playing the seam- hook drops.
– Both cornerbacks play a “soft squat” technique. Instead of jamming the receiver on release, cornerbacks open and sink with a zone technique (back to the sideline) to take the outside fade path (played like a quarter technique) while reacting to the ground .
– safeties play with a “flat foot read” technique. with limited space to work in and a tight field, there’s no need for safeties to back down. will read/flat-foot your run/pass and drive “top down” on any three-step route (banked, flat) and use the baseline (back of end zone) as your assist against the excavation/post.
– The back of the mic will open again to the force of the pass (three wide receiver side in this example) and quickly match the inside vertical seam. this is where we see the nfl attackers occupy the safeties and create a one-on-one matchup inside with the tight end against the microphone “linebacker”.
– the two seam hook defenders (nickel/will ‘backer) shorten their falls and read the quarterback. they should be widened versus not. 2 flat and dampen any intermediate pitches that could threaten safeties.
In 3 and 11+ situations, the defense can play green 2 to put a tent on top of the defense, protect the sticks and force the quarterback to take control.
Here’s an example of the Panthers’ 2nd green against the 49ers in a 3 and 11+ situation from last season’s matchup at Candlestick Park.
– instead of lining up at 15 yards, safeties will get to 18 off the snap and increase their depth to be in a “top-down” driving position in any vertical concept.
: The mic back adjusts its alignment and will go as deep as 10-12 yards pre-snap to play on the inside vertical seam. this creates that true “deep three” coverage and eliminates a shot to the middle of the field.
– Both cornerbacks will once again get stuck and sink against no. 1. However, they will play this almost like a “track man” technique on the field and react late to the flat route to buffer the 9 or 7.
– when green 2 is played, the defense will voluntarily abandon the flat/check-down to protect the clubs and go off course on third down.
Defending the top cover 2 beaters
vertical fours, flat-7s and the deep dig are the top coverage nfl 2-hitter defenses see every week as the opposing offense looks to attack the top of the secondary and lay bait underneath to open launch windows.
let’s see them…
four verticals consists of two outside routes 9 and two inside seam routes. the offense wants to put an emphasis on the safety two midfielders and work the mic backup in the middle of the field to expose holes in 2 coverage.
Using an example from the Jaguars vs. Broncos matchup, here’s a look at all four of Denver’s posse/11-staff uprights in a 2×2 doubles formation.
with the jaguars showing two deep, peyton manning wants to get the inside seam routes matchup (wes welker, julius thomas) vs. mike ‘backer paul posluszny.
both safeties are at the proper depth, at right angles to the quarterback and on top of their reference points (tops of numbers). that puts them in a position to drive downhill on route 9 or the seam.
Take a look at the cornerbacks. Although they allow an outside shot, cornerbacks sink with the 9-way (protect safeties). and with the nickel/will backing that cushions the internal seam routes, posluszny can gain depth to read the envelope.
Now that the throwing lanes have been shortened, the Jaguars’ mike ‘backer can match Welker at the inside seam and drive the pitch to intercept this ball.
The flat-7 is one of the most common coverage 2 shots because it allows the offense to set the hook for the cornerback (flat route) while opening a deep hole to target the 7 route.
here’s a look at the flat-7 of the cowboys vs. lions matchup with calvin johnson lined up as no. 1 receiver to the tight side of the formation of a 2×2 doubles lineup with posse/11 personnel on the field.
From a “plus-split” lineup (two or three yards above the numbers), Johnson takes a hard inside stick (creates room for route 7) before pushing the field vertically to drive into the corner. below, the lions send the tight end to the ground (bait).
what went wrong for the cowboys? let’s start with the closed sided cornerpost.
Instead of sinking hard at a 45-degree angle to protect safety on cut 7, he crouches down and takes the bait of the lower flat route. remember, play deep to short as a cornerback and only react to the ground once route 7 is cleared.
Now look at the security. he is 30 yards from the ball. I can understand the increased depth due to the Johnson threat (he used to be off screen against Randy Moss). However, this security is so deep that it increases the already large launch window for quarterback Matthew Stafford to target Johnson for an explosive gain.
A route that should have resulted in Stafford throwing the ball to the tight end on the flat becomes a complete pass down the field due to a lack of discipline and technique on the Cowboys defense.
deep excavation (square)
nfl offensives will execute the dagger and sucker concepts deep dig (clear seam, dig combination) to take out the mic backing, put some bait in for the nickel and aim for the deep cut and break inside for a positive. win.
Here’s an example of the Ravens’ route last season against the Lions to move the sticks in a crucial game situation.
by removing the mic backing at the seam (and forcing the nickel to take the bait instead of the reef underneath), joe flacco targeted jacoby jones on the deep dig route in front of the deep fort.
however, defenses can eliminate the dig route if the nickel plays disciplined and gains depth while reading the quarterback, like the panthers did against geno smith and the jets.
with safety in a position to push top down on the pitch (and cornerback sinking to protect against a possible cut 7), the nickel ignores the bait below (flat path) and lands directly in the lane. launch. this results in an interception, and smith forces this ball into coverage instead of taking the flat route.
the cover 2 “cheat sheet”
Before I wrap up this cover 2 breakdown, I wanted to give you guys my “cheat sheet”. a simple guide every safety should follow at deep half when identifying run/pass keys and wide receiver shafts.
– with the receiver in a “plus two” split, an outer release is equivalent to one of two paths: fade or return. that is all. Due to the restrictions that the sideline places on the receiver, there is not enough room to run out of breaking concepts like safety or 7.
– an inside shot to a vertical post (top of the numbers) tells the safety to play for the dig, the 7 and a possible post.
– a flat inside pitch is the slant game or shallow forward path.
– if the wide receiver blocks, the safety turns his eyes back inside to fill the alley as a “secondary” running support player.
: This is just a quick guide to use the next time you watch a movie. however, it reminds us that the no. 1 receiver reads like an open book if the safety plays with visual discipline by identifying the starting shaft and run/walk keys.
matt bowen, a seven-year nfl veteran, is one of the nfl’s chief national writers for bleacher report.