In recent years, the "Cover 2" defense, and its sibling the "Tampa 2", have been en vogue in the NFL and migrated in to the college game. Bo Pelini is a big proponent of the Cover 2, and has run it at many of his stops along the way, including NU in 2003. In preparation for what fans may see at the Spring Game this Saturday, I offer this admittedly amateur description of the Cover 2, and how it relates to this year's NU defense.
In General Terms
First, I must offer a disclaimer. I'm no football coach. I'm an avid fan of the game who was a decidedly mediocre football player in high school. That probably describes most of our readers, too. But seriously, I have been fortunate to be around some people who know football, and read as much about the game and watch as much film as time allows. If you want a more extensive description, I recommend Bob Davie's take here. And, there is a good ESPN article on the topic, complete with a sidebar that gives you a flash animation graphic.
Here's my take on the Cover 2. First, the name Cover 2 is a description of what the safeties are doing. The safeties are playing in a two-deep zone, dividing the field in half. The cover 2 is run out of a base 4-3 formation, with four defensive linemen and three linebackers. It's a zone pass defense, with players responsible for various areas of the field.
Along the defensive line, it is vital to get pressure. If you can get pressure with just four players, the defense is winning the numbers game up front (4 against 5 offensive linemen) and have the ability to account for all the offensive skill players. If you have to blitz, it had better be well timed and the blitzer had better make an impact on the play. The area that defender vacates is the immediate hot read.
The linebackers are responsible for the shallow inside zones. With the outside linebackers dropping and fanning out and to looking to take away any inside routes from tight ends and slot receivers. The middle linebacker has the toughest job, covering the shallow middle crossing routes but also having to turn and run to cover the deep middle as necessary.
In the secondary, the safeties divide the field in half, as mentioned before. They cover the two-deep areas. The corners cover the short area on the outside, going about twelve yards downfield. There is an often used variant of the Cover 2 called Man Under. Just as it sounds, it means the corners and linebackers lock up in man-to-man defense with the safeties playing Cover 2 behind. (Total honesty, this was my favorite base defense back in my Playstation football days.)
The Cover 2 is especially able to be beaten right down the seam of the field, by getting by the middle linebacker and splitting the safeties. The intermediate routes to the outside are also a weakness, if the quarterback can stick the throw between the corner and safety. And, with any pass defense, holes become obvious if a quarterback is given too much time to examine the field.
What This Means for the Blackshirts
Right about now, you are figuring out why the defensive line is the number one area of emphasis for Pelini and his staff. It was woefully unproductive last year in terms of sacks and quarterback pressure. And, for NU to be an effective Cover 2 defense in 2008, they must be able to win the battle up front consistently with just four pass rushers. It is fun to talk about the blitz. And, blitzing is an effective choice a certain percentage of the time. But, dominant defenses start up front. For NU, 2008 must be a vast improvement in this area from 2007.
The middle linebacker is also essential to NU's success. The MLB will have to be able to turn and run and cover the deep middle. Derrick Brooks from the Tampa Bay Bucs is the classic example. In 2003, Barrett Ruud was athletic enough to do the job, and got drafted by those same Bucs. Now Phillip Dillard must fill the role.
There is good reason why Dillard slimmed down considerably from last year. In 2007, he was almost 260 and they had formations where he actually lined up at nose guard. Dillard now checks in at 238 pounds. Any guesses on Ruud's weight in 2003. Yep, 238 pounds.
The final ingredient for NU is a pair of ball-hawking safeties. No doubt, the Bullocks twins feasted in this role in 2003. Safeties have proven over and over to be the playmakers in Pelini's defenses. Opportunities should be there. Can Asante, Thenarse, Culbert and company make the most and play the ball? We'll get our first look on Saturday.