In today’s installment of the “NFL 101” series, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the basics of Cover 2 to give you a better understanding of the game.
Click here for an introduction to the basics of Cover 1.
Cover 2 is a two-deep, five-under zone defense run out of both base and sub-package personnel (dime, nickel) at the pro level.
By rushing four, and dropping seven into coverage (with eyes on the quarterback), the defense can take away vertical concepts while forcing the ball underneath to the flat or check-down option.
In the NFL, the Tampa 2 scheme is the most common two-deep shell we see on Sundays with the Mike 'backer running the inside vertical seam to give the defense a three-deep look.
Today, we will introduce the basics of Cover 2 with a focus on the landmarks, zone drops and techniques that are vital to producing results—and limiting explosive plays.
Using the All-22 coaches tape, let’s take a look at Tampa 2, Red 2 and Green 2 while also breaking down the top Cover 2 beaters and discussing some important keys for the safeties in their initial run/pass reads.
To get a better feel for Tampa 2, let’s look at a pre-snap example from the Bears-Steelers matchup this past season and break down the back seven of the defense.
The Bears are in their base 4-3 front versus the Steelers Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) in a Unit Wing alignment.
- In Cover 2, both safeties (free/strong) are responsible for the deep halves of the field and fill the “alley” (between cornerback and edge of formation) versus the run game. They align at a depth of 15 yards and work to 18 yards at the snap with the top of the numbers as their zone landmark. The safeties read the release of the No. 1 wide receiver for their run/pass key and play “top-down” while overlapping any throw to the deep middle of the field.
- The cornerbacks align in press and jam the No. 1 receivers at the snap to force an inside release. This is crucial to prevent an outside release, as that will widen the safeties off their landmarks and open up the middle of the field. After the jam, both cornerbacks sink hard at a 45-degree angle to protect/cushion the safeties on a possible 9 route or 7 (corner) route while reacting to any throw in the flat.
- To create that “three-deep” look, the Mike ‘backer runs the inside vertical seam. He will open his hips to the passing strength (two-tight end side in this example) and carry/match the seam route down the middle of the field. The Mike has to show the athleticism and hip flexibility in Tampa 2 to redirect if the quarterback comes back 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 hash marks to cushion the inside vertical seam and react to any throw underneath. Both linebackers read the quarterback once they get to their zone landmarks and “cheat” to the throw (drive to opposite hash to step into throwing lanes).
- With any zone coverage, the front-four rush is vital to the success of the defense. If you give an NFL quarterback time in the pocket, he can light up two-deep coverage. However, when you have a front-four rush that gets home—plus seven defenders dropping into coverage with their eyes on the quarterback—Cover 2 is a scheme that will limit the offense’s ability to produce explosive plays.
Tampa 2 vs. Slot Formation
Let’s take a quick look at Tampa 2 versus a slot formation to focus on the cornerback and the strong safety aligned to the tight end side.
Here’s an example from the Cowboys-Chiefs matchup with Kansas City showing a slot formation to the open side of the field.
- In Cover 1 (man-free), the cornerbacks “travel” versus a slot formation and match to their coverage. However, in Cover 2, the cornerbacks stay to the closed (strong) side of the formation. And because of that, the cornerback becomes the “primary” edge-support player versus the run game. That means they have to take on the fullback or pulling guard and set/restrict the edge of the defense. If they read pass, the cornerback sinks and protects the safety versus a possible 7 route from the tight end while reacting to any throw in the flat.
- Check out the strong safety. Instead of dropping to the top of the numbers landmark (as we see from the free safety to the open side of the formation), he will drop inside of the tight end (safety always aligns/drops inside of the No. 1 receiver). And versus the run game, the strong safety fills to the closed side “C” gap.
- If a defense is going to play Cover 2 in early down and distance situations, it is important to find cornerbacks who are willing to tackle, fill and defend the edge when the offense aligns in a slot formation. That’s not easy work when an offensive guard pulls to kick out the cornerback. Time to get low, play with leverage and restrict that running lane.
Once the ball moves into the deep red zone (plus-15-yard line), Tampa 2 turns into Red 2 with the safeties and cornerbacks adjusting their technique to account for the short field and reduced throwing lanes.
Using an example from the Cowboys-Broncos matchup, let’s focus on the cornerbacks and the safeties.
- In Red 2, the defense is creating a “five across” look to protect the goal line using the two-deep half safeties, the Mike ‘backer and the two cornerbacks with the nickel/Will ‘backer playing the seam-hook drops.
- Both cornerbacks play with a “soft squat” technique. Instead of jamming the receiver on the release, the cornerbacks open and sink with a zone technique (back to the sideline) to carry the outside fade route (plays out like Quarters technique) while reacting to the flat.
- The safeties play with a “flat-foot read" technique. With limited room to work and a reduced field, there is no need for the safeties to backpedal. They will flat-foot read/shuffle through their run/pass keys and drive “top-down” on any three-step route (slant, flat) and use the end-line (back of the end zone) as their help versus the dig/post.
- The Mike ‘backer will again open to the passing strength (three-wide receiver side in this example) and match quickly to the inside vertical seam. This is where we see NFL offenses occupy the safeties and create a one-on-one matchup inside with the tight end versus the Mike ‘backer.
- The two seam-hook defenders (nickel/Will ‘backer) shorten their drops and read the quarterback. They must widen versus No. 2 on the flat and cushion any intermediate throw that can threaten the safeties.
In 3rd-and-11-plus 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 the checkdown.
Here’s an example of the Panthers' Green 2 versus the 49ers in a 3rd-and-11-plus situation from last season’s matchup at Candlestick Park.
- Instead of aligning at 15 yards, the safeties will get to 18 before the snap and increase their depth to be in a position to drive “top-down” on any vertical concept.
- The Mike ‘backer adjusts his alignment and will get to a pre-snap depth of 10 to 12 yards to play the inside vertical seam. This creates that true “three-deep” coverage and eliminates a throw down the middle of the field.
- Both cornerbacks will once again jam and sink versus No. 1. However, they will play this almost as a “trail-man” technique down the field and react late to the flat route to cushion the 9 or 7.
- When playing Green 2, the defense will give up the flat/check-down voluntarily to protect the sticks and get off the field on third down.
Defending the Top Cover 2 Beaters
Four Verticals, Flat-7 and the deep dig are the top Cover 2 beaters NFL defenses see every week as the opposing offense looks to attack the top of the secondary and set some bait underneath to open up throwing windows.
Let’s check them out…
Four verticals consists of two outside 9 routes and two inside seam routes. The offense wants to put stress on the two-deep half safeties and work the Mike ‘backer in the middle of the field to expose the holes in Cover 2.
Using an example from the Jaguars-Broncos matchup, here’s a look at Denver’s Four Verticals out of Posse/11 personnel in a 2x2 Doubles formation.
Both safeties are at the proper depth, square to the quarterback and on top of their landmarks (top of the numbers). That puts them in a position to drive downhill on the 9 route or the seam.
Check out the cornerbacks. Even though they allow an outside release, the cornerbacks sink with the 9 routes (protect the safeties). And with the nickel/Will ‘backer cushioning the inside seam routes, Posluszny can gain depth to read Manning.
Now that the throwing lanes are reduced, the Jaguars' Mike ‘backer can match to Welker on the inside seam and drive on the throw to intercept this ball.
The Flat-7 is one of the most common Cover 2 beaters because it allows the offense to set the bait for the cornerback (flat route) while opening up a deep hole to target the 7 route.
Here’s a look at the Flat-7 from the Cowboys-Lions matchup with Calvin Johnson aligned as the No. 1 receiver to the closed side of the formation out of a 2x2 Doubles alignment with Posse/11 personnel on the field.
From a “plus-split” alignment (two to three yards on top of the numbers), Johnson takes a hard inside stem (create room for the 7 route) before pushing up the field vertically to stem to the corner. Underneath, the Lions send the tight end to the flat (bait).
What went wrong for the Cowboys? Let’s start with the closed-side cornerback.
Instead of sinking hard at a 45-degree angle to protect the safety on the 7 cut, he squats and takes the bait of the underneath flat route. Remember, play deep to short at cornerback and only react to the flat once the 7 route is eliminated.
Now look at the safety. He is 30 yards off the ball. I can understand the increased depth due to the threat of Johnson (I used to be off the screen versus Randy Moss). However, this safety is so deep that he increases the already large throwing window for quarterback Matthew Stafford to target Johnson for an explosive gain.
A route that should have resulted in Stafford dumping the ball to the tight end in the flat turns into a completed pass down the field because of poor discipline and technique from the Cowboys defense.
Deep Dig (Square-In)
NFL offenses will run the deep dig out of the Dagger and Sucker concepts (clear-out seam, dig combo) to remove the Mike’ backer, set some bait for the nickel and target the deep, inside breaking cut for a positive gain.
Here’s an example of the Sucker route the Ravens ran this past season versus the Lions to move the sticks in a crucial game situation.
By removing the Mike ‘backer on the seam (and forcing the nickel to take the bait versus the underneath curl), Joe Flacco targeted Jacoby Jones on the deep dig route in front of the strong safety.
However, defenses can eliminate the dig route if the nickel plays with discipline and gains depth while reading the quarterback, as the Panthers did versus Geno Smith and the Jets.
With the safety in a position to drive top-down on the throw (and the cornerback sinking to protect versus a possible 7 cut), the nickel ignores the bait underneath (flat route) and drops directly into the throwing lane. This results in an interception, and Smith forces this ball into coverage instead of taking the flat route.
The Cover 2 “Cheat Sheet”
Before we wrap up this Cover 2 breakdown, I wanted to give you my “cheat sheet.” A simple guide that every safety should follow in the deep half when identifying run/pass keys and wide receiver stems.
- With the receiver in a “plus-two” split, an outside release equals one of two routes: fade or comeback. That’s it. Because of the restrictions the sideline puts on the receiver, there isn’t enough room to run outside breaking concepts such as the deep out or 7.
- An inside release to a vertical stem (top of the numbers) tells the safety to play for the dig, 7 and a possible post.
- A flat, inside release is the three-step game (slant) or the shallow drive route.
- If the wide receiver blocks, the safety gets his eyes back inside to fill the alley as a “secondary” run-support player.
- This is just a quick guide to use the next time you watch film. However, it reminds us that the No. 1 receiver reads like an open book if the safety plays with eye discipline when identifying the initial stem and run/pass keys.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.