NFL 101: Breaking Down the Basics of 2-Man Coverage

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterAugust 8, 2014

NFL Game Rewind

In this installment of the "NFL 101" series at Bleacher Report, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the basics of 2-Man coverage to give you a better understanding of the scheme and its execution at the pro level.

Click here for the previous “NFL 101” breakdown: Man pressure

The coverage known as 2-Man is a two-deep, man-under defense with “trail-man” coverage underneath and the protection of two deep-half safeties over the top.

Similar to Cover 2 (two-deep, five-under zone defense) from a pre-snap look, 2-Man is designed to put a tent on the top of the defense with both safeties gaining depth at the snap to play “top-down” while working to overlap any throw to the middle of the field (weakness of the scheme).

Nov 10, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu (43) reacts to a play during the third quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won the game 23-10. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY S

However, because this is a man-coverage scheme underneath (from an inside leverage position), defenders can sit hard to the inside hip while looking to undercut the throw.

A common scheme in defensive sub-packages versus Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB) and spread formations, 2-Man consistently shows up on the tape because of the defense’s ability to take away the vertical passing game while challenging the short-to-intermediate route tree underneath.

Using the All-22 film, let’s break down 2-Man coverage from an alignment and technique perspective while also focusing on why the defensive scheme can be beat based on field position and route combination.

Pre-Snap Alignment/Responsibilities 

Let’s start by looking at a static, pre-snap look of 2-Man to get an idea of what the defense is showing as it rolls to the two-deep alignment with man coverage underneath.

Here’s how the Colts lined up in their sub-package versus Peyton Manning and the Broncos with Denver showing a Doubles Slot formation (pistol alignment) out of Posse/11 personnel:

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As you can see, both safeties will gain depth at the snap to play from a deep-half alignment.

This allows the free and strong safety to drive downhill (top-down) versus the deep dig (square-in), 7 route (corner), post, etc. while also having the ability to get over the top of the 9 (fade) route or overlap the inside seam.

Underneath, the Colts are showing press-man coverage with both corners in an inside eye/head-up shade and the nickelback aligned over Wes Welker (H). That leaves the dimeback to check Julius Thomas (Y) and the linebacker responsible for matching to the running back (R) in coverage.

NFL defenses can also play from an off-man look underneath and “squat” on the release (flat-foot), but the technique (or leverage) isn’t going to change.

Those defenders in man coverage are taught to play from that inside alignment, sit low to the inside hip (“trail” technique) and eliminate any inside-breaking route (smash, shallow drive, slant, curl, dig, post).

And the key is the safety help over the top.

This gives the underneath defenders the opportunity to play aggressively, sit on routes and challenge receivers at the top of the stem (break point).

Go make a play.

'Trail-Man' Technique

To give you a better idea of how this technique plays out in the NFL, let’s go back to the 49ers-Panthers NFC Wild Card Weekend matchup to break down 49ers safety Donte Whitner’s interception versus Cam Newton.

Remember, “trail-man” technique also applies to linebacker position versus a tight end on the inside seam or the 7 route with Posse/11 personnel on the field.

Here’s a look at 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman matched up against Panthers tight end Greg Olsen on the inside seam with Whitner playing over the top in the deep half:

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Check out the leverage and technique from Bowman once Olsen pushes this route vertically up the field. The 49ers linebacker is sitting low and to the inside hip of the tight end.

This allows Bowman to essentially “wall off” Olsen while preventing the tight end from stemming this route back to the near hash (where Newton wants to throw the ball). 

As we look at Whitner, the safety has enough depth in his drop to play “top down” versus the inside seam because of his ability to create a downhill, 45-degree angle to throw:

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Using the TV tape, we can see how Bowman prevents Olsen from stemming back inside to the throw.

That leads to an easy pick for Whitner when the safety reads the shoulders of Newton and drives on the ball.

But it all started because of Bowman’s initial leverage and his technique at the point of attack to wall off the tight end with safety help over the top.


Breaking Down 2-Man vs. Smash-Divide, Sail and the 7 Cut 

I picked out three routes from the All-22 tape that will allow us to break down the technique underneath (“trail-man”) while also looking at the depth of the deep-half safeties to eliminate the top of the route tree.

2-Man vs. Smash Divide

To start, let’s go to the Bears-Packers tape and check out Chicago’s Smash-Divide concept (Smash-7-Seam) versus Green Bay’s 2-Man alignment.

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With the Packers in their dime sub-package (six defensive backs), they can match up to the Bears' Posse/11 personnel in a Doubles Slot alignment versus the Smash-Divide.

Underneath, we can see the inside alignments from the Packers secondary with both safeties rolling at the snap to gain depth in their deep-half alignments.

This allows the Packers to sit hard on the smash and open- (weak) side curl while trailing underneath the corner and seam routes with the protection of the safeties over the top.

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Looking at the tape, the strong safety has enough depth to drive downhill to the 7 cut while the free safety is in a position to attack the seam without an outside threat to the open side.

That’s proper technique and execution in 2-Man from the Packers defense that leads to an incomplete pass.

2-Man vs. 3-Level Sail

The three-level sail (9-7-flat) is one of the most common route combinations in the NFL with the outside receiver clearing out the top of the secondary and the quarterback working a high to low read (7 route and flat).

Here’s a look at 2-Man versus the Sail route from the Lions-Steelers matchup out of an empty formation:

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With Calvin Johnson running the clear-out 9 route and the tight end on the deep 7 cut, the underneath defenders play from a “trail-man” technique and sit low on the vertical stems in a third-down situation.

Safety Troy Polamalu gains depth at the snap and is now in a position to drive to Johnson on the 9 route or come downhill to play the 7 cut at the point of attack.

And with no clear throwing window because of the tight, underneath “trail-man” technique, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has to take the sack.

2-Man vs. 7 Route

Using the All-22 tape from the Raiders-Chiefs matchup at Arrowhead, we can get a good look at how the underneath defenders will aggressively challenge an outside-breaking route to make a play on the ball:

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This is a smash-7 combination from the Raiders with quarterback Terrelle Pryor looking to hit the deep, outside corner route versus 2-Man.

However, check out the leverage and technique at the break point from Chiefs defensive back Husain Abdullah. He is “in-phase” versus the receiver while sitting low and to the inside.

And with that deep-half safety over the top, Abdullah is now in a position to challenge this route by undercutting the break and getting his head back around to play the ball.

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Looking at the end-zone angle, we can see the end result as Abdullah undercuts the 7 route and picks off this pass on his way to a touchdown to close out the Raiders in Kansas City.

Play within the scheme, lean on technique and know where your help is. That’s when good things happen in the secondary.

Exposing 2-Man in the Red Zone/Strike Zone

There are plenty of positives to playing 2-Man based on the game situation and offensive personnel as we have seen through the examples above.

However, leaning on 2-Man inside of the red zone/strike zone (20- to 35-yard line) puts a lot of stress on the safety position.

Unlike Cover 2 with the Mike linebacker running the inside vertical seam—and the cornerbacks sinking outside—there is no protection down the middle of the field in 2-Man.

And that can force safeties to widen, sit short or open their hips—exposing the top of the coverage.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

2-Man vs. Inside Seam (4 Verticals)

Using the tape from the Raiders-Texans game, we can focus on the safety position (and the inside matchup) that allowed Raiders quarterback Matt McGloin to target the seam route for a touchdown versus 2-Man:

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To the closed (strong) side of the formation, we can see the underneath defenders from the Texans playing “trail-man” and carrying the vertical routes up the field.

However, look at the depth of the strong safety.

He is too shallow in his drop, widens versus the outside threat (9 route) and can’t create a downhill angle to the inside seam.

Plus, the Texans safety fails to stay square, steps in the bucket on his transition (steps behind) and is now slow to react inside.

This creates a one-on-one matchup versus the linebacker (playing with his back to the football) as the tight end stems this route inside to the near hash—with no help over the top.

That’s trouble—and it leads to six points for the Raiders.

2-Man vs. 9 (Fade) Route

Here’s another situation where the safety fails to play with enough depth versus two vertical concepts from the Chargers-Chiefs matchup.

This was a key play that allowed the Chargers to get out of Kansas City with a win after Philip Rivers connected on this touchdown pass:

NFL Game Rewind

Again, look at the depth of the safety with two verticals pushing up the field and the underneath defenders playing “trail-man.”

Instead of gaining depth to create a positive angle to the ball, the Chiefs safety leans inside to the seam route and now has to react to the 9 route with a flat angle.

Given the game situation (and the field position), the safety has to play deeper to overlap the outside 9 route or drive inside to the seam to prevent the touchdown.

Overall, 2-Man is a coverage I trust out in the field, but with no help over the top versus the seam, defenses are taking a risk using the two-deep, man-under look when the offense has the ball in scoring position.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.