NFL 101: Introducing the Basics of Prevent Defenses

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJune 20, 2015

Bleacher Report

In this installment of Bleacher Report's "NFL 101" series, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down schemes and execution for prevent defenses at the pro level.

Click here for the previous version of NFL 101, which broke down the Two-Point Playbook.


"Deep as the deepest."

That's the old NFL saying when it comes to protecting over the top and showing a "prevent" shell to defend a lead late in the fourth quarter or to close out the half. Put a tent on the secondary, guard the boundary and force the ball underneath.

The idea here is simple: Keep the ball in play, tackle and watch the seconds tick down on the clock. Think of safeties gaining depth, cornerbacks sinking hard at the snap and underneath defenders dropping—with speed—to close down the seam.

However, this isn't a free pass to give up the middle of the field or allow an underneath throw to pick up a major chunk of yardage. That's little league stuff, with defenders dropping off the screen and creating wide-open throwing lanes for the quarterback.

Instead, NFL defensive coordinators are going to play their core schemes, adjust the depth/alignment of the back seven and continue to disrupt or challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage.

Today, using the All-22 coaches tape and the chalkboard diagrams, let's break down some of the top "prevent" defenses in the NFL and also discuss how to properly play the Hail Mary pass when you need to win a ballgame.


'Green' Cover 2

You would be surprised at how much two-deep zone shows up on the tape across the league in prevent situations, because it allows defenses to protect over the top (two deep-half safeties), close the middle of the field (linebacker running the seam), take away the corner route (cornerback sink) and drive downhill on the checkdown (seam-hook defenders).

But unlike the standard two-deep (or Tampa 2) scheme we are accustomed to seeing out in the field, the term "Green 2" is used when discussing Cover 2 in prevent situations:

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In "Green 2," the safeties drop to their standard landmark (top of the numbers), but they align at 18 yards and play everything "top-down." That means no driving on the 15-yard dig route and trying to be a hero. Get more depth; stay square on the landmark and drive on the throw.

Nothing over the top…nothing.

At the "Mike" 'backer position, the assignment doesn't change (open to passing strength, run the inside seam), but this should look almost like a true three-deep coverage given the increased pre-snap depth and the immediate drop. That allows the two seam-hook defenders to get to their landmarks, read the quarterback and squeeze any intermediate throw.

Looking at the cornerbacks, they have to jam or re-route. This isn't a situation where they can take a play off, get lazy with their technique or footwork and just sink with the outside release of No. 1. That puts more stress on the safeties (and could force them to widen off their landmarks).

There needs to be a physical approach to this play, with the cornerback mirroring the release of No. 1, attacking the chest plate of the wide receiver and then sinking to protect against a possible 7 (corner) route. If the cornerback can't force an inside release (proper technique in Cover 2), then they must make the receiver widen his stem at the snap.

Here's a look at "Green 2" from Bengals-Steelers, with Dick LeBeau's unit gaining depth in the back seven:

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As you can see, both safeties are in the proper position (depth and square shoulders) with the Mike 'backer sinking to create a three-deep look. Underneath, both seam-hook defenders are square to the quarterback and in a position to drive on the checkdown or the running back to the flat.

Outside the numbers, both cornerbacks re-route the receivers (force them to widen on the release). That's the key, as it allows the safeties to stay square and read back inside.

On this play, the Steelers want to take away any vertical opportunities for the Bengals and force quarterback Andy Dalton to throw the ball underneath. That allows them to rally to the ball, tackle the receiver in-bounds and let the clock continue to roll on a minimal gain.

I also like playing a deep Cover 6 here (Quarter-Quarter-Half), but "Green 2" gets the job done when the back seven plays with the proper depth and the cornerbacks get hands on the wide receivers.

This is also a good call in a prevent situation with the ball inside the red zone at the end of the half or the end of the game when the offense needs a touchdown to tie or take the lead. In this field position, the defense can align the Mike 'backer on the goal line and essentially create a wall.

Check out the GIF from the Bengals-Ravens matchup:

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There is no need to disguise here as the Bengals defense shows quarterback Joe Flacco it is playing "Green 2" to take away the inside seam routes. With less than 10 seconds on the clock, the Bengals will gladly give Flacco the underneath smash routes and force the quarterback to scramble out of the pocket.

The depth of the safeties and the technique of the Mike 'backer makes "Green 2" look like a soft zone shell on the chalkboard, but it continues to show up on the tape with NFL defenses leaning on the coverage to squeeze intermediate top deep throwing lanes while challenging the release of the wide receivers outside of the numbers.

Tent Anchor/Tent 'Robber'

"Tent Anchor" is a staple of Gregg Williams' defensive playbook out of the Ruby personnel (3DL-2LB-6DBs), and it was always at the top of the call sheet during my time in Washington when we had to show a prevent look.

Check out the scheme on this chalkboard diagram:

Matt Bowen/Bleacher Report

This is very similar to "Green 2" but with different personnel on the field, some pre-snap disguise and a few slight changes in the technique.

In "Tent Anchor," the nickelback (N) drops to the deep middle with both safeties (FS/SS) widening off the numbers to "top" No. 1 (X, Z). This puts the safeties in a position to take away the quick fade (Cover 2 beater in the deep hole) while the cornerbacks continue to jam, re-route and sink underneath.

However, the biggest change is the underneath defenders. Instead of having two seam-hook defenders drop between the numbers and the hash, both the dime (D) and "Sam" 'backer (S) match (or carry) the vertical release from No. 2 (Y, H). This allows the defense to better defend the inside seam routes with the protection of a three-deep shell over the top and the Mike 'backer (M) dropping to the inside hole.

Now, this is only a three-man rush (four-man rush in "Green 2"), and that can create some issues if they don't get a push up the field, as pro quarterbacks can pick apart any defense if they have time. However, we saw a lot of success with this scheme and took away the middle of the field while closing the door on any outside cuts to the boundary. 

If you are getting beat on intermediate throws in this scheme, there is an adjustment called "Tent Robber" with the nickel settling to take away the dig and help against the inside seam.

Here's the coverage:

Matt Bowen/Bleacher Report

Instead of the nickel dropping to the deep middle 1/3, he stops and plays a "robber" technique with both safeties dropping to the traditional Cover 2 landmarks (top of the numbers).

This allows the nickel to close down the intermediate throwing windows while the safeties protect over the top. It's just a slight adjustment, but it can create a situation where the nickel can steal one.

Man-Under (Three-Deep)

Man-under is a good call in a prevent situation, but there is no chance I would play 2-Man. That's an automatic invitation for the offense to widen the two deep safeties over the top and create a situation where the quarterback can light up the middle of the field. That's the weakness of 2-Man, and it could lead to an explosive gain (or a touchdown) when you are trying to protect a lead.

So, throw 2-Man in the trash and instead show a three-deep look with the underneath defenders playing man coverage in a prevent game situation.

Check it out from Chargers-Ravens:

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The Chargers are showing both cornerbacks in an off-man position, but I would have no problem aligning those guys in press with the deep middle of the field now closed. Play from an outside leverage position (instead of the trail-man technique in 2-Man), funnel the receivers inside and use your help.

There is enough protection over the top to be aggressive here, but you can't give up the sideline. That means no outside breaking cuts that allow the receivers to get out of bounds and stop the clock. You can live with a completion on the dig route if you make the tackle.

But, again, keep the ball in front of you and don't even think about letting a receiver get behind the safeties.


Defending the Hail Mary: 'Knock it Down!'

If the ball is between the 40s at the end of the half or at the end of the game, you know what you are getting: a Hail Mary pass.

However, instead of seeing chaos unfold at the goal line with bodies falling down, guys leaping out of control and the ball being tipped up into the air (that's trouble), there is a proper way to defend—and stop—the play. Here's how I would play it versus 3x1 trips or a "Big Ben" alignment:

Matt Bowen/Bleacher Report

Let's start in the back end with the three defenders with their heels on the goal line:

• The strong safety (SS) is the "spiker." He should be in a position to drive down on the throw and the only player to leave his feet. His job is to "spike" the ball down. That's it. Climb the ladder and rake down on the ball (don't bump it up or out like a volleyball).

Why not just catch it? For one, defensive backs can't catch well enough. That's why they don't play receiver. And, two, it could lead to a drop, a tip or a situation where the ball flies up in the air. That's exactly what the offense wants. Instead, "Knock it Down!"

• The free safety (FS) is the "tipper." He runs behind the "spiker" (SS) and plays for any ball that is tipped, batted or misjudged by the strong safety. However, he is not to go for the ball when the strong safety is in the proper position to make this play. Don't try to pad your stats with an attempted pick off a heave to the end zone.

• The nickel is the "savior," or the last hope if a circus act breaks out on the goal line. He can't leave until after the throw in order to protect over a possible throw-back to "X" or due to a gadget play such as the "hook and ladder." He is the type of guy who has to grab a wild tip or make a game-saving tackle if this ball is thrown short and completed.

Now let's move to the underneath defenders…

• Both cornerbacks (C), along with the dime (D) and Sam 'backer (S), are playing trail-man from a press position. You want to get a jam here if possible. Don't allow a free release down the field. Instead, get a hand on the receivers with both cornerbacks forcing an inside release. That's key to the trips side, as you want to bunch these guys together to take some stress off the defenders standing on the goal line. After the jam, the defenders will trail their coverage down the field to defend against a ball that is tipped back into the field of play.

• The Mike 'backer (M) is responsible for the running back (R) in coverage. In Hail Mary situations, the running back usually stays in to protect (Mike can rush to his coverage). However, if the back releases (especially to the open side of the formation), the 'backer has to be alert to the "hook and ladder." That's when the X runs a curl, makes the catch and then pitches the ball to the running back trailing the play. You never know what the offense is thinking or willing to try in these situations.

• This is only a three-man rush. The goal? Keep the quarterback in the pocket and get up the field. If you allow the quarterback to extend the play and get outside the pocket, the wide receivers can bunch down by the goal line and this play turns into fourth-grade recess.

Back in the 2011 season, the Bears gave up a touchdown on the Hail Mary at the end of the half when quarterback Tyler Palko tossed one up that eventually landed in the hands of receiver Dexter McCluster.

Take a look at the TV tape:

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The Bears are playing man-trail against the three outside receivers, however they don't have a defender assigned to McCluster. Plus, look at what happens at the point of attack. The Bears have two defenders playing the ball, and safety Chris Conte is going backward.

That creates a situation where the Bears safety tries to "spike" the ball while linebacker Brian Urlacher (moving forward) climbs the ladder to play this throw at the highest point. There is a miscommunication or a bust here as Conte knocks the ball out of Urlacher's hands.

This is a play that should have been prevented. Instead, it produced a score for the Chiefs in a game they eventually won.

Now, let's check out a Hail Mary toss from Jags-Redskins this past season, with Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing this ball to the end zone at the end of the half:

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I like this example from the end-zone tape because the Jags are playing trail-man and the safeties have enough depth to drive to the ball. That allows them to get some air on the jump and rise up to knock it down.

I know crazy things can happen on a Hail Mary toss (at every level of the game). But just like playing Cover 2, Cover 3 or Cover 4, there is specific alignments and techniques to shut it down…if you don't go for the free interception.

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


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