Putting the Zero in Cover 0

Understanding football in-depth can be a difficult task at times. There are multiple players out on the field whose responsibilities are changing not only by the snap but by the second, as defenses look to disguise their intentions. However, there are always keys to identifying certain things in football before and after the snap. In the next five Thursday installments of this column, a variety of coverages used by NFL defenses will be analyzed. For starters, today’s topic is the Cover o.

Much like coverages one through four, the zero in Cover 0 identifies the number of deep defenders. In this case, there are none, which implies that the man cover defenders are not getting help deep from a middle-of-the-field safety or two split-field safeties.

In the image below, there are two safeties but they are in man coverage, much like the two cornerbacks on the outsides, against the Doubles Formation (also known as “2×2″), which means there is no deep help.

The cornerbacks and safeties are assigned the receivers while the linebackers key the running back as they look to blitz. Their responsibilities in this coverage are to blitz unless the running back leaves the backfield. In that case, one of the linebackers to that side would ‘peel’ off and cover him while the other blitzes.¬†

How Do I Identify Cover 0?

Whenever one is attempting to figure out the coverage possibilities by a defense, the best place to start is in what I call the tight end-tackle box. The tight end-tackle box is the area from the outside foot of one offensive tackle to the outside foot of the inline tight end or the other tackle (if there is no tight end on the line). The box extends anywhere between five to eight yards forward from the line of scrimmage, which makes this the place to start the process of identifying the coverage.

For instance, there are seven defenders in the box, which means that there are only four defenders left in coverage outside of the box. If there are four defenders left in coverage, there are two cornerbacks on the outsides. If the cornerback is aligned inside of the receiving threat, it is likely man coverage. If he is aligned outside of the receiving threat, it is likely zone coverage. By identifying the cornerbacks pre-snap, the coverage possibilities are narrowed down.

With two defenders outside, that leaves two defenders in the deep middle of the field. This could still indicate several different coverages, such as Cover 0, Cover 2 or Cover 4. However, with the cornerbacks identified as having inside alignment of the receiving threat in man coverage, it eliminates Cover 2 and Cover 4, leaving only Cover 0.

Another way to distinguish Cover 0 from the others is through the offense’s pre-snap motion or shift. When there is a pre-snap motion or shift by a receiving threat, the defender will follow the offensive player when it is man coverage. An example of this was seen this past week in the game between the Washington Redskins and New York Jets.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Redskins came out with one back personnel and Doubles (2×2) set. The Jets defense showed various looks to the Redskins. There were six defenders in the box, with the cornerback at the top of the image showing an inside alignment while the cornerback at the bottom (24) showing outside alignment.¬†There was also a safety walking down into the box (third from the top) but there was no certainty that he would stay there.

Redskins come out in their Doubles formation.

However, the Redskins, who frequently use motions and shifts, motioned their slot receiver at the top to the bottom of the screen, creating a Trips Bunch set — which I’ll get to later — against the Jets defense. While the slot receiver motioned, the Jets were forced to tip their hand and show that it was man coverage.

Redskins motion forces the Jets nickel cornerback to follow the receiver across the formation.

Once the motion occurred, the picture became much clearer for Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman and the viewers at home in three different ways. The first way the coverage became clearer was through the motion of the slot receiver, which occupied the cornerback, signaling man coverage. The second way was through the count of defenders in the tackle box and out of it: it was 11 total, seven inside and four out in coverage, with no deep safety. The third and final way was the alignment of the cornerbacks — the defender at the top of the screen had inside alignment, as well as the slot cornerback near the bottom of the screen. Below is what Grossman saw after the motion as he stood in his shotgun set.

Jets show Cover 0.

Jets in Cover 0.

Attacking Cover 0

Attacking Cover 0 is very interesting because there are numerous ways to do it. One of the ways is to do it through formations, which make it more difficult for the defenders to figure out who their responsibility is. In the example shown earlier, the Jets had this problem. As one can see in the image above, the second cornerback from the bottom is uncertain who he is supposed to cover after the motion into a Trips Bunch set, which is three receivers closely bunched. Simultaneously, the cornerback at the bottom of the screen (24, Darrelle Revis) is attempting to communicate with him. Unfortunately for the two, the ball was snapped and the offensive players exploded into their routes.

The misunderstanding could have led to greater consequences than it did. The aforementioned two cornerbacks ended up covering the receiver furthest outside, leaving the third cornerback from the bottom of the screen to defend two pass catchers in one area.

A misunderstanding by the Jets defenders leaves their teammate on an island against two Redskin receivers.

Another way to attack Cover 0 is through various inside-breaking route combinations. The image above shows an example of this with two routes creating a Hi-Lo on a defender. While there will not always be the opportunity of a 2-on-1 read for the quarterback, there is the opportunity for him to throw the ball out in front and possibly create a great yard-after-catch opportunity for his pass catcher because of the defender being in trailing position. This can also be accomplished with the concept of Double Slants, which has two slants run by two pass catchers on one side of the formation. The quarterback’s job in this case is to make sure he has superlative ball placement, with the ball being placed in front of the receiver’s numbers, thus allowing him to pick up yards after the catch.

Double Slants concept.

Cover 0 is most likely to be seen by teams when they are blitzing. This is a risky proposition on their part, as it leaves them in a situation where they could potentially give up a touchdown by getting beat inside or over the top, or simply give up an underneath completion. The Jets are often seen using this coverage not only because they blitz so much, but also because they have several defensive backs that can hold up in coverage while the exotic blitzes dialed up by head coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine get to quarterbacks.

Last, unlike the other coverages, there are very few different ways to run this coverage. There is bump and run with the cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage and re-routing the wide receivers as well as press-bail technique, in which the cornerbacks would show bump and run before backpedaling and staying disciplined with their inside alignment on the receiver.

Next week’s installment: Cover 1