Covering the vertical passing game can be difficult nowadays, with many teams looking to pass more and run less, thus making coverages like Cover 1 riskier to play in comparison to 2 deep safety shells like Cover 2. Because of the commitment to the passing game teams have made, defenses are going back to 2-high safety shells to protect the deep levels of the field while still being able to account for underneath routes. coverages with split field deep defenders include Cover 2 Zone, Cover 2 Man, Cover 2 Inverted and Cover 2 Trap, all of which are the topic of discussion for today.

Cover 2 Zone

Testing the patience of offensive play callers and putting clamps on the short passing game for decades, Cover 2 Zone is a coverage that is one of the most used in the NFL today. The coverage is often known by the identification of zone defenders short and deep, as many will simply call it “5 Under, 2 Deep”, implying there are five underneath zone defenders while two safeties patrol the deep levels of the field.

Cover 2 (image courtesy of NFL.com)

The five underneath defenders’ responsibilities can be broken down into three categories: Hook, Curl and Flat defenders.

Hook

Starting from the inside, the Hook defender in the Cover 2 Zone is a middle linebacker or defensive back (in a sub package) and he is responsible for defending the middle of the field. He’s expected to drop anywhere from eight yards to twelve yards in depth (although it can be even more depending on the teachings) and defend any seam threats, such as tight ends. This is where a lot of tight ends in the NFL make their money, as they force middle linebackers or defensive backs to run with them through the seam.

Curl

The second responsibility in this coverage is the Curl defender, which is often an outside linebacker or a slot cornerback. There are two Curl droppers in Cover 2 Zone, and they have landmarks — designated area of the field — that they must get to. These landmarks are the hash marks of the field and the defenders must get to them because it is very crucial in this zone coverage to be disciplined.

Flat

Flat defenders are the third and final assignments in the underneath coverage. This defender is usually a cornerback that is aligned outside of the pass catcher with their eyes on the quarterback and either on the line of scrimmage, or four-to-six yards off of it . The former alignment can be called a “hard squat” cornerback, meaning he’s aggressively “buzzing” — covering — the flats once he re-routes the receiving threat in the direction of the safeties. The latter is known as a “soft squat” cornerback, who is still responsible for the flats but drops back deeper. He’s not going to jam and re-route the pass catcher at all times because of his initial depth, but he is still going to align inside to take away any outside breaking routes, such as the fade route.

Deep Defenders: Split Halves

Last but not least, the two defensive backs, usually safeties, are responsible for splitting the deep levels of the field into halves.  They work their way over deep routes, such as a ‘Go’ route, as they are responsible for coverage behind the cornerbacks.

49ers Cover 2 vs. Steelers Offense

An example of Cover 2 was seen earlier this week in the Monday Night Football matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers. The 49ers were on defense in this case, and they were attempting to combat an ‘Empty’ set (no backs in the backfield) by the Steelers offense with Cover 2. Judging by the way the 49ers defense lined up, one would say that it is unlikely to be Cover 2 because it appears to look like man coverage because the defenders are aligned straight across from the offensive threats. However, this was all part of a defensive disguise.

Steelers Empty set vs. 49ers Cover 2.

As the play develops, one can see the responsibilities of the defenders unfold. The flat defenders — cornerbacks — are jamming and re-routing the Steelers wide receivers inside, funneling them to the linebackers and safeties, while the other three defenders are sliding away from the near hash mark where the ball is and dropping into their respective zones. Lastly, the split-field safeties are backpedaling to their designated halves to protect the deep levels of the field.

49ers defenders run to their landmarks as they cover the Steelers receivers.

The play ultimately results in a sack, but one can see the defenders roaming their assigned areas of the field.

The 49ers defenders show discipline in their zones.

Cover 2 Man

The next coverage is a variation of Cover 2 and it is called “Cover 2 Man”.  Although it is a man coverage, it is in the same 2 deep safety family. Cover 2 Man, sometimes called “Cover 5″ or “Man Under”,  is one of the most popular coverages in the NFL today because it allows the cornerbacks to be very aggressive and physical in man coverage with wide receivers. The corners can be aggressive because they have safety help over the top, thus allowing them to attack the ball downhill and take risks.

The cornerbacks will often be seen playing “press-man” coverage, meaning they are on the line of scrimmage and in the face of the pass catcher, on their assignment. The alignments of the cornerbacks can vary, as some will align inside to use the sideline as an extra defender, while others will align head up on the receiver. Other instances have the cornerback aligned with his back to the sideline, shuffling with an inside alignment as the snap is taken.

While they are doing this, the three underneath linebackers (or sub-package defenders) will be responsible for the running backs and tight ends, or in some cases, slot receivers. This is pure man coverage on their part and their alignments can vary. If it is a running back in the backfield, the linebacker may be “stacked” on the back, which means he is aligned straight across from him, while against a slot receiver, the linebacker is aligned inside or head up.

Finally, the two deep safeties share the same responsibilities that they have in pure Cover 2 Zone, which is splitting the deep field into halves and playing over the top of the cornerbacks and linebackers, essentially acting as a safety blanket.

Cover 2 Man

An example of this coverage was seen when the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles clashed this past Sunday. The Eagles were tested vertically by the Jets receivers on a couple of occasions and on one of them, they turned to Cover 2 Man.

Mark Sanchez and the Jets’ skill players came out of their huddle to a one back set before motioning out to an empty set, which required the Eagles to make some coverage checks that ultimately resulted in Cover 2 Man. As can be seen below, the Eagles’ underneath defenders are getting ready to ‘man-up’ the Jets pass catchers, while the two deep safeties prepare to split the field into halves.

Eagles defenders align across their designated assignments.

Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called for a coverage that is all too familiar to the 2 deep safety family — 4 Verticals. The 4 Verticals concept sends 4 vertical threats up the field to overload and outnumber the two deep safeties. As per usual, the Trips side (to the right at the top of the image), which features three receivers to one side that make it the ‘strong’ side, has the two outside pass catchers run vertical routes while the third receiver in runs a Post route that splits the safeties down the middle.

On the backside of the formation, the ‘weak’ side that features two wide receivers,  the outside receiver runs a vertical route while the slot receiver runs a shallow crossing route across the formation.

The Eagles defense had the right coverage in mind, but the wrong personnel grouping, as the linebackers were outran by the inside receivers to the Trips side and were beaten for a touchdown. Regardless, the coverage can be clearly identified below, as the deep safeties look to get over the top of the Jets receivers’ routes, while the cornerbacks are in man coverage.

The post-snap read is always the key to identifying coverages, which in this case is Cover 2 Man.

Cover 2 Invert

When attempting to remember and learn coverages, the student will often turn to the number in the coverage because it tells them how many deep safeties there are. In the Cover 2 family, there are two deep safeties covering the back end of the secondary. However, what if one was to tell the student that there aren’t two deep safeties, and instead there are cornerbacks?

Is that still a Cover 2?

The answer is yes, and the coverage variation becomes Cover 2 Invert. Inverted Cover 2 is what it sounds like — the cornerbacks and safeties are inverted, with the cornerbacks becoming the split-field defenders while one safety operates in the flats and the other serves as essentially a ‘robber’ in the middle as a Hook defender.

The coverage is very similar to the Cover 2 Zone, with five underneath zone defenders and two deep defenders. A safety and an outside linebacker are responsible for the flats in this coverage, while the middle linebacker and another outside linebacker cover the curl areas. The last and final zone is covered by an aggressive free safety (F) who patrols the middle of the field known, also known as the aforementioned hook zone.

Cover 2 Invert (image courtesy of Shakinthesouthland.com)

Cover 2 Trap

Last, Cover 2 Trap is often used behind blitzes, such as the Fire Zone Blitz, and few explain the coverage better than NFL Films guru Greg Cosell. Cosell is seen explaining it below:

Cover 2 Trap is one of many different variations of the Cover 2, along with Cover 2 Man and Inverted, all of which have a place in today’s game.

While these coverages have their weaknesses that can be exploited, such as the area down the sideline between the cornerback and safety as well as the deep middle, they are still the common coverages used in the NFL because of their effectiveness. They force offenses to be patient in their efforts to move up field, which is not always an easy task.

These coverage variations, particularly Cover 2 Zone, formed the framework for the ‘Tampa 2′, which will be explored in next week’s installment.