The crowd was growing louder and louder as the snap neared, approaching ear-splitting levels. The camera angle is perfectly disproportionate, in favor of the left where the blazing blue of the Titans overwhelms the Steelers’ black and yellow and the eyes of the viewer during last Thursday’s game in Tennessee. One of the blues is Jason McCourty, a cornerback who is pushed up near the top of the screen on a TV-island of sorts, and preparing for a game-altering interception, the kind of play the Titans have sorely missed this year.
McCourty, who eyeballed the quarterback to show that he’s in zone coverage, is five yards across from Steelers receiver Antonio Brown at the snap of the ball and he’s one of two defenders — the other is the opposite cornerback — that are responsible for the flats. The rest of the defense is divided into five underneath zone defenders and two-deep safeties that split the field into halves.
This is Cover 2, and the Titans are running it against the Steelers three-verticals concept, which began on the second play of the drive at the 32-yard line with 1:38 left in the first half.
The responsibilities for McCourty are far more than simply standing in the open real estate, however. He has to pay fine attention to his technique, making sure that he mirrors the receiver and then re-routes him to the outside to execute football’s version of the electric slide.
He starts off by taking forward steps as wide receiver Antonio Brown suddenly eats up the cushion and then moves to the outside, where he replicates the steps off the receiver. The key here is not to open the hips up too early. If McCourty does, he has given Brown a lane to take straight down the sideline. In other words, he’s toast.
But McCourty doesn’t do that. Instead, he keeps his shoulders squared and moves with the threat.
What happens next is every football’s fan favorite action: collision. Cornerbacks are not known for their physicality, but in Cover 2, it’s a must. The cornerback has to properly place his hands — ideally, on the near-shoulder — on the receiver to re-route him and force him to take the widest path down the field in an effort to disrupt the rhythm that he has with his quarterback.
McCourty follows up the physicality by quickly opening his hips. As he looks back to read the quarterback, he plants his left foot in the ground, opens his hips, and then plants his right foot in the ground. He continues to read the quarterback as he transitions inside and up the field, where he drops deep in his Cover 2 zone, effectively creating a soft Cover 2. The reason he’s eyeballing the quarterback, besides the fact that it is zone, is because he knows Ben Roethlisberger is going to try to stick the ball in between him and the safety.
Roethlisberger is taking a “hole shot,” to use Mike Mayock’s words. The hole shot is a throw into the hole or pocket of the Cover 2 defense, the aforementioned sideline grass between the cornerback and safety. It’s a high degree of difficulty throw that, when done right, exposes the flaw of Cover 2.
The problem is that it wasn’t done right, and that’s because of McCourty’s continuous drop into coverage. McCourty kept moving up the field as he watched Roethisberger set, cock, and release the ball, and he ended up getting in front of the receiver’s route for the interception.
It seemed like an awful throw from Roethlisberger at first glance; two blue defenders, one yellow receiver, and no room for a football. But that wasn’t the case initially. There was an open window for Big Ben to throw the ball into, but it was quickly closed by McCourty’s smart and soft coverage.
The overwhelming blue once again appears in the final screen. There are two blue Titans — one in deep coverage in Cover 2, and the other is McCourty, who’s short in the flats. McCourty erased the black and yellow off the screen with his first interception of the season, contributing to the Titans’ first win this year.