The NFL Conversation Domination Playbook, Volume 4: How to trust your cornerbacks
A guide to fooling the quarterback and trapping the slot receiver
Armed with little more than our sizable egos and selective memories, we, the cornerbacks of the world, do the job most are afraid to do. Playing cornerback in the NFL can be the most physically challenging task in professional sports. Cornerbacks never come off the field. They chase around receivers, who shuttle in and out of the game, getting rest. Corners are expected to prevail despite biased rules and referees. Corners are the finest people the world has to offer. OK, maybe I went a little too far, but you get the point.
The position is hard. Which you probably already know because chances are you don’t trust the cornerbacks on your team. This week’s All 22 is about Cover 2. So when the Brads in your world complain about your teams’ corner play, you’ll have solutions.
9. Cover 2 is About the Defensive Line
If you are a fan of All 22, you probably know the basics of Cover 2. The safeties are responsible for the deep part of the field. They split it into two halves. The cornerbacks are responsible for the flats. They play a cloud or squat technique, which means that they need to jam or disrupt the receiver within 5 yards, then sink to about 10-12 yards and react to the quarterback. The linebackers are responsible for the zones under the safeties and inside of the cornerbacks, known as the hook, curl and hole.
But for a team to run Cover 2 well, the most important group is the defensive line. Cover 2 is a better pass defense than run defense. So if the offense happens to be running the ball, the defensive line has to win up front for the linebackers to have a chance at stopping the ball carrier close to the line of scrimmage. And if it is a pass, the D-line is still most integral to the success of the coverage. Time is the enemy of zone coverages. Yes, it is true that giving the opposing offense a lot of time is bad for man coverages. Asking your defenders to stay close to shifty offensive players for an extended period of time is very tough on them. But the rules are simple: Follow your man everywhere he goes and tackle him if he catches the ball.
In zone, if the quarterback doesn’t throw the ball on time, the receivers are taught to get open. And defenders know that, so they are taught to latch on to the closest receiver. Their coverage goes from zone to man. In theory, it sounds like the best of both worlds, but in practice, what often happens is some defenders latch on and chase receivers, leaving zones wide open. And others don’t have receivers close enough to latch on to, leaving some receivers free to run into vacated zones unguarded. And if you get to the quarterback, you’d better bring him down. Which is harder than it looks (cough, Ben Roethlisberger).
8. Tampa 2 Needs Speedy Backers
Tampa 2 is an evolved form of Cover 2 that was most popular in the early 2000s. In conventional Cover 2, the deep middle part of the field is a weakness that offenses like to attack. Tampa 2 calls for the middle linebacker to run to the deep middle if he reads pass. All teams still have it in their playbooks, but it’s not as popular as it was when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were running it to perfection. Several teams used it, but none as well or as often as the Bucs. Calling it Tampa 2 is a misnomer for two reasons: It’s actually more like a Cover 3 than Cover 2; and Tony Dungy, the Bucs’ head coach during the Tampa 2 era, said he got it from the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. So what teams call Tampa 2 today is neither a true Cover 2 nor from Tampa. But it does address one of the weaknesses of Cover 2. Running Tampa 2 calls for fast linebackers, but teams without speedy ‘backers will still run it. If you are watching a game and you notice that the middle linebacker is lined up a couple of yards deeper than the other linebackers, it is because they are in Tampa 2 and he is not fast enough to get to his mark without a head start.
7. Man Under 2 Deep
Man under, also called 2-man, is exactly what it sounds like. The two safeties are in deep halves, but the rest of the defense is in man coverage underneath. This is a good third-down coverage because the man-to-man defenders can play aggressively, knowing that the safeties will cover them deep. Against this coverage, offenses like to run slot choice, also known as option route. The outside receiver runs a go, clearing out space for the slot receiver, who will read the leverage of the defender guarding him and choose which direction to run based on his read. It is tough on the slot defender because the slot receiver has a lot of space to work with and can go either way.
Which is how 2-trap was born; 2-trap is a variation of 2-man in which the defense is trying to trap the option route. The slot defender sits heavy on the inside of the slot receiver, forcing him to run an out. When the outside receiver runs the go, the cornerback, who is in press coverage, runs with him for 5 yards before releasing him to the safety. Without stopping, the corner finds and sprints to the slot-out route. If all goes according to plan, neither the quarterback nor the slot sees the trapping corner until it is too late. And we all are treated to one of the finest spectacles in sports: an interception and a cornerback high-stepping down the sideline toward the end zone.
Bonus: A Cover 2 can look like Cover 3 with 2-swap, which is probably my favorite variation of Cover 2 because of how much I love confusing the quarterback. As he approaches the line of scrimmage, every quarterback’s first question is: Is the middle of the field open or closed? Will the defense be in a single-high safety defense (middle closed) or double-high (middle open)? If, through shifts, motions and dummy cadences, the quarterback is able to get the defense to shed its disguise, then he has gained some information that can put the defense at a disadvantage. In Volume 3, we talked about offensive double calls, where teams leave the huddle with two plays called and then decide which to run based on what the defense shows them.
For the offense, the simplest pairing of plays is a run with a quick pass. If the quarterback sees single-high, he is likely to opt for the pass. If he determines the D is in double-high, then they run the ball. The goal for the defense is to convince the quarterback that the middle is open when it’s actually closed, or vice versa. It is difficult to do because it can be dangerous. If you are in Cover 2 but want to show single-high, one safety has the easy job. He has to be in the deep middle before the snap, then get to his deep half. The other safety’s pre-snap alignment has to be in the box, next to the linebackers, and he has to get to his deep half before the receivers do. Landon Collins was one of the few safeties able to pull that off last season.
If your team doesn’t have Collins or a comparable safety, it can use 2-swap to deceive. Swap refers to the corner and the safety “swapping” responsibilities. Pre-snap, the secondary shows single-high. At the snap of the ball, the middle safety runs to his half. The safety in the box gets a run-pass read. If it’s a run, he is in good position to support. If it is a pass, rather than run to the deep half, he uses a buzz technique to cover the flat. And the corner bails from a press alignment to cover the half. This works best on the single-receiver side of the field because the corner can only have one deep threat. As long as the defense doesn’t use swap too much, it is a great changeup that will tilt the mental battle in favor of the defense. And if the D does it early, then the offense will never be sure whether they are facing middle open or closed until the ball is snapped.
Still need good corners to play Cover 2
Playing Cover 2 doesn’t mean that your corners don’t need to have skills. It means that your corners need to have a set of skills that are easier to find. For a cornerback to be great in man coverage and match up well with the various types of NFL receivers, he needs to be outstanding in a few of the following skills and good at the rest: quickness, acceleration, speed, size, strength and football IQ. Corners can be great in Cover 2 without outstanding acceleration, speed or size. Of course, those things would be great to have. But if he were playing Cover 2, he would be more formidable with elite quickness, strength and IQ.