The Dallas Cowboys will continue their defensive evolution in 2014 with yet another new man at the helm. Rod Marinelli is the third defensive coordinator in as many years, and through personnel, has immediately put his fingerprints all over this team.
Most recently serving as defensive coordinator in Chicago, Marinelli famously ran the Cover 2 (among other schemes) for the Bears, seeing phenomenal success. Often leading the league in takeaways, sacks, and yards allowed, Marinelli’s defense was a model for success.
Today we will start with Marinelli’s bread n’ butter: The Cover 2. We touched on this a few days ago when outlining the differences between the Cover 2 and Tampa 2, but let’s look a little deeper into Marinelli’s Cover 2.
While Marinelli didn’t (and won’t in Dallas either) run the Cover 2 exclusively, it is the foundation upon what his defense is built. Broken up into two general subsets (Zone and Man) the Cover 2 offers basic coverage and assignments that will likely be seen early in training camp this week.
Here is a basic overview of the Cover 2.
Cover 2 Zone
The Cover 2 Zone will employ 4 down-lineman, 3 linebackers, 2 cornerbacks, and 2 safeties. The safeties will line up 10-15 yards from the line of scrimmage shadowing the tackle box. Those safeties are each primarily responsible for the deep 50% of the field. If they read pass they will drift back into deep coverage.
Note: the safeties are not playing “prevent”. They are close to the action and in position to make a play on the ball. Two good safeties are vital to the success of the Cover 2.
Since the 4 lineman do not have coverage responsibility (and rarely drift back during a zone blitz), that means the remainder of the field is divided between the 2 CB’s and the 3 LB’s. The CB’s have the outside sections while the LB’s have the inside sections of the field.
Every player other than the 4 linemen have a specific zone they are responsible for. If two offensive players run routes into your zone you are essentially responsible for both players.
Cover 2 Zone Strengths and Weaknesses
With 2 trustworthy deep safeties, the 2 CB’s and 3 LB’s can play facing the QB and in position to make a play on the ball. They are all in an advantageous position whether it’s a run play or a short pass play. In this situation the CB’s need to protect the sideline and force the receivers route into the inside of the field.
The biggest weakness to this defense is attacking the 2 deep safeties with 3 deep pass routes. Do the math. That matchup doesn’t bode well for the defense. Another weakness is a veteran QB and receiver can pick apart the gaps in the zone coverage (like Jason Witten does so easily to others). The key is the pass rush. Ideally the pass rush wouldn’t allow time to complete the long go routes, the well-executed seam routes, or the slower developing zone gaps.
Cover 2 Man
The Cover 2 Man is designed to look exactly the same as the Zone. The same personnel line up in the same positions. The reason is obvious – so the opposing QB doesn’t know if it’s zone or man coverage.
Sometimes the safeties hold the same assignments as they do in the Cover 2 Zone and are each responsible for the back 50%. Sometimes only one safety stays back. Sometimes one mans up while another blitzes. Needless to say, the safeties can have a variety of assignments and are keys to success for the defense (provided they disguise their assignments pre-snap). An argument can be made this is no longer Cover 2 once the safeties abandon their traditional posts in deep coverage, but Marinelli considers the cover 2 a wide umbrella with many versions.
The 4 lineman again have no pass coverage responsibilities while the rest play man coverage. With deep safeties, the CB’s will usually play press with trail technique coverage. Meaning they position themselves inside taking away the slant and forcing the receiver up field. The receiver will be allowed to pass on the outside while the CB trails.
For the specific LB’s, the Mike covers the HB, The Sam would cover the TE/WR, and the Will covers the FB/TE depending on the offensive personnel package.
The man to man element removes the short timing-based passes. If the pass rush is significant, the QB will not have time for a longer route because the time to develop would exceed the time allowed in the pocket.
Cover 2 Man Strengths and Weaknesses
The Man version is very susceptible to the fade route. If the CB doesn’t turn his head while trailing, the back shoulder pass can be easily executed. LBs covering RBs and TEs is always a mismatch in the offenses favor and can be exploited. If a 3rd WR is in, the defense is typically forced to replace the SAM with a nickel corner.
Cover 2 Verdict
While both the Man and Zone have glaring advantages and disadvantages the real key to success lies in how the Dallas Cowboys disguise which one they are doing. If a QB knows you are running a straight Cover 2 Zone, he will pick you apart with ease.
Same goes for the Man version. But if he doesn’t know pre-snap, he will have to read the defense as he drops back, rather than at the line. That makes it much more difficult. But that’s not all. Marinelli will not always just call a straight Man or straight Zone. He will frequently mix it – meaning he may have the CB’s line up in Man but have the LB’s in Zone.
Remember that in the Man the CB’s are required to force the WR’s to the outside, while in the Zone they have to force them into the middle. Many CB’s will purposely make it look obvious what their intentions are. This makes the QB assume the LB’s are running the same type of coverage as the CB is showing, and this leads to turnovers.
One CB can play man while another can play zone. 2 LB’s can play man while the 3rd plays zone. Pick your combo. This defense can get extremely confusing to the opposing QB. The hard part is executing it.
Working under Monte Kiffin for many years equips Rod Marinelli with some of the best knowledge in professional football. Kiffin failed because he couldn’t adapt, motivate, or disguise coverages. Marinelli can do all of that all while using some of the same schemes the Cowboys tried last season. He will incorporate new coverages while tweaking old coverages.
In the coming days we will look into Marinelli’s other schemes and find out what to expect from Marinelli’s defense in 2014.