Expect More Turnovers on Defense: Understanding the Coverage


Amidst all of the injuries taking place so early in training camp there is actually good news to report: The Dallas Cowboys expect much more defensive turnovers in 2013. This isn’t merely wishful thinking but rather a logical conclusion based on Monte Kiffin’s schemes and the Dallas Cowboy personnel.

It sounds like a broken record. Every year the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, (whether it’s Garrett, Phillips, or Parcells) convinces fans and media that turnovers will be a bigger part of the defense. They tell you all the drills, film study, and focus will result in tangible success in the form of interceptions and fumble recoveries. But every year it’s the same pathetic result: The bottom of the league in interceptions and fumble recoveries.

Now Monte Kiffin comes into training camp singing the same old song. Is there any reason to believe it will really happen this year? Are they really going to get more turnovers?

Yes they are.

The reason for the optimism is based Kiffin’s ability to develop a scheme that plays to his players strengths. He will assemble his players and put them in position to succeed. Don’t believe me? See for yourself…

Dec 2, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) returns a fumble for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Eagles 38-33. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Kiffin Defense

Many people refer to Monte Kiffin’s defense as just the “Tampa 2”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Calling the entire thing a Tampa 2 is misleading because the Tampa 2 is really just a singular scheme within his total defensive system. Historically he has run many different schemes and formations and has recently said he plans to run a combination of old and new alike.

In all of his defenses he significantly separates the front 4 (down lineman) and back 7 (LB’s and DB’s). The front 4 were addressed on Tuesday. We now know who the front four are and feel we have a grasp on what they’ll be asked to do. We are mostly curious to see how they will do in their new roles on the D-line.

The idea behind any defense (and Kiffin’s defense especially) is to create pressure and disguise the coverage. The pressure will lead to a rushed decision from the QB. The disguised coverage will lead to turnovers. Monte Kiffin happens to be a master of disguising coverages so let’s look at those different coverages, explain their assignments, and see WHY we can expect greater turnovers this year compared to those of years past.

Tampa 2

When understanding the coverage in Kiffin’s defense there is no better place to start than the famed, Tampa 2 defense. The Tampa 2 is different from the Cover 2 in that the middle linebacker (Mike) drops straight back into coverage to protect the deep seam and go routes between the hashmarks. The two safeties will slide back to cover the outside of the hashmarks on their respective sides. For that reason the Tampa 2 is actually a version of Cover 3 since 3 players are in deep coverage.

With safety coverage deep, the CB’s can play the ball aggressively. They want to protect the sideline and force the receiver to the inside of the field. The strongside LB (Sam) and the weakside LB (Will) will cover their territories between the hashmarks and the field numbers. This can also be executed in a nickel package replacing the Sam with the nickleback (Orlando Scandrick not the crappy band).

In all of these coverage responsibilities the defenders are facing the opposing QB. With only shallow coverage responsibility they can play without the threat of being beaten deep (assuming the safeties are reliable). This will allow the defense to play aggressively and jump routes more easily.

The weaknesses are clear. The CB’s must protect the sideline. A shallow route to the sideline is difficult to defend. A deep flag route is also difficult since the safety needs to cover so much territory to make a play. Worst of all, the Mike has vacated his territory to cover the deep portion of the field, allowing an easy checkdown to the halfback.

The picture details the weaknesses in yellow

The best turnover opportunities are the CB’s jumping the shallow routes and the WILL (Bruce Carter) stepping in on short patterns to a crossing TE.

Cover 2 Zone

Kiffin’s Cover 2 Zone will typically employ 4 lineman, 3 linebackers, 2 cornerbacks, and 2 safeties (again, swap the SAM for the nickleback in nickel coverage). 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.

Since the 4 lineman do not have coverage responsibility 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) has a specific zone they are responsible for. If two offensive players run routes into your zone you are essentially responsible for both players.

Much like in the Tampa 2, 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 is defending 3 deep routes. Unlike the Cover 3 and Tampa 2, the Cover 2 only has 2 deep defenders.

If 3 routes go deep the safeties are outnumbered and at a disadvantage. Another weakness is a veteran QB and receiver can pick apart the gaps in the zone coverage (See the blue spots on the diagram). 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

Presnap, the Cover 2 Man is designed to look exactly the same as the Cover 2 Zone and the Tampa 2. 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 (or Cover 2 or Cover 3).

Sept 5, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive back Barry Church (42) knocks the ball away from New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (88) during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

In Cover 2 Man, many times the safeties hold the same assignments as they do in the Cover 2 Zone and are each responsible for the back 50%. Other times they have a true man responsibility they need to rush up for at the snap of the ball. The 4 lineman again have no pass coverage responsibilities while the rest play man coverage.

The  CB’s will usually play press with trail technique coverage. Meaning they position themselves inside taking away the slant and forcing the receiver to the outside and up field (completely opposite from their assignments in the zone). The receiver will be allowed to pass on the outside while the CB trails. For the linebackers: the Mike covers the HB, The Sam would cover the TE, and the Will covers the FB in a 21 formation or the 2nd TE in the 12 formation.

The man to man element removes the short passes. If the pass rush is significant the QB will not have time to complete a longer route.

As you can imagine, the Man version of the Cover 2 has different weaknesses than the Zone. It 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. LB’s covering dynamic RB’s and TE’s are always a mismatch in the offenses favor and can be exploited often.

Why these schemes are so effective in creating turnovers…

While the Man and Zone coverage within the Tampa 2, Cover 2, and Cover 3 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 of Cover 2 or the Cover 3 or Tampa 2. But if he doesn’t know exactly what you are running on Defense then he has lost his advantage. If he can’t identify the coverage and make a pre-snap read, he will have to read the defensive movement AFTER the snap. Making a read after the snap is infinitely more difficult for QB’s and WR’s to do.

Nov 4, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) tips a pass intended for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (84) during the second half at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons defeated the Cowboys 19-13. Mandatory Credit: Josh D. Weiss-USA TODAY Sports

As long as Dallas disguises the man/zone coverage, they will hold the advantage.

In addition, Kiffin will not always just call a straight Man or straight Zone. He will frequently mix the assignments requiring some to play zone defense while others will play man defense – all on the very same play. Just because a QB successfully reads zone on one side of the field, does not mean it is zone on the opposite side of the field.

Remember that in the Man coverage the CB’s are required to force the WR’s to the outside? And while in the Zone they have to force them into the inside? Many CB’s will try to make it look obvious (and misleading) what their intentions are. This baits the QB into assuming something incorrect. As long as Mo Claiborne and Brendon Carr can get comfortable and disguise their coverage, they could have career seasons. Smart and athletic LB’s like Bruce Carter and Sean Lee will also be able to take advantage and provide the turnovers the Cowboys have been searching for.

Coverages are frequently mixed and matched like this. 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. That is why we can logically expect more turnovers. The defense is finally in position to make plays.

Now who’s ready for some football?

Do you have questions or comments regarding Dallas area sports? Email Reid at permaximum@hotmail.com. You may be included in the next weekly mailbag. Follow Reid on twitter @ReidDHanson