Comparing Schemes: Marinelli’s Cover 2 Vs Kiffin’s Tampa 2


In 2013, the Dallas Cowboys ran versions of the Tampa 2 and Single-High Safety Coverage, almost exclusively. This resulted in the NFL’s worst defense.

With Rod Marinelli now in charge, the Cowboys are expected to shift the focus more on the Cover 2 defense. Will it make much of a difference? How does it compare to Kiffin’s Tampa 2?

Let’s take a quick look at the two defenses and see where they differ.

Tampa 2

The Tampa 2 is different from traditional zone defenses in a number of ways. The well noted difference is 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 closest related to a Cover 3 since 3 players are in deep coverage.

With safety coverage in deep zone, the CB’s in shallow zone 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 mirroring territories between the hashmarks and the field numbers. This can also be executed in a nickel package replacing the Sam with the nickleback (most likely Orlando Scandrick).

In all of these coverage responsibilities the defenders are traditionally 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 check-down to the halfback.

Cover 2 Zone

The typical base 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 have 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 at a disadvantage. Another weakness is a veteran QB and receiver can pick apart the gaps in the zone coverage (like Romo and Witten do to others). 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

Pre-snap, 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.

Many times the safeties hold the same assignments as they do in the Cover 2 Zone and are each responsible for the back 50%. The 4 lineman again have no pass coverage responsibilities while the rest play man coverage. The CB’s will play press with trail technique coverage. Meaning they position themselves inside taking away the slant and forcing the receiver 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 RB’s and TE’s is always a mismatch in the offenses favor and can be exploited.

Over the next month we will dive into Rod Marinelli’s new defense more, and see what to expect in 2014 from a scheme perspective.