Dallas Cowboys: Is the Cover 3 Defense dead?

Dan Quinn, Defensive Coordinator, Dallas Cowboys Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dan Quinn, Defensive Coordinator, Dallas Cowboys Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /
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Dan Quinn, Defensive Coordinator, Dallas Cowboys Mandatory Credit: Curtis Compton/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Dan Quinn, Defensive Coordinator, Dallas Cowboys Mandatory Credit: Curtis Compton/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports /

How often is Cover 3 deployed?

First let me go over what Cover 3 in case you need the reminder! Traditionally, it is viewed as three defenders deep, four defenders under. In Cover 3 Robber and Thief, the outside cornerbacks cover a third of the field while a safety fills in the middle of the field. In the case of a Cover 3 Cloud, one cornerback becomes a shallow defender while the opposite cornerback and both safeties become the three defenders deep. Break!

To answer the original question, quite often actually! Years before Pete Carroll brought his current defensive scheme to the NFL, Bill Belichick’s fundamental defensive philosophy was, and continues to be, to prevent anyone from beating them through the middle of the field. In the early 2000s, the Cover 3 shell the Patriots used had Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, and Otis Smith. Now they have Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and the McCourty twins. (Obviously, this is before Jason McCourty signed with the Miami Dolphins this offseason)

The Belichick tree has spread and failed almost everywhere it’s been, but their staple is playing a lot of single-high looks while rushing the passer through different fronts. (Sound familiar) Miami currently does that with HC Brian Flores. Detroit did this when Matt Patricia was their head coach. Tennesse loves to use Kevin Byard as their single-high safety; Vrabel and now Atlanta Falcons DC Dean Pees both share some influence from Belichick himself.

Now, just because someone uses single-high looks doesn’t obviously mean they are running Cover 3. Cover 1 (1 deep safety in zone) is man coverage from the same look, Cover 2 (2 deep, 5 under) and Cover 2 man (2 deep safeties in zone) require the strong safety to drop back from the box, Cover 6 and Cover 7 (Quarter, Quarter, Half) require the safety to only cover a deep quarter of the field as opposed to a deep third. (The NFL’s ability to implement different coverage shells from the same looks is impressive considering how different matchups can be from week to week.)

When Pete Carroll signed with the Seattle Seahawks making his return to the NFL, he brought a version of the single-high defense that prioritized zone coverage with long cornerbacks to disrupt the timing of routes forcing QBs to throw when they were least comfortable and into smaller windows, likely as a result of the cornerbacks being in the right position.

This development obviously ended up in Dallas in 2018 with Kris Richard and in 2021 with Dan Quinn, but other coaches across the league like Gus Bradley, Robert Saleh, and Ken Norton Jr take major influence from Carroll and have been successful defensive minds at some point in their career.

Even though Saleh was recently hired as the New York Jets head coach, the defensive success of the other names on this list isn’t necessarily similar. Gus Bradley’s Los Angeles Chargers defense had the 20th highest defensive DVOA in the league last year, Ken Norton Jr’s Seattle defense was 16th, Patricia’s Detroit defense was 32nd even after his firing, and Vrabel’s Tennessee defense was 29th.

In fact, Atlanta actually had the 14th highest defensive DVOA last season, likely in large part due to the Quinn firing, but their scheme stayed largely the same.

These coaches didn’t have great seasons last year, but they also weren’t the only ones using predominantly single-high zone coverage. When a defense stops working evolution of the scheme is as critical as the evolution of the personnel. This leads us into perhaps one of the most important defensive minds in football today: Vic Fangio.

The current head coach of the Denver Broncos now has proteges in some of the hottest positions in the NFL. Brandon Staley, head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, coached the Los Angeles Rams defense to be the best in the league. Joe Barry, the defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers, was a linebackers coach for the Los Angeles Rams defense. Sean Desai, the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, was a quality control assistant when Fangio was in Chicago.

Defensive backs love playing in Vic Fangio’s defense because it is a defensive-back-friendly defense. While there is a lot of disguising pre-snap, the assignments of the players are pretty clear cut in his match-style zone scheme. The Broncos played a lot of Cover 3 last season as did the Chicago Bears, but why were their defensive DVOAs better than the other defenses we’ve mentioned so far?

Two words: Match Zone.