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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Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

Match Style Cover 3

Spot drop zone coverage means every defender drops to their area of the field and then moves within their zone to the direction of the quarterback’s eyes. When a receiver enters their zone, the defender matches until they leave the zone. Here you play the receiver or the ball when it’s in your zone.

In match-style zone coverage, the defenders are required to read and react to wide receivers or route combinations entering their zone so they can play man coverage till the whistle blows. So in a simpler explanation, you drop into zones but are keying receivers so you can turn and play man coverage. In traditional zone coverage, overlapping routes can be troublesome for defenders at mesh points but match zone tries to alleviate that by forcing a man to play a receiver over time.

In a perfect world, every defensive coordinator is playing man coverage. When a defensive back sticks to a wide receiver reducing any window of separation, the quarterback struggles to complete passes because the window isn’t big enough or because they wait too long and the pressure gets to them. But what happens if you don’t have the skill or athleticism to play man coverage 100 percent of the time you’re lined up against a specific receiver.

This is the value of the match zone. The defensive back covers the receiver while keying the QB so the defender focuses on transitioning towards the ball instead of transitioning towards the man. In a vacuum, this seems so simple, but there is a great deal of communication that must go on with defenders for such schemes to be successful.

It’s why match-style zone can work with Patrick Surtain II and Trevon Diggs at the University of Alabama but not so much with Desmond and Isaiah Oliver in Atlanta. (Not saying they ran a match-style zone, I’m just pointing out the communication issues in Atlanta.)

It is also why the Broncos drafted Surtain II after signing Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby this offseason. Outside of Bryce Callahan, this team needed cornerback help; they now have it.

While Fangio uses a lot of Cover 3, Staley was varied in his play calls. It is unclear what Barry and Desai are going to call, but I imagine the other two will use Cover 3 a good amount given the teams’ current personnel. Barry has athletic cornerbacks in Kevin King and Jaire Alexander with a top-five safety in the league in Adrian Amos. (Who knows when Eric Stokes starts?) Desai has Desmond Trufant, Jaylon Johnson, and Eddie Jackson, a safety who thrived in Fangio’s defense in 2018. Both groups of defensive backs are solid to good in zone coverage and have the athleticism to carry receivers deep down the field.

But how does all of this relate to the Cowboys, who hired a defensive coordinator that doesn’t have familiarity with a match-style zone defense?