Throughout the offseason, there was widespread talk of how the Bengals’ efforts to return to the Super Bowl would be thwarted by the dreaded Cover 2.
Many, myself included, dismissed this idea as nonsense. Cover 2 is not a new defense, nor is it unique. Every single team in the NFL uses it, to some extent, and has for decades. If the answer to beating the Bengals was to run Cover 2, why on earth did NFL coaches need an entire offseason to figure it out?
Are their egos really so inflated that they watched Joe Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins deep week-in and week-out and thought to themselves, “Well, playing with one high safety didn’t work for that team, but our version is far superior.”
After losing to the Bengals in the regular season, did Andy Reid, a coach with over two decades of head coaching and offensive play-calling experience, not think to mention to his defensive coordinator that Cover 2 was the silver bullet that could stop the Bengals in the AFC Championship game propelling the Chiefs to the Super Bowl?
It doesn’t make sense, and yet here we are. The Bengals are seeing substantially more Cover 2, and Burrow and company are struggling.
So what exactly is Cover 2, and what can the Bengals do to beat it?
Let’s take a look.
Cover 2 means that the defense is playing two defenders in the deep field zone, specifically, the safeties. Each safety is responsible for defending half of the field, starting at about 15 yards past the line of scrimmage and going as deep as the quarterback can throw. Since there is not a single-high safety in the middle of the field, this type of coverage is often referred to as “MFO“ or “MOFO” because the middle of the field is open.
So how do you get the ball there?
There has been a lot of talk about attacking the seam, particularly with tight end Hayden Hurst, but the seam is not inherently open against Cover 2. The seam is, actually, the area between the deep middle third player and the deep outside third in Cover 3. In Cover 2, the seam is basically where the safety lines up.
Getting the seam open against Cover 2 is possible, but it requires the offense to put the safety in conflict. If you challenge the safety with two deep routes, one near the inside of his zone and one near the outside of his zone, you are forcing him to make a decision. Will sit on the seam route on the inside or run out over the top of the fade route on the outside?
The diagrams below show four verticals vs Cover 2 out of both a 2x2 and 3x1 formation.
4 verts vs Cover 2— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) October 12, 2022
2x2 and 3x1 pic.twitter.com/TMlzzwsbVX
In the diagram on the top of the picture, the “H”, or slot receiver, runs the “bender” route. Instead of running straight up the seam, he bends his route into the deep middle gap between the safeties. This increases the distance between the two routes that the free safety (FS) is responsible for, putting him in greater conflict and really forcing the issue of what route he will favor. Now he has to try to cover Chase’s outside route and Tyler Boyd in the middle of the field. That is a tall order.
The quarterback reads the safety first. If he doesn’t gain width, the quarterback will throw the ball to the outside. If the safety flies out over the outside receiver, the quarterback will look inside. The vertical routes on the other side of the formation should prevent the strong safety ($) from covering the slot, That means all you have to worry about is a linebacker running with him. That’s a matchup that Boyd should win, but if he is covered, that means the linebacker has vacated a space underneath and the running back will be open on the check down.
This is play is even better out of 3x1. In the diagram at the bottom of the picture, the “X” receiver is all alone. This makes it likely that the free safety will play over the top of him, since he has no immediate threat to the seam. That would open up a huge window for the tight end (Y) as he bends across the formation.
The deep middle isn’t the only part of the deep field that is vulnerable in Cover 2. Since the safety is playing from inside out, it is nearly impossible for him to make a play on a back-shoulder throw. The area where this throw is made is labeled the “side pocket” in the first picture in this article. Burrow is well-known for connecting with Chase and Higgins on passes in this area, yet it doesn’t seem to be happening this season.
There has been a lot of talk about the “Dagger” route, which is diagrammed below.
This is a common way of attacking Cover 2.
In the diagram, the “Y” runs a seam route, which will often pull the Mike linebacker (M) vertically. The “H” runs a hitch, keeping the outside backer (or more likely nickle cornerback) outside. The “Z” runs an in-breaking route. If the Mike is running with the tight end, then once the “Z” clears the outside linebacker or nickel cornerback (S), he will find a huge gap in the zone.
Higgins found that gap in the play below and turned it into a big gain.
In this case, Boyd is playing the role of the “Y”, running vertically up the seam and taking the Mike linebacker with him. Hurst hitches on the outside, holding the nickel corner. The running back also plays a vital role. His route holds the backside linebacker and widens the gap in the zone left by the Mike linebacker. Those three routes keep the middle of the field clear of defenders and open up a huge window for Higgins as he comes inside.
The Bengals have run this play in various forms several times this season. Unfortunately, they have had limited success. It appears to be a key part of their plan to defeat Cover 2, so they really need to figure out how to protect the quarterback and get Burrow more in sync with his pass-catchers.
Burrow’s final year in college was phenomenal, and one of the craziest things about it was how he changed, right in the middle. Realizing how he was tearing apart their pressure packages, teams stopped pressuring him all together, often dropping eight players into coverage and rushing only three. So Burrow found another way to win. He took his time and waited patiently for his receivers to get open. Now, oddly, we are waiting on Burrow to adjust to what defenses are giving him.