Packers Film Study: The Slant Route vs. Cover 2

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Tampa 2 Defense
The Tampa 2 defense, as drawn up by former NFL safety Matt Bowen.

It’s amazing how quickly “group think” spreads among Green Bay Packers fans. Start an idea rolling, and it becomes hard to stop, whether it’s credible or not. Such is the case with the recent calls for more slant routes in the Packers’ passing game. The question was even posed to Aaron Rodgers on his weekly ESPN Wisconsin radio show:

“What happened to the slant pass in this offense? It seems like the three-step game isn’t what it used to be . . . Are we wrong?” asked fans via Jason Wilde in the “Ask Aaron” segment.

Rodgers responded: “The combination of a slant and a flat pattern is not a great Cover 2 play . . . It’s just not a big concept that you’re going to dial up against Cover 2 . . . They’re playing zone coverage, and you have a guy who is in the slant hole (outside linebacker), and you have a guy who can cover the flat (corner).”

Some people accepted this answer, others didn’t, and some were hesitant to make any commitment – probably because they weren’t really sure what it all meant.

Well, I’m here to help everyone understand what exactly is going on. Before we begin, please understand that I am not a football expert, merely an amateur. What knowledge I have has been gained through studying the analysis of credible resources, then applying that to what I see in the game. With that in mind, please feel free to comment with any further insight you might be able to provide.

First things first, though: we need to understand what a “Cover 2” defense is. For a wonderful introduction to the concept, I am going to refer you to former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who now writes for the National Football Post. His “Inside the Playbook” series has analyzed the Cover 2 and Tampa 2 defenses both on a basic playbook level and in real-time game action. Here are a few articles to get you started:

Now, it’s important to note that there is a difference between Cover 2 and Tampa 2. Both get their name from the two safeties covering each half of the field to eliminate the deep threat with five defenders in zone coverage underneath. The Tampa 2 differs, however, in that the middle linebacker basically will take a deeper drop. It becomes a little more of a Cover 3 concept, but the idea is to help eliminate one of the big soft spots in the Cover 2 defense.

So what is Rodgers talking about? Well, if you did your reading, you’ll notice that the weak-side (Will) and strong-side (Sam) linebackers each drop to the hook and slide with the eyes of the quarterback after reading the run/pass. Thus, any receiver split wide who runs a slant will be heading directly into the zone of an outside backer. Since the Will/Sam is reading the quarterback’s eyes, they can eliminate the quick slant throw, as it will be the first read. Plus, if the corner is doing his job right, he will jam the receiver and disrupt the timing of the play.

Of course, there is a bit of a solution, and it involves the combination of a flat route with the slant to open up some holes in the coverage. This is what Aaron Rodgers was referring to, and interestingly enough, our Cover 2 guru Matt Bowen wrote an article specifically on the concept:

So why does Rodgers say it’s “not a great Cover 2 play”? I’m not a football player or a coach (and even they have their differences), but my guess is that this concept requires very quick recognition and execution. And even then, the throwing window is quite small. If there is a breakdown at any point, or if the quarterback takes too long to read the coverage and get rid of the ball, then disastrous things could happen.

After all, as Rodgers points out, the outside linebacker and cornerback can be in a position to defend both routes.

Even Matt Bowen doesn’t consider this concept a top “Cover 2 beater.” Instead, he has listed the following concepts as his top three:

1. 4 Verticals: get an outside release from No.1 WRs to widen the safeties, create 2-on-1 matchup vs. Mike Backer

2. Flat-7 (corner): Set the bait for the CB (Flat) and target the 7 route in the deep hole in front of the safety

3. Dagger: Seam/Dig (square-in) combo. No.2 will run the seam (clear out the safety) with No.1 coming underneath on the 15-yard Dig route.

That’s all well and good, you say, but that still doesn’t explain why we saw a resurgence of slants against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. Didn’t Rodgers say it wasn’t a great play against their calling card defense?

Yes and no. As is the case with Rodgers, we sometimes have to read between the lines and make sure we’re acknowledging the details. He never singles out the slant route in his response to Jason Wilde; rather, he immediately goes to the slant-flat combination, which we just covered. So while the Packers might have had plans to use more three-step drops and slants against the Bears, they didn’t really utilize that specific concept.

There are also two other reasons they had success.

First and foremost, the Bears aren’t always in a Cover 2 or Tampa 2 play. They showed more single-high safety and other looks (Cover 1, Cover 3) throughout the game on Sunday, probably in part because of the absence of Brian Urlacher and other key players. (The middle linebacker, or Mike, is perhaps the biggest key to a successful Tampa 2 scheme.) Thus, when the Packers had success with slant routes, it wasn’t necessarily against a Cover 2 look.

In his latest radio show, Aaron Rodgers even pointed this out when Jason Wilde asks about the return of the slant game:

RODGERS: What did I tell you last week?

WILDE: That is doesn’t work very well against Cover 2 and then you explained why.

R: And this week they played a lot more one-high safety, played more man and more Cover 3. And so then the slant comes back.

W: And does it work when it’s two high safeties but they’re playing man coverage underneath?

R: No, because usually two high man is inside leverage for those teams.

W: So, because of the way the defense played, that allowed you to bring it back. How valuable is that in your offense . . . ?

R: Yeah, it can be very valuable, but it’s predicated on what kind of coverages we’re seeing.

From there, Rodgers also spoke about the “leverage” that defenses play with. When they play with inside leverage, as the Bears do in their Tampa 2 scheme, the cornerbacks are forcing the receivers towards the middle of the field where the safeties don’t have to extend themselves as far. Conversely, if a defense is playing with outside leverage, then the offense is going to try to hit the inside routes to take that away.

The second, and equally important, reason for the slant’s success this week is that the Packers were able to draw in the linebackers with the threat of a running game. There were a couple key plays where this happened.

The first play actually occurred at the 9:13 mark in the first quarter, when Green Bay had the ball for the first time. After being backed up to the one yard line thanks to the Bears’ special teams and a penalty on Don Barclay, the Packers were being threatened with taking a safety if they didn’t get positive yardage.

Normally, in situations like these, teams like to go to their power running plays, and in fact, that’s how Green Bay was lined up. They were using a 12 personnel package (1RB-2TE-2WR) in a Unit formation with Kuhn as the back, Taylor and Crabtree as the tight end, and Jones and Finley split wide. The Bears, seeing a “heavy” formation, were probably thinking run, and it’s what allowed James Jones to catch the quick slant.

While the Bears are showing a single-high safety look, the safeties actually rotate into a Cover 2 shell. However, I would consider this more of a Cover 2 Man the way the corners are playing the receivers. Still, the key here is the linebackers. They play the run exclusively, leaving what would be their normal Cover 2 zones vacated. With quick separation from Jones, he has a nice big hole for Rodgers to throw in, since the Sam isn’t in the hook/curl zone. The play works, and the Packers get some breathing room.

The next play happened with 13:39 remaining in the third quarter on the Packers’ first drive of the second half. (They would end up scoring their third touchdown to Jones.) On the offense’s first two plays, they ran DuJuan Harris for gains of 21 and zero yards respectively. Now on 2nd-and-10, the Packers run a beautiful play action from the shotgun that might have been a run call to begin with.

They are in an 11 personnel formation (1RB-1TE-3WR) with Jones and Jennings split wide, Cobb in the weak slot, and Finley as the strong side tight end. Harris is lined up next to Rodgers in the backfield.

For the Bears, the linebackers are playing close to the line, with the Will actually lining up almost right behind the defensive end. The safeties are showing a single-high look, though again, it’s more of a disguise since they rotate into a two deep zones at the snap.

Now watch what happens:

Rodgers fakes the handoff to Harris, who looks to run between the center and guard. The Mike and Sam linebackers bite on the run, which again vacates that hook/curl zone normally covered by the Sam in Cover 2. The corner opposite Greg Jennings is playing back about five yards, which allows Jennings to make the clean release and find space for the slant.

In fact, if you look at it, the only player who is signaling pass is Greg Jennings. The other receivers, the tight end, and the offensive line are all playing as though they’re run blocking (which they could be).

The play nets them eight yards, putting them into a manageable 3rd-and-2 situation.

So as you can see, the running game can help open up lanes for the passing game by pulling the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage and out of their zones, creating space for the receivers. Intricate route combinations aren’t the only way to attack the Cover 2 defense. Furthermore, since the Cover 2 and Tampa 2 rely on their front seven to stop the run, playing with an effective ground game can also force a safety closer into the box and out of the two-deep shell.

Note also that a ground game isn’t just established in a single game. As Rodgers noted in his radio show, the success of the Packers’ running attack in previous games had an effect on the defensive approach the Bears would take coming into the matchup.

So we’ll leave it at that for now and return later with the “double slant” concept and how that can be used against the Cover 2.

When we call for more three-step drops and quicker passes from the Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense, we have to understand how the defense affects what they do – as well as how the offense affects the defense. It’s not as cut and dried as we sometimes like to think. I urge you to continue reading up on the Cover 2, Tampa 2, and other defensive schemes and formations to help you better understand how it all works. We’ll do our best to provide some more analysis, as well.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • Tarynfor12

    These break downs of plays are great and even greater when one has all the time needed to understand what was going on pre-snap and post-snap outcomes.

    My head explodes when even trying to make the same deduction with a fake play clock ticking away after spending minutes already reading and watching.

    The speed to disect,redirect and have successful connection to the other 10 guys is why there are only a few that warrant the level of Elite.

    Great job Chad.

  • aaron

    Cant thank you enough for the great vids

  • Pack fan from ATL

    Awesome read. Thanks!

  • Oppy

    ” inside leverage” doesn’t mean the CB’s are forcing the receivers to the middle of the field, it’s actually kind of the opposite.

    “leverage” indicates which side of the receiver the DB plays. If a CB is playing outside leverage, he is positioning himself between the receiver and the sideline. If it’s inside leverage, he’s keeping his body between the receiver and the middle of the field.

    When Aaron says slants aren’t effective because the DBs are playing inside leverage, what he is essentially saying is the DB’s are going to be in between him and the WR on a slant route- in position to either break up the pass or pick it off.

    The DBs can play inside leverage because the 2-deep shell gives them protection over the top. if the WR breaks towards the sidelines and the CB ends up trailing from the inside (normally giving the QB the ability to lead the WR deep to his outside shoulder if there wasn’t safety help over the top), the deep safety on that side of the field comes down and takes away that throw. So the slant is high risk due to the inside leverage, and the cover-2 alignment helps negate the weakness to the sideline that would normally be present with inside leverage.

    • Oppy

      *Oppy is also not an expert and subject to being monumentally wrong!

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks for the clarification, Oppy.

      Though, what I’ve read from Bowen is that the CBs try to force the receivers inside (rather than outside) on Cover 2 zones. That way the safeties don’t have to play a wider field, so to speak.

      Let me do some more research on the leverage issue.

      • Oppy

        THat could be the difference, if we’re talking about 2-man under (2 safeties over the top, man coverage underneath), or 2-man zone defense

        As far as safeties playing wide, that could also be a difference between whether that MLB is dropping deep (Tampa-2, Urlacher style) or more conventional cover-2 systems. I would think there’s no issue with the safeties playing wide when your coverage MLB is dropped in the hole. I could see where you would rather playing outside leverage with the CB’s if you don’t have the MLB drop as deep, that would definitely take some pressure off the safeties and reduce the amount of real estate they are responsible for.