Xs and Os: The Double-High Safety Defense (Cover 2)

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The cover 2 defense has two safeties splitting the deep half of the field.
The cover 2 pass defense has both safeties splitting the deep half of the field equally.

Now that the Green Bay Packers presumably have two capable safeties roaming the back end of the defense in Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will probably be playing more cover 2, which is a staple at all levels of organized football.

The cover 2 is a necessity in modern football defenses because the game has evolved into a passing aerial circus. By placing two safeties deep in the defensive backfield, the defense has more protection against deep passes.

This article breaks down the basics of the double-high safety defense, which is more commonly known as the cover 2. As you’ll see, there are different flavors of the cover 2.

Of course, this article comes with my standard disclaimer that this is an oversimplification for illustrative purposes only.

Cover 2 Defense Defined

When defending the field, the defense typically divides the area vertically into “halves.” The underneath half typically extends 7 yards from the line of scrimmage and the deep half usually extends 15-20 from the line of scrimmage.

In the double-high safety defense (cover 2), the free safety and the strong safety play zone defense and each guard half of the deep half. They must cover any receiver entering their respective half of the field and drive towards to the ball once it is in the air.

The GIF below highlights the assignments.

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Strengths of Cover 2

Football teams that face passing offenses usually must play cover 2 during some point in the game. It is an effective defense against the pass because it allows the defense to drop seven defenders into pass coverage. By having the safeties play zone in the back end, the deep half of the field has two defenders guarding against deep throws. This is a more conservative pass defense than the single-high safety (cover 1) defense.

The safeties are there to bail out cornerbacks on deep balls or to double cover more skilled receivers running deep into the formation.

Weaknesses of Cover 2

Since the cover 2 usually drops seven defenders into pass coverage, it means it is primarily a pass defense. In other words, when running the cover 2, the defense typically cannot place eight defenders in the box to guard against the run.

In fact, some teams with mobile quarterbacks have automatic audibles to switch to an immediate quarterback draw any time the defense shows a cover 2 shell.

Another weakness we’ll discuss later is the space between the safeties is a seam that offenses love to attack.

Aligning Cover 2

In obvious passing situations, the defense will often tip their hand and drop both safeties deep in the formation before the snap of the ball. This is to ensure they have adequate depth to defend passes that may quickly enter their zone.

When the safeties line up, the strong safety is usually on the same side of the field as the tight end, which is the strong side of the formation. If there is no tight end on the field, then the safeties align based on the spot of the ball. The better cover safety will usually align to the wide side (field) side of the field and the other safety will align to the short side (boundary).

It’s also somewhat common that rookie safeties always align on the side of the field as their team’s bench so the coaching staff can yell instructions to him.

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However, teams should only tip their hand in obvious passing situations. As previously noted, many teams will simply audible into a running play with only seven defenders in the box.

Since defenses want to play cover 2 in more than just obvious passing downs, but want to avoid run audibles, they must be able to disguise their coverage. There are many ways to disguise the cover 2 pre-snap, but the easiest way to is to show a single-high safety at the time of the snap.

Many offenses have great confidence in passing against the cover 1, so they won’t audible out of a pass to a run if they think they are facing a single-high safety.

On the flip side, the defense wants the offense to believe they are facing a cover 1, but at the snap of the ball if they recognize a pass play, they will rotate into a cover 2, which is a good pass defense. Essentially, the defense has caused the offense to play into the hand. See the GIF below.

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Playing Cover 2

There are three main ways to play cover 2 defense. We’ll discuss each way individually. They all have some similarities, but have a few key differences. What they all have in common is both safeties split the deep half equally and are responsible for any receiver entering their half. No receiver should ever get behind them, and they must drive downhill to the ball in flight.

1. Cover 2 Full Zone

In the full zone, the underneath half also plays zone coverage in addition to the deep zone safeties. The cornerbacks align on the outside of the receivers and give them an inside release. Also, the cornerbacks play off the receivers, with no jam or bump-and-run, and give the receivers a cushion.

This is different than man-to-man coverage, which uses the sidelines as help. In the cover 2, the deep safeties are the help, so the cornerbacks want to funnel the receivers towards the safeties.

The cornerbacks are in zone themselves, so as the receivers run through the underneath half, the cornerbacks guard them. However, once the receivers reach the end of the underneath half and begin to enter the deep the half, the cornerbacks must return to their zone landmark and release the receivers to the safeties. See the GIF below.

Once the cornerbacks release the receivers, they are the responsibilities of the safeties. If more than one receiver enters the zone, the safety must read the quarterback, anticipate the throw, and drive downhill to the ball.

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2. Cover 2 Man

In cover 2 man (sometimes just called “2 man”), the underneath half plays man-to-man coverage protected by the deep zone safeties. The cornerbacks align on the outside of the receivers and give them an inside release. (In straight man with no safety help [or with cover 1 help], the cornerbacks will give an outside release). In 2 man, the cornerbacks may play tight and jam the receivers in bump-and-run coverage.

The cornerbacks carry the receivers anywhere they go on the field. If the receivers enter the deep half, they continue to carry the receivers through the zone. When they do, the safeties bracket the cornerbacks and the receivers to essentially double cover the receivers. This is the “safety help over the top.”

Cover 2 man is a very strong pass defense because at a minimum, the cornerbacks have safety help if they get beat. At best, the receivers are double covered, which is difficult for even the best NFL quarterbacks to make completions against. See the following GIF.

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3. Tampa 2

Tony Dungy, and later Lovie Smith, popularized the “Tampa 2″ defense. While they get much of the credit, it was actually a very integral part of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty.

As previously mentioned, one of the weaknesses in the cover 2 defense is the space between the safeties. Offenses will run route combinations to pull the safeties apart and then run a speedy receiver in the space between them.

To overcome this, defenses can drop their middle linebacker into a deep zone to partially fill the space between the safeties.

While he’s not actually as deep as the safeties, his presence near the seam makes it harder for a quarterback to complete a pass behind the middle linebacker. Basically, even if the receiver gets behind the middle linebacker, the ball must still go through him, so quarterbacks are discouraged to make this middle field throw.

Brian Urlacher was a Tampa 2 middle linebacker, for example.

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Videos

In the first video, Charlie Peprah intercepts Phillip Rivers while playing cover 2. Morgan Burnett and Peprah split the deep half of the field.

On this play, Morgan Burnett lines up deep on the top of the screen playing the free safety. The Chargers’ Antonio Gates lines up to the bottom side, making that the strong side of the formation. Peprah lines up as the strong safety.

Pay particular attention at time 0:48 s, which is when the camera view switches to behind the quarterback. Or, you can click here to fast forward directly to it.

In the play, Peprah achieves proper depth because he is responsible for helping linebacker Desmond Bishop and cornerback Charles Woodson in coverage. Since two receivers are charging towards Peprah’s zone, he has to watch the quarterback and anticipate the throw. Watch as he properly plays cover 2 and lets no one behind him and then he drives towards the ball while it is exposed.

I really like the following video of highlights of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix versus Tennessee in 2012. In that game, Alabama aligned in a lot of cover 2 pre-snap. While watching the video, you can clearly see the cover 2 alignment, but you can also see plenty of safety rolling, which we discussed last week. Also, look for how Alabama rolled into cover 2 after not showing it pre-snap, and also showing cover 2 pre-snap and then rolling into a cover 1.

Final Thoughts

Last season, the Packers did not have a single interception by a safety. There are probably many reasons for this, but I suspect a big factor was because Dom Capers played very little cover 2 last year. He simply didn’t have two quality safeties to execute the defense.

This season, he has more toys to play with. Therefore, I predict we’ll see more cover 2 and, subsequently, some interceptions by opportunistic safeties.

At least we better if the Packers hope to hang with the likes of the Seahawks and 49ers.

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Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WIsports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.

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  • Big T

    Eddie Murphy is going to lead the league for interceptions…

  • JimR_in_DC

    I’m enjoying your articles, Jay!

    • Jay Hodgson

      Thank you! I’m glad you like them, and I plan to write more, so stay tuned.

  • Thomas Hobbes

    So what is the Packers response to the seam in a blitzburgh style 3-4? As you mentioned in your article, Tampa 2 defenses account for the seam by running the mike back, essentially making it a cover-3 scheme. The Packers on the other hand lack an inside linebacker, who is fast enough to really get depth and I don’t recall many situations where either ILB really dropped that far back.

    • Jay Hodgson

      Great question. Granted, I haven’t watched as much film as I’d like because I didn’t purchase the ALL-22 last year, but from what I’ve seen, Capers has run very little zone blitz in the last 2 years. He lets his corners run in man-to-man most of the time. He lets his boundary corner run man-to-man most of the plays regardless of down and distance. If he does blitz, he does like his crossfire blitz.

      But, to answer your question, the Packers have run some Tampa 2. Hawk has been seen roaming the back end, especially in obvious passing downs. Not to pick on Cutler, but watch some of his INTs against the Pack. Several of those have Hawk cover the seam.

      But, the Packers don’t usually run the Tampa 2 as a base coverage. Their favorite look is usually the cover 1 anyway, which has its vulnerabilities on the sidelines.

    • Jay Hodgson

      Thomas, I thought about your question some more on my nightly commute home. I think I have a better answer for you.

      When playing zone blitz, or “blitzburgh,” it’s very unusual and difficult to play a cover 2 shell. There are many reasons for this, but it mainly stems from wanting 8 in the box and having the threat of sending the SS on a blitz at all times. Think Troy P in Pittsburgh.

      So, when zone blitzing, the defense usually starts with a cover 1 shell with pattern matching from the corners. If the offense goes vertical, the corners carry the WRs up the verticals, essentially rolling into a cover 3.

      Some combination of the DL takes the curl/flat vacated by the corners. The LBs (or SS) are blitzing, but they normally have curl/flat in a regular cover 3. So, the DL has to take their role in the zone blitz.

      • Steve Cheez

        37 minutes, you call that a commute?

        • Jay Hodgson

          It also involved a stop at the grocery store.

      • Stroh

        As you mentioned the Packers rarely play the zone blitz. Overall they play a man cover scheme and don’t drop DL into a zone much if at all. I haven’t seen them actually drop a DL since Raji made the big play vs Chi in the ’10 NFCCG. Either way, the TE running a seam route is going to matched w/ either a Safety/Dime CB in man coverage. If it happens and the Packers are in 2 man coverage a LB would pick up the TE running the seam. The LB, probably Hawk, is then running in trail technique basically following the TE up the seam and the Safety on that side then has the over coverage. So you have the LB trailing and working to force a perfect throw by the QB to get the ball over the LB and before the Safety can get there to make a play on the ball.

        The TE in 2 man invariably has a man coverage w/ the LB and w/ Safety help over the top. Its just another receiver w/ man coverage really. But up the seam the LB and Safety work together to create a small window for the QB to throw into.

        • Stroh

          If fans think its poor coverage by the LB, usually Hawk, its more a matter of him playing trail technique w/ the Safety having to drop down quickly enough to create a small window. THey blame it on poor coverage but its also the technique the LB is supposed to play.

          Sometimes the coverage could be tighter, but either way the window is also supposed to be limited w/ the help of the Safety over the top.

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