Packers Xs and Os: The Randall and Rollins “Mirror” Defense

When Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson selected defensive backs Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins with his first two picks in the 2015 draft, fans began to immediately wonder if they were safeties or cornerbacks.

Discussions quickly popped up that they would play cornerback. Then slot cornerback. Then back to safety. Then as hybrid cover players. And so on.

So, which is it?

In the end, it really doesn’t matter because the modern NFL needs its non-box safeties to cover like cornerbacks anyway, and Randall and Rollins aren’t the box type (think Landon Collins, who is a a box safety and struggles in deep coverage). Thompson undoubtedly selected players who can roam all over and cover receivers across the field.

That simple explanation seems to answer that question on the surface. However, it warrants a deeper investigation to understand what goes on in the war room and the defensive backs meetings.

And that answer may have popped up on Twitter the other day.


The answer may be the “mirror” defense.

The mirror defense in its most simple form calls for its defenders to do all the same things so they don’t have to switch sides of the field for different coverages.

In other words, whatever the offense throws at the defense, the defense can handle it without rotating players across the field. No matter which defensive backs are on the field, they must be able to do the same things on the right and left sides of the field, and they must be have the same coverage skills in shallow and deep pass defense.

Identifying good cover safeties in the draft is becoming increasingly important, and difficult, because many college coverage schemes have them playing deep and driving downhill to the ball, oftentimes assisting cornerbacks underneath them. They need to develop isolated, trailing coverage for NFL spread schemes.

To illustrate the mirroring concept (as an oversimplification), let’s take a look at some very basic tenets of pass defense against a 2×2 offensive formation. The 2×2 is a spread, which takes away safety help and requires the safeties to cover receivers one-one-one. These basic principles apply to most zone and man-to-man defenses.

Slide1

In the formation above, that Randall and Rollins are the safeties. They could also be considered as slot cornerbacks against the 2×2 formation. It really doesn’t matter when it comes to pass coverage what you call them. At this point in the off-season, both Randall and Rollins are projected to play against the inside routes and receivers.

Pass defenses protect the field from the inside-out and deep-to-shallow, and therefore must always be prepared for all vertical routes with no safety help over the top. The picture below shows the basic coverage responsibilities for man-to-man and most zone concepts.

The receivers on both sides of the formation are labeled as “1” or “2.” The number 1 receivers are the outside and the number 2 receivers are the inside.

Slide2

Both the cornerbacks and the safeties must read both the number 1 and number 2 receivers. Specifically, the cornerbacks read the number 1 receiver first and the number 2 receiver second; the safeties read the number 2 first and number 1 second. This is consistent with the inside-out coverage philosophy.

In the picture below, if all four receivers go vertical, the match ups stay the same. In the case of Randall and Rollins, they must be able to carry the number 2 receivers vertically down the field. Safeties sometimes have trouble carrying speedy receivers vertically in the all go packages, so coverage skills are a premium. In many coverage shells, safeties play over cornerbacks carrying receivers vertically in a bracket, so they don’t have much experience running the verticals.

Slide3

However, if all four receivers do not go vertical, the cornerbacks and safeties must read the number 1 and number 2 receivers and adjust their routes accordingly. In other words, the safeties must be prepared to cover underneath or vertical routes, and they both must possess the skills to do so.

In the example below, if the right number 2 receiver runs a route towards the inside of the formation, the safety must drop down to cover the 2 because he’s responsible for the middle of the field and he has outside help from cornerback carrying the deep route. Even though the cornerback is shallower in coverage, the safety is still responsible for the inside. Due to the nature of coverage shells, many safeties are experienced and skilled at driving towards the ball, so this coverage is no problem for them.

Slide4

In the example below, if the left number 1 receiver runs short and the left number 2 runs deep (this is the “smash” concept), the cornerback must cover the underneath route because he’s the closest to it and there is no one outside of him, while the safety must carry the number 2 vertically because he’s the deepest defender and responsible for the inside receiver, even he breaks outside on top of the cornerback.

Slide5

Additionally, the picture above shows that if the right number 2 receiver runs a short out, while the right number 1 runs a vertical, the safety and cornerback must switch their coverage responsibilities. This is called pattern matching. The example above on the right side of the formation is sometimes called “palms” coverage.

In palms, the cornerback is the closest to the number 2, so he must cover him, vacating his outside responsibilities. The safety, since he’s deeper, is responsible for the number 1, vacating his inside responsibilities. This is why is called switching–because they switch both receivers and inside-out responsibilities.

The examples I discussed above are oversimplifications of pass coverages, but they do illustrate the skill sets necessary in today’s defensive backs. They must have the ability to cover short and long, and must be able to switch on the fly.

Also, the offense can roll out any pattern combinations on either the left or right side of the formation, so the defensive backs on both sides of the field must be able to rotate and cover inside, outside, short, and deep. Flip the pictures above around in mirror images, and the safeties must be able cover the same routes on either side.

Those skill sets are hard to find. That probably explains why Thompson selected versatile players with his first two picks.

So, if Brian Carriveau, Charles Davis, and Daniel Jeremiah are correct that Ted Thompson is looking for mirrors in Randall and Rollins, we can expect to see similar coverage concepts out of them in the future.

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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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  • Since ’61

    Very good article. I mentioned in one of my first posts following the draft that TT is trying to build a defense with versatile players who can stay on the field against the up tempo no huddle offenses that more and more teams are trying to run. The analyst mentioned that Randall and Rollins possess that type of versatility. TT has a grasp for how the game is evolving and he is trying find the type of players required to be successful. We’ll see how it plays out with Randall and Rollins. We still need to stop the running game. Thanks, Since ’61

    • Rossonero

      If Raji makes a comeback, Giuon stays solid and someone rises to the ILB role, I think this defense can drastically improve. I would be surprised if Rollins and Randall are stars…I think we will hit it big with one of them though.

      • Oppy

        Rollins’ ceiling is breathtaking high.

        If he continues to grow into his position like you’d expect a one-year collegiate athlete to do, he could be a star. Think of Rollins as a collegiate freshman in terms of his exposure to the sport and position. The majority of the players in the draft had at least two more years of development vs. collegiate competition than Rollins had, and most are expected to grow even further in the pros. Rollins played one season of college football, and was the best defender in his conference. Just imagine what he could become with further training and exposure.

    • Archie

      “TT has a grasp for how the game is evolving and he is trying find the type of players required to be successful.”

      I agree.

      In the end, every team goes as far as its weakest link can take it, which, in GB’s case, is its front 7 on defense. However, w/o new blood in the secondary, it too would have been similarly weak.

      Thus, there were two ways for TT to go in this draft – build the front 7 (which he has been unsuccessfully trying to do for a long time now) or take this opportunity with TW/House leaving in FA to infuse versatility into his secondary. Apparently he felt R&R represented the right time and price to do so.

      If R&R become quality starters at inside CB/S then this could be a great development for the defense for a long time to come. Heck, I’m even good with using two big thumper S at ILB in this day and age.

      With the rule changes favoring the passing game, and more teams playing the no huddle, it is smart to draft personnel that can cover and play hybrid CB/S or ILB/S roles. Had Malcom Brown not been on the board at pick 30, I would be cheerleading for these two picks. As it is, I am excited to see what they can do for our defense. Maybe CB and hybrid CB/S and OLB who can pass rush are the premium positions on defense going forward and the ILB/DL are low value try hard types with short shelf lives.

      TW and House were offered crazy money. TW is on the downside of his career and House is really more an outside CB so he lacked the versatility that TT wanted. However, I wonder if putting House on the outside and Hayward and Rollins inside would have been better. Also, all of this raises the question of what are we going to do w Morgan Burnett. Is he good enough in coverage to be part of a mirrors type secondary? I wouldn’t think so. But maybe TT has no plans to give him another contract when this one runs out. Maybe he is a stop gap to get us from here to Rollins.

    • Jay

      I think the run defense will improve this year with Raji back in the mix and if Ryan pans out.

  • croatpackfan

    I will give you mark excellent for the article… In addition what Since 61 wrote and concluded, the “football player” concept is now uncover. That is what Ted Thompson wanted to explain who he drafted in first 2 rounds of the draft… Despite Ted’s and Dom’s age, they are looking to build the most advanced defense in the league…

  • rsmitty

    2015 – the year of the hybrid. I like the way Ted and co. are building this roster. Versatile players that can play multiple positions in their level of defense. (LBs that can play inside or outside and CB/S hybrids.) It’s going to be exciting watching the defense grow the next few years.

    • dobber

      It really goes against the trend in the NFL over recent years to specialize and go to sub-packages. In essence, it’s saying that these guys can handle anything you’re going to throw at them, so bring it.

      • Jay

        That’s just it–the offenses have caught up to the sub packages. Just look at Eddie Lacy. He’s the most effective against the nickel 6-man box. Against a 7 and 8-man front, he’s not as effective. Defenses need versatile players on the field that can handle multiple personnel packages of varying down and distances.

    • Other than CM3, which LBs have proven that they can play inside or outside? IMO, none have. Which DBs have proven they can play inside or outside? Maybe Hyde, since he can play slot/nickel and a below average FS. I’d suggest that he would have be a pretty good SS, though, it was just that they needed him at FS until Ha-Ha gained some experience. It may be that the guys can switch around if necessary. Time will tell.

      • mr.anderson

        Nothing has been proven, so you’re right there, but those are definitely the guys that the Packers have been going after the past few years. Hyde has clearly shown his versatility, pure football player no matter what he’s asked to do – if you don’t see that then there’s no hope for you. Ryan played everywhere in college, so here’s hoping he can do it at the next level. Neal finally showed he has the ability if he can stay healthy, and hopefully we see the same from Datone and Perry this year, and Collins and Randall for the future.

        • “Hyde has clearly shown his versatility, pure football player no matter
          what he’s asked to do – if you don’t see that then there’s no hope for
          you.”

          Geez, I only wrote that Hyde has proven he can play the slot, FS, nickel, and that I thought he could play SS. So I guess there is hope for me after all (but you can go ahead and sharpen your elbows some more).

          • mr.anderson

            You said that Hyde was ‘maybe’ a versatile player…

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  • Rossonero

    I know they are different sports, but in European soccer, the Dutch invented a similar concept called “Total Football.”

    It’s where any outfield player can assume any other position on the field. Rinus Michels invented it and pioneered it from 1965-1973 with Dutch club Ajax.

    It places a lot of technical and physical demands on players, but Ajax was wildly successful, only losing one league game from 1971-1973 and winning four cups.

    What I admire the most about TT is his long-term vision. Finding versatile enough players to “mirror” each other and, in a way, employ Total Football from a defensive back standpoint, is not easy to do, but can set up the defense for years of success.

    Very nice article as well!

    • TedTomsin

      “What I admire the most about TT is his long-term vision. ”

      Same here Rossonero!! With the exception of Nostradamus, nobody has better long term ability to see into the future than Ted.

      I said it a few days ago to a few scoffs but I really believe these first two picks of Ted could change how team’s scout players. Ted is constantly setting the trends. People here need to understand and appreciate we’ve got the Michael Jordan of GM’s.
      Ted

  • Jay
    • I’m happy to hear Bowen’s opinion is so high. IIRC, you have a good opinion of Bowen’s acumen. I listened to him four times. I note that he starts with Rollins rather than Randall. He suggests that R&R will compete with Hayward at CB. Doesn’t say that much for Hayward, and I note that the scouting reports question whether R&R can provide immediate help, given their inexperience. Bowen mentions Shields, Hyde, Ha-Ha and Burnett, without saying anyone is actually good, which he does immediately when discussing the Jets and Seahawks. I still think we can “get by” without R&R contributing much, and I think the secondary can be extremely good if someone comes through at outside CB. Floor is decent secondary play, and it could be very good.

  • Chris Johnson

    I’m assuming these concepts would be used with a base formation on the field (at least in the above examples). Interesting way to keep 7 in the box and provide adequate coverage, if it works. Has big play potential if a read is made incorrectly or an all out blown coverage with vertical threats and no help over the top. Also, where do you think Ha Ha fits into all of this. Are you saying down the road, Ha Ha and Burnett may not even be our base safeties on the field? Nice article, btw.

    • Jay

      Thanks for reading and commenting. My article was a big oversimplification. Capers has shown he likes 5 and 6 defensive backs in his packages, and I only showed 4. In most situations, I expect Burnett to be a box safety, where he’s the best, and Clinton-Dix to be a cover safety over the top. Still, any time an offense rolls out 4 verts, there’s going to be single coverage without safety help. Therefore, whoever plays the slots will have to turn and burn, which is something that Burnett can’t do and Clinton-Dix is ok at, but he’s much better and driving down hill and being a ball hawk.

      • Chris Johnson

        Gotcha. I should have taken your “this is an oversimplification” quote to heart. You weren’t looking to show anything but the concept. Good point about safety help when 4 receivers line up and are running verts too. Always 1-1

        • Jay

          Bingo.

          • Robert Olson at CheeseheadTV has a nice article (5/21/15) on Cover Buzz 3 and the Nickel Bear scheme with nice film. I noted that Burnett plays the Buzz Safety on one play and Clinton Dix is the Buzz Safety in another example. I am sorry to say that usually if I am watching the game on TV I can’t see these movements in the secondary.

            • Jay

              I haven’t read the article yet, but I’m familiar with the buzz rolling safety concept. About a year ago, I wrote an oversimplification of this concept predicting they would use Clinton-Dix in a rolling package: http://allgbp.com/2014/05/26/xs-and-os-rolling-safety-defense/

              In the purest form of Capers’ defense, he wants his safeties to be able to do the same things, which the buzz calls for. Also in the purest sense, he prefers an odd safety coverage on top (cover 1 primarily, and then cover 3 as another option).

              Unfortunately, the reality of it is that his safeties can’t do everything the same, so there’s few coverages he can call that allows them to mirror this way.

              Also, the buzz defense is still an “over the top” zone, where the defenders drive downhill to the ball. It’s not a “turn and burn” coverage that Randall and Rollins were drafted to do in typical man-to-man and quarter coverages.

  • Certainly a thought provoking article, and I greatly enjoyed it. Essentially, it advocates elevating the positional importance of FS and especially SS. One might infer that Burnett (and his $5.1/$6/$7 million cap hits over the next 3 years) is inadequate for the mirrors concept, and Clinton Dix is a little above average for the concept. All one needs to run it is Nick Collins or Earl Thomas at FS and Chancellor at SS. [I haven’t forgotten your suggestion of running certain routes/scheme against Seattle to make Chancellor cover.] A more likely result is that one gets a mediocre JOAT (jack of all trades). Versatility is great. CM3 is versatile (but also one of the most highly paid players in the NFL). But most players, even high draft choices, are better at some things and so-so or even marginal at others. See Datone, Boyd, Perry. Not long ago there was also a debate about whether Capers’ scheme was too complicated. Hows does drafting versatile guys like Randall figure into the complexity issue? And what happened to coaches changing their schemes to fit the strengths of the players he has to work with? Your article notes that for all their versatility, Rollins and Randall are not box safeties. The only box S is Burnett, and whatever the heck Richardson is.

    The good news is that few teams can put 4 good WRs on the field at the same time. Even GB struggled to put 3 good WRs on the field last year, and 4 was out of the question. That said, it seems every year there is a bumper crop of highly touted WRs, and weak safety prospects. Sounds to me like Mirrors is on a collision course with what the draft typically provides.

    • Jay

      Very good points, as always, and good questions.

      When it comes to scheme, I really think Capers has simplified things greatly since he first arrived in GB. You hardly see any more zone blitz stuff, and he runs a lot of man-to-man and quarters coverage these days. He sprinkles in some cover 2 and cover 6 here and there, but he simplified the back end of the coverage.

      Richardson was a box safety in college, but that didn’t prevent the Packers from trying him out as a cover safety. I don’t think that worked out too well, so I expect to see him as a box safety again and even the linebacker in nickel and dime personnel.

      • Your articles are great. I don’t want to seem too negative. I often come back to my philosophy in a cap-driven NFL which allgbp has sometimes called “moneyball.” My fear with all this versatility is that it delays development and violates my concept that one needs good play for as many years as possible from players while they are still on their rookie deals.

        • Jay

          Your comments never seem negative and I enjoy reading them. They start conversations (and also give me ideas for future articles).

          • I thought Hyde should be given a shot at replacing Burnett. I thought Hyde took one for the team opening up at FS while Clinton Dix developed a bit, and Hyde overall had a bad year, perhaps because of it. But he seems well suited to SS, and probably has better man (and zone?) coverage skills than Burnett, who was thought to have “solid man coverage skills” in his scouting reports. Burnett was also thought to have some versatility when he was drafted.

            • Jay

              Burnett had a good bounce-back year in 2014. He’s the type of safety who plays much better when he has a good safety with him. His 2013 stunk because he was asked to cover more because MD Jennings was so horrible back there. Burnett is a better box safety who plays well with a good cover safety, and Clinton-Dix allowed him to return to his more comfortable role.

              Hyde can play safety, but he also excels in the slot. I think Capers really trusts him in the slot because he’s very good in run support against outside runs, zone reads, and mobile quarterbacks.

  • Kudos to allgbp for writing so many interesting and thought provoking articles since the draft! Given the dearth of breaking football news, many sites are really struggling to put out interesting articles, but not here.

    • TedTomsin

      Yeah, I noticed everyone has left Cheesehead tv which you go too a lot Reynoldo. All the writers have vanished and now Nagler is doing it himself. Did DannyDS drive everyone away? I also noticed he vanished. Did they ban him finally? I used to post there but got into a fight with that a hole and never went back. I hope they canned his ass for good.
      Ted

      • Jay

        Brian got a job with 247 Sports and Jayme has been dealing with some pretty serious health problems. CHTV is one of our friend sites and we want to see them have a strong presence.

        • TedTomsin

          Aaah, that explains it Jay. Glad to hear Brian got a promotion. He was the one guy that worked his ass off at that place getting up articles. I always enjoyed reading his stuff. I only had a problem with Stroh aka DannyDS so that’s why I left there. I’ll read the articles there from time to time but I won’t post anymore as they are not worthy of reading my stuff.
          Ted

      • Nagler banned DannyDS for being argumentative.

        • TedTomsin

          lol.. he did? That makes my day!!
          The only bad thing is:
          A. He’s going to come back under a different name at Cheesheadtv but I doubt he will the second time as his ego is too big.

          B. He’s going to come here which I hope he doesn’t and if so that Jersey Al bans him as well because I know he was here for a while under his Stroh name and got into a pissing match insulting Jersey Al regarding Crosby I believe.
          The guy can’t shut his mouth so he’ll need another place to set up shop. I just hope and pray he stays away from here.

          I know this guy and his style and I see already a new guy here that could possibly be him but I will wait to see if his true personality comes out. I’ll know if it’s him very quickly.
          Ted

          • It probably didn’t help Danny that he was arguing with Mr. Nagler when he got banned. DannyDS is on APC.

  • GorillaNationUSA

    I really think, 3 years from now, QR is going to be the best DB from this draft and not even close. His athletic ability+size+intelligence seems off the charts.

    I was disappointed with the first 2 picks. At the time. I guess that’s the same as I was with the picks of: Brohm, Jerel Worthy, Harrell, Neal, Vonnie Holliday. But also with Jordy Nelson, James Jones & Clay Matthews (whoops I am stupid). So nobody knows how these players will pan out.

    But it is clear that Rollins athletic ability and ball skills are exceptional, clearly Pro Bowl ability.

    Great birdie putt by Tom Lehman there to open round 2 at the 76th Senior PGA Championship. Go Tommy!