21

July

Packers Xs and Os: What We Might See From McCarthy’s Up-Tempo Offense (Part 1)

Will Aaron Rodgers be leading an up-tempo or no huddle offense in 2014? (Photo credit: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today).

Will Aaron Rodgers be leading an up-tempo or no huddle offense in 2014? (Photo credit: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today).

This off season, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy mentioned two philosophical adjustments he would like to see his offense implement this year: 1) run a faster up-tempo game plan with 75 plays per game, and 2) have three-down players on the field to limit the number of substitutions, which will speed up the game tempo.

These are pretty lofty goals, but the Packers do have the offensive personnel to execute it, particularly because their top three running backs (Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and DuJuan Harris) are three-down backs. The biggest question mark will be if their starting tight end is up to the task of multiple formations and assignments.

In order to execute those two offensive objectives, it’s more than just snapping the ball with plenty of time left on the play clock; it’s an elaborate implementation of situation football.

As my standard disclaimer, I’ve never seen McCarthy’s playbook and none of us will know how he will go about carrying out these plans until the week one opening game against the Seattle Seahawks. But, I will speculate about some things I expect us to see while the Packers are in their up-tempo game.

When to Go Up-Tempo

The offense should only go up-tempo when the score is close or they are behind. If they are sitting on a large lead, it makes sense to slow down the plays to bleed the clock. But, there’s also down and distance rules, as well as clock management strategies, that should be considered.

  • 1st and 2nd downs at almost any distance to gain are acceptable for up-tempo and no huddle.
  • 3rd down and 7 yards or less are also acceptable for up-tempo and no huddle. Longer 3rd downs often necessitate a huddle to ensure the best play call and allow the offense to slow down and gain composure. That is, unless, the offense is in a two-minute drill.
  • Re-huddle after clock stoppages (penalties, out of bounds, incomplete passes, change of possession, instant replay review, etc).

Three-Down 11 Personnel 

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9

June

Xs and Os: The Three-Deep Zone Defense (Cover 3)

The cover 3 pass defense has the cornerbacks and free safety splitting the deep half into thirds.

The cover 3 pass defense has the cornerbacks and free safety splitting the deep half into thirds.

Continuing with our series of defensive coverage shells, this week we’ll take a closer look at the three-deep zone defense, which is more commonly known as the cover 3.

Previously, we looked at the cover 1 and cover 2 defenses.

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers predominantly prefers the single-high safety look, but he has deployed the cover 2 shell frequently over the years.

However, the Packers don’t use the cover 3 all that often, but it’s a defense that every NFL team must have in their arsenal because what it brings to the table.

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

Cover 3 Defense Defined

When defending the field, the defense usually 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 three-deep zone defense (cover 3), the free safety and both cornerbacks play zone defense and each guard a third of the deep half. They must cover any receiver entering their respective third of the field and drive towards to the ball once it is in the air. Additionally, they must carry the receivers vertically all the way to the goal line.

The GIF below highlights the assignments.

output_SaDK67

Strengths of Cover 3

There is no perfect defense in football. If the defense sells out to stop the run, they are extremely vulnerable to the pass. Likewise, setting up a strong back end to guard the pass makes them susceptible to the pass.

The cover 3 is a compromise defense of sorts. Because the deep third is covered by the free safety and both cornerbacks, the strong safety is free to align in the box.

This means the defense can play eight in the box to stop the run. The front seven (defensive line and linebackers) are in the box in addition to the strong safety.

In a nutshell, the cover 3 allows the defense the flexibility. It can be considered a “jack of all trades” defense. It is a very popular run defense, with pass flex, in the NFL because it allows the defense to pack eight in the box and still drop seven into zone pass coverage.

2

June

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

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.

26

May

Xs and Os: Rolling Safety Defense

First round selection Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an excellent rolling safety.

First round selection Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an excellent rolling safety.

When the Green Bay Packers selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 draft, they were hoping they found the last missing defensive back needed to bring defensive coordinator Dom Caper’s single-high safety defensive blueprint to life.

Last week on our No Huddle Radio podcast, Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq on Twitter) from Optimum Scouting briefly discussed how the Packers may use Clinton-Dix, particularly because he’s very good at rolling in coverage.

Clinton-Dix played in Nick Saban’s pro-style defense at the University of Alabama. The ability to roll safeties is one hallmark of a pro-style defense. Both schemes of Capers and Saban roll safeties, making Clinton-Dix a logical draft pick.

We now know two very important aspects of Capers’ defense:

  1. He prefers to play a single-high safety coverage. I previously wrote about it here.
  2. He, and Clinton-Dix’s University of Alabama, likes to roll the safeties in coverage.

For this article, we’ll look briefly look at what rolling safety coverage is.

What is rolling safety coverage?

As is par for the course in this column, we’ll approach this topic as an oversimplification for illustrative purposes.

Essentially, rolling safeties means they are not “locked” into playing one area of the field, one player, or one zone responsibility on defense. They must be able to move around the field and match the formation and/or the pass pattern deployment the offense runs.

In other words, they “roll” match some aspect of the offense.

We will use the cover 1 defense as our current example to discuss rolling safeties. Keep in mind, however, there are near-infinite ways a defense can roll their safeties. Since we’ve only previously broken down the cover 1, we’ll stick with that as our example.

In the cover 1, there are two main ways the defense can roll the safeties:

  1. Roll to the strength of the formation (formation matching defense).
  2. Roll to the depth of the pass patterns (pattern matching defense).

1. Roll to the Strength of the Formation

In the cover 1 defense, the deep safety (usually the free safety) is responsible for the deep half all by himself. He needs to cover anyone entering the zone and drive towards the ball once it is in flight.

Cover1-Fig1

6

May

Xs and Os: The Single-High Safety Defense (Cover 1)

Safety Morgan Burnett hopefully will get some free safety help via the 2014 NFL draft.

Safety Morgan Burnett hopefully will get some free safety help via the 2014 NFL draft.

In the 2014 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers will most likely target a free safety to help out strong safety Morgan Burnett.

Selecting a starting-caliber free safety is paramount because defensive coordinator Dom Capers relies heavily on a safety to play single-high coverage (cover 1) in many of his defensive alignments. No one will argue that safety play was suspect, at best, during the 2013-2014 season.

Many draft pundits believe that selecting a free safety will help strong safety Morgan Burnett play a more comfortable and natural role within the defense, which is closer to the line of scrimmage. The new free safety can patrol deep center field. Doing so will greatly improve the overall defense.

This article breaks down the basics of the cover 1 defense. In a nutshell, it combines aspects of zone and man-to-man coverage. You can get refresher about man-to-man coverage here and zone coverage here.

Cover 1 Defense Defined

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

In the single-high (cover 1), the free safety plays zone coverage, guarding the deep half all to himself. He is responsible for any receiver that enters the zone. He must make a play on the ball as it enters the zone. The GIF below demonstrates his assignment.

Cover1 Fig1

No matter where the free safety lines up at the snap of the ball, if the play is a pass, he must backpedal to the landmark, which is usually between the hashmarks about 15-17 yards deep. Typically, he lines up on the open side (away from the tight end). The whole time his eyes are looking forward at the play. He isresponsible for the deep half, which includes assisting someone else cover a receiver entering the area or guarding anyone who is potentially uncovered. See the GIF below.

Cover1 Fig2

The underneath half may be man-to-man, zone, or a combination of both.

Why Play Cover 1?

The single-high safety defense is an aggressive defense. Generally, it allows for more defenders near the line of scrimmage that can attack the offense.

5

May

Xs and Os: Introduction to Zone Defense

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is known for his elaborate zone coverages.

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is known for his elaborate zone coverages.

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers brought the zone blitz defense with him when he was hired in 2009. Despite playing less zone blitz in recent years in favor of traditional man-to-man blitz packages, the Packers still utilize a fair proportion of zone coverages.

This article will look at some of the basics of zone pass coverage. It is frequently described as covering an area instead of an individual player.

That definition is partially true, but the technique of zone coverage is more complex that that. In fact, it utilizes man-to-man principles. The difference is pure man-to-man coverage has the defender covering the man anywhere on the field. In zone coverage, the defender covers the man only within the area of the field he’s assigned to cover.

Last week we looked at man-to-man coverage. Click here for a refresher.

Why Play Zone Coverage?

There are several reasons teams play zone coverage. The most common reason is because it allows the defense to cover more talented or faster offensive players. If their players are better than yours, it’s recommended you play zone.

Zone usually has “layers” of protection, which means a defender typically has help in some capacity. If he gets beat, chances are someone else behind him can prevent a scoring play.

From a schematic standpoint, zone provides several advantages over man-to-man coverage. While playing man-to-man, the defender usually has his back turned to the quarterback and the ball. In addition to not seeing the ball leave the quarterback’s arm, the defender also cannot see the quarterback scramble for long gains. While playing zone, the defender is often facing the quarterback and ball.

Overall, while playing zone, the play should always be “in front” of the defense and they can react to the ball in an attacking manner.

Essentially, while playing zone, the offense must beat the entire defensive scheme, but when playing man-to-man coverage, the offense must only beat one defender.

We’ve all heard the expression, “No chain is stronger than its weakest link.” Well, in team defense, the worst defender is the weakest link. Zone helps minimize weaknesses and overcomes the idea of “No defense is stronger than its weakest player.”

Assigning a Zone

28

April

Xs and Os: Phases of Man-to-Man Coverage

Cornerback Sam Shields excels at man-to-man coverage.

Cornerback Sam Shields excels at man-to-man coverage.

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers became famous while implementing the zone blitz defense. However, while in Green Bay, he has let his talented cornerbacks, mainly Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, play a lot of man-to-man coverage.

This article looks at some of the basics of man-to-man pass coverage. While it’s popular to simplify it as “you go wherever he goes no matter what,” there’s definitely more to it than that.

While the above tenet is true about going everywhere your man goes, there is the importance of alignment and body position. Also, the overall strategy of defending the pass differs depending on how the defender is covering the receiver.

During man-to-man coverage, the defender usually turns his back to the quarterback. Based on his position with respect to the receiver, he has two options:

1) Play the ball

2) Play the man

For simplicity’s sake, let’s only look at how a cornerback covers a wide receiver in true man-to-man coverage. Assume there is no double coverage or other creative forms of bracketing.

When aligning the cornerback to the receiver, the alignment usually has the cornerback inside of the receiver with reference to the ball.

The reason behind this is because it puts the defender in between the ball and receiver and also allows the cornerback to use the sideline as an extra defender. If the ball is caught out of bounds, it’s an incompletion.

The most basic form of man-to-man coverage is called in phase “even”. The cornerback is running even with the receiver and their shoulders are almost touching.

In phase "even"

In phase “even”

While in phase “even”, the cornerback is instructed to play the ball, essentially becoming a receiver on the play. In this position, the quarterback’s throw must go through the cornerback.

Similarly, cornerbacks often trail the receiver by playing “in their back pocket”. As long as the cornerback is not in front of the receiver, he’s still in phase. If trailing, he’s in phase “hip”. 

In phase "hip"

In phase “hip”

While in phase “hip”, the cornerback also plays the ball.

Conversely, the cornerback may, at times, play in front of the receiver. This is called out of phase.

Out of phase

Out of phase