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Cardinals’ Cover 2 and Cover 3 Zone Defenses

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Examining the Personnel and Scheme Fits

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Under new head coach Steve Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb, the Cardinals now find themselves on the verge of becoming one of the more zone heavy defenses in the NFL. This is quite a departure from the man heavy defenses of the past---and with it comes a number of challenges and question marks.

Cover 2:

Here’s a quick Cover 2 video (1:49) with Solomon Wilcotts, who does a very good job of explaining the zone assignments.

Here are some of my initial thoughts and questions in applying the Cover 2 defense to the Cardinals’ defensive personnel.

· The Cardinals’ starting CBs, Jamar Taylor (RCB) and Patrick Peterson (LCB) can press at the l.o.s. to disrupt the timing of the routes and to disguise the coverage. By pressing it prevents the WRs from getting fast jumps on fly or post patterns, which is a help to the two deep safeties who are covering the deep halves of the field. If the call is a Cover 2, ideally, Taylor and Peterson want to funnel the WRs toward the middle, and toward the hook/curl zones of the linebackers. Again this slows down any fly or deep route. I think Taylor and Peterson should be very good at this.

· The question I have is whether Patrick Peterson will embrace the role of run support/tackler in the Cover 2. His job is to come up and take on blockers and try to make plays on the ball on any run, flare or screen to his side. Cover 2 CBs are typically good tacklers. Jamar Taylor is a physical tackler and thus could be a good fit at RCB, even though Wilks prefers slightly bigger CBs. In coverage, Patrick Peterson has the elite athleticism to be able to cover the flat and peel back to passes thrown beyond him. Taylor is capable in this regard as well. But it takes many practice reps, heightened awareness and excellent anticipation.

· The biggest question mark, personnel-wise, is who plays the twin deep safeties. Antoine Bethea is a good one---but Budda Baker has not yet shown that he can be an effective deep safety in space. Can Rudy Ford or Bene Benwikere take on the Cover 2 safety role? Both players have been making favorable impressions in practice, but will they be able to hold up under pressure against premier passers? This is where it would be wise for the Cardinals to sign S Tre’ Boston or S Mike Mitchell, who would bring ability and experience.

· The Cardinals’ speed and athleticism at linebacker with Deone Bucannon, Josh Bynes, Haason Reddick and Jeremy Cash bodes well for the Cover 2. They key is in the middle at Mike LB with Josh Bynes. In a Cover 2, the MLB when he reads pass, has to show the speed and athleticism to quickly drop into the deep middle, where the defense is most vulnerable. Once his drop is established he can read the flow and react to the ball from there. Will Josh Bynes be able to thrive in this role?

Cover 3:

Here’s an excellent 3:00 video on Cover 3 assignments by former Jags’ DC and current Georgia Bulldogs’ DC Mel Tucker.

· Right off the bat, it appears to me that the Cardinals’ personnel is better suited to play Cover 3 than Cover 2. The main shift is backing the CBs off to cover their deep third of the field and having the SS (Budda Baker) and Will LB (Deone Bucannon) cover the flats. The Sam LB (Haason Reddick) and Mike LB (Josh Bynes) take care of the hash marks on curl techniques.

· The FS Antoine Bethea is lined up in the deep middle and has the primary responsibility of not letting any WR or TE beat the coverage deep, but if the deep routes are to the outside where the CBs have deep thirds, the FS can now cherry pick over the middle, something Bethea excels at.

· When the Cardinals back off the CBs, the defense will be more vulnerable to slant passes and quick posts. This is where sometimes a gutsy DC will sneak the FS up to jump that route. When that is the case the CBs know that they have the deep halves on not just their third of the field. One of the reasons why RPOs have become the rage of the NFL is that they can work like a charm against Cover 3 defenses.

Zone Philosophy:

· They allow defenses to try to keep everything in front of them.

· It’s the best safeguard versus running/scrambling QBs---as sides of the field are not vacated as they often are in strict man to man.

· The best 43 zones, as exhibited by the Seahawks and Panthers, are predicated on good 4 man pass rushes, particularly up the middle---and---by intimidating tackling, where ideally you want the tacklers to arrive at the man at the same time the ball does.

· Good zones require maximum communication. Basically, your job is to play man coverage in your zone and then when that man leaves your zone you need to call out a “handoff” to the teammate whose zone is now being entered. Offenses try to exploit the seams of the zone areas and try to overload or stretch one defender’s area, thus leaving him torn between which man to cover or shade.

Conclusion:

· The Cardinals appear to be better suited to play Cover 3 than Cover 2, although adding S Tre’ Boston or S Mike Mitchell could change that.

· The Cardinals could have the 4 man rush to make the zones work, especially if Olsen Pierre and Robert Nkemdiche can quickly collapse the pocket.

· The Cardinals will need their LBers and DBs to become more forceful, punishing and intimidating in their tackling---while adhering to the NFL’s new tackling rules---which will be a challenge for all teams.

· Steve Wilks blitzed more than any DC in the NFL last year---which puts added pressure on the coverages, particularly in zones where you have to re-assign a defender to cover the empty zone that the blitzer leaves.

· The coverage that might work the best for the Cardinals is a combo man (5 under man) and 2 safeties (zone over the top)---although this could leave them at times vulnerable to QB scrambles.

· They key is mixing, matching and disguising the coverages in order to give the QBs pause/confusion and keep them off-balance. In today’s NFL zones are typically easy for QBs, WRs, RB sand TEs to beat because of the grey areas in the zones.

· In terms of Wilks’ preferred personnel, this year he was only able to draft one defensive player, CB Chris Campbell, who is the type of big, physical CB Wilks likes. The Cardinals re-signed LB Josh Bynes and hopefully he can fit the bill at MLB, as that is such a key position in Wilks’ defense. Acquiring CB Jamar Taylor is a significant plus. DE Benson Mayowa is a solid free agent depth signing and may be the starter at LDE until Markus Golden can play 50 plus snaps a game. What may be a big help to Wilks are the signings of CB/S Bene Benwikere, CB Lou Young and LB Jeremy Cash---all of whom are well versed in Wilks’ defense and have the potential to make solid contributions.