Welcome to Football 101 presented by The Painted Lines! In this ongoing offseason series, I will be breaking down football concepts to help you better understand what you are watching on Sundays. Each article will take a deep dive into a specific component of the game. We will also be updating a cheat sheet throughout the series that you can bookmark or print out for quick reference on game days. You can also join our public discord to interact with our writers and podcasters and talk X’s and O’s.
If you have missed any of the previous articles of this series you can check them out below:
Without further adieu, let’s dive in! Today we are going to take a look at cover 2 man defense.
Cover 2 man (also called 2 man under) is a man-to-man coverage that relies on 2 safeties to provide protection deep while cornerbacks man up receivers and linebackers man up tight ends and running backs underneath. As a MOFO (middle of field open) defense, there are 2 safeties high, thus making it more susceptible to running plays and play-action passing. As the rule goes: one safety high let it fly; two safeties back, rushing attack.
There are two main techniques for corners to utilize when playing cover 2 man. The first technique is to press coverage. When playing press coverage, the corner will line up right on the line of scrimmage and attempt to get his hands on the receiver at the line and disrupt his route. He will be aligned with his outside foot splitting the receiver and will jam him hard to force him into an outside release. With this accomplished, the corner will settle into a trail technique, trailing the receiver as he goes up the field and playing his inside hip. This allows the corner to play very aggressively on short passes, knowing that a safety will be driving down over the top if the ball is thrown into the intermediate or deep areas of the field.
The other technique that can be used by the corner is off-ball coverage. In these situations, the corner will align himself about 5-7 yards off of the line of scrimmage and use a squat technique. When playing the receiver this way, the corner squats on the key 5-7 yard area where many routes break and drives down hard on the receiver if he makes a cut. If the receiver does not make a cut, then the corner will let him pass and settle into the trail technique previously discussed with safety help over the top.
Cover 2 man, and all man defenses in general are very good against screen passes because they do not allow the offense to overload a side of the field with blockers. For every receiver on that side of the field there will be a defensive back covering him, so the only way a screen pass can be successful is a broken tackle or a creative blocking scheme that pulls an offensive linemen to the boundary to block a defensive back. Another strength of man-to-man defense is that zone flood concepts don’t work. If you remember from Cover 2 zone breakdown, the primary way an offense will attack a zone defense is by flooding one side of the field. Which essentially forces 1 zone defender to pick between 2 coverage responsibilities. This isn’t possible in man coverage since each defender has only 1 responsibility: the receiver lined up across from him.
What is the Weakness of Cover 2 Man?
The primary weakness of cover 2 man is intermediate to short routes breaking towards the middle of the field. Since a defender has no zones in the middle of the field to help him, there is plenty of room to run if a receiver can get off of press coverage and get a step to the middle of the field. On top of that, every defender has to win the rep against his offensive counterpart for the play to be a success (baring a drop, penalty, bad throw, missed read, etc.). All it takes is one defender getting beat for the whole coverage to fall apart. Even the best defender can be beaten by a lesser offensive player from time to time and then it is off to the races.
Another weakness of man-to-man coverage is that it tasks linebackers with covering very athletic tight ends or running backs. Running back wheel routes are a particular concern for linebackers. The wheel route looks like a simple flat route until the linebacker comes charging downfield, at which point the running back will flip his hips and break up field leaving the linebacker in the dust.
Offensive Alignments to Challenge Cover 2 Man
The final major weakness of man-to-man coverage is reduced splits from receivers such as in Bunch or Snug sets. Bunch sets are when the offense stacks 3 receivers on top of each other, typically attached to the line of scrimmage. This causes issues for the defense who must counter with 3 defensive backs lined up on top of them. With all of those bodies in such a small area, at least 1 defender typically gets lost in traffic leaving a receiver wide open.
Snug sets are when the offense brings the receivers in close to the offensive line. They cause the same issues for the defense that bunch sets do and often offenses will combine the 2 concepts at the same time.
If an offense can diagnose a defensive coverage before the ball is snapped they should always win the play. Every defense has a vulnerability that can be exploited, so quarterbacks always try to read the defense before the snap and then confirm that their read was correct after the snap. The defense will always try to prevent this from happening by disguising their coverage in some way. There are two main ways that an offense can try to diagnose man coverage
In a balanced offensive formation (the same number of receivers on each side of the formation), cover 2 man and cover 2 zone will look identical pre-snap. But if the offense comes out in an unbalanced formation with, for example, 2 receivers to the left of the field and 2 tight ends to the right of the field, they force the defense into a dilemma. They can either align both corner backs covering the receivers to the left and shift their linebackers to the right of the field thus tipping off-man coverage, or they can keep their defense balanced and have a mismatch where a linebacker is now required to cover a receiver man-to-man.
This presents another problem for defenses in man coverage. If a receiver goes in motion across the formation and the defensive player follows him, then the offense knows it is man coverage. If the defensive player doesn’t follow the receiver then all of the defensive players must be on the same page and shift their coverage responsibilities, but this will allow the offense a mismatch in personnel.
As you can see like its zone counterpart, man-to-man coverage has its time and place but also has its weaknesses that can be exploited by a savvy offense. The strengths and weaknesses of these defenses are the reason that no team runs one coverage exclusively. Rather, teams will mix and match coverages and do their best to disguise them and confuse the opposing quarterback into making the wrong reads.
That concludes our primer on cover 2 man defenses. Don’t forget to go back and check out our previous article on Cover 2 Zone defense and click on over to the cheat sheet if you want to review the strengths and weaknesses of different alignments. The links for both are at the top of the page. Keep it tuned to the Painted Lines for our Football 101 series and let us know if there is something, in particular, you would like us to cover! Next week we will be back with a primer on Cover 3 zone.