Fundamentals : Zone Coverage Schemes

Thus far in Fundamentals, we’ve covered a lot of defense, but it’s mostly been up front – dealing with the defensive line and linebackers. Today, we venture into the secondary to learn about zone coverage schemes – specifically, Cover 2, Tampa 2, and Cover 3.

Let’s set the stage:

These types of zone coverage are usually run out of a 4-3 formation. We know that a base (and, consequently, basic) 4-3 looks something like this:

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Looks familiar, right? We know who all of these guys are and what they do.

A basic Cover 2 formation isn’t much different:

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The Cover 2 is a classic formation in which there are two deep safeties playing zone defense. Up front, you’ve got a four-man rush (composed of the 4 down linemen) and 5-under (the linebackers and the corners in this example, or players in between the defensive line and the end zone).

Pretty basic, right?

Ok, so here’s the Tampa 2:

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What changed? The middle linebacker – or the Mike – drops back into coverage and plays zone up the vertical seam of the field (inside the hash marks). Essentially, this is a 3-deep formation with 4-under (since now one linebacker is brought back into coverage). In most Tampa 2 situations, the 4-man front protects against the rush and it’s all hands on deck to play zone against passing plays midfield/deep. The success of the Tampa 2 hinges on the effectiveness of the Mike backer – he needs to be fast and athletic to drop back into coverage and also a sure tackler to stop any potential progress.

So why Tampa 2? The coverage was popularized in the mid-90’s by the Tampa Bay Bucs and their coaching staff – namely Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, and Monte Kiffin. Tony Dungy took a lot of defensive strategies from his days with the Steelers. This was one of them (and he gives Coach Noll full credit for being the original mastermind.) The Bucs altered the scheme and made it work beautifully with their aggressive, stingy defense. It’s been known as the Tampa 2 ever since.

Dallas Cowboys fans may want to pay particular attention to this post. With Monte Kiffin as your new defensive coordinator, you’re almost sure to see Tampa 2 in a lot of situations this season.

Moving right along: Cover 3.

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Why isn’t Cover 3 the same as Tampa 2? Both have 3 guys deep, right?

That’s true! But look at who is back there. In Cover 3, two corners and one safety (usually the free safety)  play zone deep, which means they split the end of the field into thirds and cover each portion as a zone. The strong safety sneaks down so that it’s 4-under – this time with three linebackers and a safety.

Blast from the past, but remember when we talked about 8 in the box? This is that. The safety sneaks down into the box, presenting a tough coverage to beat: lots of guys with the flexibility to protect the run or short pass, lots of guys deep.

How are we doing? Make sense? If not, stay tuned for Wednesday’s film room post. It’ll be a big help!

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