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NFL Terms Explained: Cover 2 Defense

NFL Terms Explained: Cover 2 Defense
Nov 28, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell (24) breaks up a pass to Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (18) in the second half at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Why is it Called Cover 2?

Cover 2 gets its name the same way the majority of other coverages are named — based on the number of defensive backs covering the 3rd level of the field. Cover 2 utilizes two defensive backs on the third level “splitting the field,” with each safety (the primary DBs used on the third level for this coverage) responsible for half. Each safety needs to cover approximately 26 yards or half the distance between each team's sideline. 

What Type of Coverage?

Cover 2 is primarily used as a zone coverage scheme but has multiple variations. The most common variation features 4 pass rushers, 5 defenders covering the second level, and 2 defenders covering the third level.

Which positions cover which zone in this scheme varies based on personnel but can be played in all packages; 3-4, 4-3, dime, nickel, etc. This coverage is designed to take away the short passing game. The defense is trying to keep everything in front of them in this coverage–playing from high to low. Cover 2 is reliant upon forcing receivers’ routes to the middle of the field and watching the quarterback's eyes. The three coverage defenders in the middle of the field and the third level safeties follow the quarterback's eyes and “cheat” to the direction he is looking. Cornerbacks are assigned to funnel receivers inside the numbers where their help is. When this doesn’t happen, Cover 2 incorporates elements of man coverage. 

If a team's outside receivers beat the cornerbacks outside shoulder and start running outside the numbers, the cornerbacks will need to follow the receiver to help the safety to their half. If the cornerback fails to follow the receiver, there will be a gap left between the safety and cornerback as can be seen in the picture below:

The picture above depicts what the common Cover 2 defense looks like. The picture below depicts what changes when a “Tampa 2” coverage is called. Tampa 2 is a variant of Cover 2, with the main difference being the depth of the Mike linebacker. The Mike continues to drop deeper than his usual depth in Cover 2, allowing him to bridge the gap between the middle of the second and third levels of the defense. For this variant to work, the Mike needs to be exceptionally athletic and intelligent – with a great example being Luke Kuechly.

How are Players Aligned and Assigned?

In Cover 2, the cornerbacks are assigned to cover the flat, the middle three defenders (Will/Nickel, Mike, and Sam) are assigned to cover hook to curl, and the two deep safeties are assigned to split the third level of the field in half (Deep ½). The cornerbacks are aligned on the outside shoulder of the outside receivers and can play either press or off coverage but need to keep their receivers inside. The middle three defenders can be aligned in their normally assigned gaps but if there are slot receivers, they split out wide over the slot, on the slots inside shoulder. The middle three defenders must watch the quarterback and try to keep receivers in front of them, looking for quick routes. The two deep safeties aligned a few yards inside the numbers and are responsible for anything that gets past either the cornerbacks or middle three defenders. 

Which NFL Teams Use Cover 2 the Most?

The teams who have used Cover 2 the most this season are the Falcons, Texans, and Chiefs. 

  • Atlanta Falcons: 33.3% of defensive snaps
  • Houston Texans: 22.7% of defensive snaps
  • Kansas City Chiefs: 21.1% of defensive snaps

Houston and Atlanta rank bottom 5 in points allowed, allowing 27.4 and 27.2. However, the Chiefs rank top 7 in points per game allowed, allowing 20.6. 

Stats used from: PFF and ESPN