The Cover-2 defense has been a staple of NFL football for a long time. Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy installed his own version of the scheme in Tampa Bay, using the influence of his former coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chuck Noll.
The beauty of the scheme is that it severely limits opposing offenses from successfully executing big plays. As a result, the scheme puts a great deal of pressure on opposing offenses to remain disciplined. In theory, the more plays an opponent has to successfully execute, the greater the likelihood defenders can force mistakes and create turnovers.
There is a two-fold issue with the Cover-2 defense that has to be addressed in order for the scheme to work as intended. The first is that it takes a depth chart filled with players who have the appropriate skill sets at their respective positions to do the job. Although Indianapolis has found regular season success with an extremely powerful offense and small fast defenders who can generate a pass rush, this is not “ideal.”
The defense is “built to play with a lead” but struggles when it does not.
Having big, strong, athletic defensive linemen like Booger McFarland and Warren Sapp in Tampa Bay who can create havoc on the interior of the line, disrupt running lanes, all the while collapsing the pocket and creating penetration is best. Speedy edge rushers will then be able to make fleeing quarterbacks pay as they drop deep into pocket.
Linebackers and safeties play an important role as well, and require speedy athletic players who are capable of filling gaps against the run and dropping back into coverage to minimize the holes available in the zone. The quicker these players can shrink the spaces in the zone, the more effective the defense will be.
Right now, the Colts do not have those pieces. Kavell Conner is better suited to stop the run and fill gaps, but is weak dropping into coverage. Ernie Sims excels in coverage but can have the same difficulties of the recently departed Clint Session against the run — namely gap discipline and a habit of over-pursuing or over-running the play.
Gary Brackett is excellent in both roles, and for that reason he makes the most sense as the leader of the Colts defense and his presence on the field increases the effectiveness of Indy’s defense significantly. Second-year linebacker Pat Angerer has potential and played well against Houston, all things considered, but two players who are capable of playing in both phases leaves the unit one player short.
Safety Melvin Bullitt is a solid Cover-2 safety but clearly not as explosive as Bob Sanders was when he was healthy. That limits his ability to make big play-saving stops (read make up for weaknesses) against the run and will typically only put him in position to make plays against the pass in the same way he did in Week 1 — behind receivers running through zones in front of him, picking up deflected passes and occasionally forcing fumbles.
The second reason the Cover-2 defense fails, particularly as it is played in Indianapolis (particularly without a lead), is that there is inconsistent logic displayed by the strategy to provide opposing receivers with 3-5 yard gaps (limiting big plays remember?) while also placing a great deal of emphasis on generating a pass rush — and playing the run “on the way to the quarterback.” The entire function of the defensive line and the choice to retain defensive linemen in Indy is based upon being an effective pass rusher.
If the front four are incapable of generating a pass rush, the secondary has to maintain coverage for a longer period of time — and their collective cushions open up big spaces for targets to exploit. If the front four are capable of generating a pass rush, the offense has to adjust. When this occurs, the defense should adjust in turn.
The biggest issue? The Colts do not make these adjustments. It is easy for opponents to settle for short passes, quick slants, and to expose the loose zones that are created by playing with too much cushion. A concept far too familiar for Colts fans.
One way to fix the issue is the play tighter coverage at the line, jam receivers, give pass rushers more time to get to the quarterback, and play more toward the line of scrimmage instead of playing away from it. In short, attack the line of scrimmage, attack receivers as they attempt to release into their routes, and be more aggressive.
Will this potentially allow more big plays? Of course. Any time it’s a one-on-one match-up at the line, there is a risk that the defender will get beat and a receiver will get a pass for a bigger gain. However, it also essentially shortens the field in the same way as getting into the red zone does.
Ever noticed how the Colts defense stiffens up somehow the closer opponents get into Colts territory? From the 25 to 15 yard lines the defense is significantly more difficult to exploit. The reason? The zones tighten up without as much vertical space. The cushions get smaller because there is less field to deal with.
The defense gets more aggressive as a result of a circumstance, playing on a shorter field. Why not create those situations more often?
A quick score could occur from time-to-time but the likelihood of three-and-outs and reduced time of possession — the amount of time the undersized Colts defense will have to be on the field — will also result. When Manning returns, the defensive change makes even more sense.
Which team has a greater chance of winning? The team without Peyton Manning who loses the time of possession battle, and maybe gets one easy score off of a big play — or the team with Manning who has the ball for a greater portion of the game and has more possessions than it did in years past?
It seems very clear to me that a Manning led offense will win that exchange in scoring efficiency most of the time. The other option? Continue to give up long time-consuming drives that ultimately lead to scores a high percentage of the time, that keeps undersized defenders on the field for the majority of the game, and that keep the league’s most powerful quarterback on the sidelines.
The funny thing is that this change does not necessarily require massive personnel changes. In fact, it makes the conscious choice to make the most of the personnel that is available. Give your most talented defensive players the greatest chance to succeed — the two linebackers, the defensive ends, a promising group of penetrating defensive tackles, and put faith in your Pro Bowl free safety to make plays over the top.
More pressure could be on the offense to make up for an uncharacteristic score off of a big play. But, the offense will have the ball longer and with more opportunities to achieve that end.
I have no doubt that this is not a perfect system but it should be more entertaining to watch, it should increase the chances for the pass rush to impact the game (strip sacks are common with this group) and it could even create more opportunities for interceptions by tightening coverage and shrinking passing lanes.
I discussed many of these defensive changes in December of 2010 as well. Unfortunately, it seems like these kinds of adjustments have not been considered. It makes for a very familiar and sometimes frustrating defensive performance.