Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) defends against New Orleans Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson (19) at Cowboys Stadium. The Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding the Coverage in Monte Kiffin’s Defense

Over the past two months much has been said about the Tampa 2 defense Monte Kiffin is bringing to the Dallas Cowboys. While some descriptions and details have been excellent some are not so excellent. Granted, Kiffin’s defense is like all NFL defenses, it takes years and even careers to properly learn. Explaining something of this nature can prove almost impossible in the form of an article. It’s really no wonder why so many people are lost and concerned. Think of what you may have heard. It may have seemed really basic. It may have seemed like a simple zone defense. It may appear easily beatable as long as the offense stays patient and executes. Fear not. Simply none of that is true.

Sep 22, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin during the game against the California Golden Bears at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC defeated California 27-9. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Monte Kiffin’s defense is really quite complicated. It has many interchangeable parts and many different disguises. In fact, naming Kiffin’s system the Tampa 2 is misleading since the Tampa 2 is generally just a popular scheme within Kiffin’s system. For confusions sake, we will refer to the defense as just Kiffin’s defense.  Kiffin’s defense is a playbook with many different assignments and many different combinations of assignments. The beauty of it all is that the formation is meant to look the same regardless of what combination is being run. Making it a nightmare to opposing QB’s if it’s executed correctly.

From a coverage perspective let’s take a simplified look at some of the schemes and assignments and explore how they can be disguised, mixed and matched. Hopefully this will make sense, and provide some clarity and maybe even excitement to Cowboy fans eager for 2013.

Many people are guilty of making broad statements like, “Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 is the same thing as a Cover 2.” As you probably know, that is incorrect. Cover 2 is different. It can be either zone coverage or man coverage. It can even be a combination of zone and man on the same play.

Cover 2 Zone

Kiffin’s Cover 2 Zone will employ 4 lineman, 3 linebackers, 2 cornerbacks, and 2 safeties. The safeties will line up 10-15 yards from the line of scrimmage shadowing the tackle box. Those safeties are each primarily responsible for the deep 50% of the field.  If they read pass they will drift back into deep coverage. Note they are not playing anything like a “prevent” safety. They are close to the action and in position to make a play on the ball. A good safety is very important.

Since the 4 lineman do not have coverage responsibility that means the remainder of the field is divided between the 2 CB’s and the 3 LB’s. The CB’s have the outside sections while the LB’s have the inside sections of the field. Every player other than the 4 linemen have a specific zone they are responsible for. If two offensive players run routes into your zone you are essentially responsible for both players.

Cover 2 Zone Strengths and Weaknesses

With 2 trustworthy deep safeties the 2 CB’s and 3 LB’s can play facing the QB and in position to make a play on the ball. They are all in an advantageous position whether it’s a run play or a short pass play. In this situation the CB’s need to protect the sideline and force the receivers route into the inside of the field.

The biggest weakness to this defense is attacking the 2 deep safeties with 3 deep pass routes. Do the math. That matchup doesn’t bode well for the defense. Another weakness is a veteran QB and receiver can pick apart the gaps in the zone coverage (like Jason Witten does so easily to others). The key is the pass rush. Ideally the pass rush wouldn’t allow time to complete the long go routes, the well-executed seam routes, or the slower developing zone gaps.

Cover 2 Man

The Cover 2 Man is designed to look exactly the same as the Zone. The same personnel line up in the same positions. The reason is obvious, so the opposing QB doesn’t know if it’s zone or man.

Many times the safeties hold the same assignments as they do in the Cover 2 Zone and are each responsible for the back 50%. The 4 lineman again have no pass coverage responsibilities while the rest play man coverage. The CB’s will play press with trail technique coverage. Meaning they position themselves inside taking away the slant and forcing the receiver up field. The receiver will be allowed to pass on the outside while the CB trails. For the specific LB’s, the Mike covers the HB, The Sam would cover the TE, and the Will covers the FB in a 21 formation or the 2nd TE in the 12 formation.

The man to man element removes the short passes. If the pass rush is significant the QB will not have time for a longer route because the time to develop would exceed the time allowed in the pocket.

Cover 2 Man Strengths and Weaknesses

The Man version is very susceptible to the fade route. If the CB doesn’t turn his head while trailing, the back shoulder pass can be easily executed. LB’s covering RB’s and TE’s is always a mismatch in the offenses favor and can be exploited.


Cover 2 Verdict

Sep 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee (50) intercepts a pass during the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

While both the Man and Zone have glaring advantages and disadvantages the real key to success lies in how the Dallas Cowboys disguise which one they are doing. If a QB knows you are running a straight Cover 2 Zone he will pick you apart with ease. Same goes for the Man version. But if he doesn’t know he will have to read the defense as he drops back rather than at the line. That makes it much more difficult. But that’s not all. Kiffin will not always just call a straight Man or straight Zone. He will frequently mix it meaning he may have the CB’s line up in Man but have the LB’s in Zone. Remember that in the Man the CB’s are required to force the WR’s to the outside while in the Zone they have to force them into the middle. Many CB’s will purposely make it look obvious what their intentions are.

This makes the QB assume the LB’s are running type of coverage as the CB is showing, and this leads to turnovers.

One CB can play man while another can play zone. 2 LB’s can play man while the 3rd plays zone. Pick your combo. This defense can get extremely confusing to the opposing QB. The hard part is executing it.

Hopefully this provided a little clearer explanation. Even simplified for the purposes of this article you can see how complicated it can really be. And this is only a part of Kiffin’s defense. Digest this today and next week we will take a look specifically at the Tampa 2 (and how it differs from the Cover 2) and the Leo defense.

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