It sounds like a broken record. Every year the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, whether it’s Garrett, Phillips, or Parcells, convinces fans and media that turnovers will be a bigger part of the defense. They tell you all the drills, film study, and focus they are placing on increasing said turnovers. But every year it’s the same pathetic result: The bottom of the league in interceptions, turnovers, and turnover differential.
Then a couple months ago Monte Kiffin comes in singing the same old song. Is there any reason to believe it will really happen this year? Indeed there is. The reason for the optimism is based on the players on the defense and the scheme they will be running. Don’t believe me? See for yourself…
The Kiffin Defense
Many people refer to Monte Kiffin’s defense as just the “Tampa 2”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Calling the entire thing a Tampa 2 is misleading because the Tampa 2 is really just a singular scheme within his total defensive package. Historically he has run many different schemes and formations and has recently said he plans to run a combination of old and new alike.
In all of his defenses he significantly separates the front 4 (down lineman) and back 7 (LB’s and DB’s). The front 4 are perhaps the biggest mystery and will be addressed at a later day.
Based on assignments and personnel the back 7 are much easier to predict and explain at this part in the offseason. I touched on the coverage last week so this week I will add the missing portion. Let’s look at the different coverages, explain their assignments, and see WHY we can expect greater turnovers this year than those of years past.
When understanding the coverage in Kiffin’s defense there is no better place to start than the famed, Tampa 2 defense. The Tampa 2 is different from the Cover 2 in that the middle linebacker (Mike) drops straight back into coverage to protect the deep seam and go routes between the hashmarks. The two safeties will slide back to cover the outside of the hashmarks on their respective sides. For that reason the Tampa 2 is closest related to a Cover 3 since 3 players are in deep coverage.
With safety coverage deep the CB’s can play the ball aggressively. They want to protect the sideline and force the receiver to the inside of the field. The strongside LB (Sam) and the weakside LB (Will) will cover their territories between the hashmarks and the field numbers. This can also be executed in a nickel package replacing the Sam with the nickleback (Orlando Scandrick not the crappy band).
In all of these coverage responsibilities the defenders are facing the opposing QB. With only shallow coverage responsibility they can play without the threat of being beaten deep (assuming the safeties are reliable). This will allow the defense to play aggressively and jump routes more easily.
The weaknesses are clear. The CB’s must protect the sideline. A shallow route to the sideline is difficult to defend. A deep flag route is also difficult since the safety needs to cover so much territory to make a play. Worst of all, the Mike has vacated his territory to cover the deep portion of the field, allowing an easy checkdown to the halfback.
Kiffin’s Cover 2 Zone will typically employ 4 lineman, 3 linebackers, 2 cornerbacks, and 2 safeties (again, swap the Sam for the nickleback in nickel coverage). 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.
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.
Much like in the Tampa 2, 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 is defending 3 deep routes. Unlike the Cover 3 and Tampa 2, the Cover 2 only has 2 deep defenders. If 3 routes go deep the safeties are at a disadvantage. Another weakness is a veteran QB and receiver can pick apart the gaps in the zone coverage (like Romo and Witten do to others). 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.
Presnap, 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 (completely opposite from their assignments in the zone). The receiver will be allowed to pass on the outside while the CB trails. For the linebackers: 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 to complete a longer route
As you can imagine, the Man version of the Cover 2 has different weaknesses than the Zone. It 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.
Why these schemes are so effective in creating turnovers…
While the Man and Zone coverage within the Tampa 2, Cover 2, and Cover 3 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 then he has lost his advantage.
If he can’t identify the coverage and make a pre-snap read, he will have to read the defensive movement AFTER the snap. Making a read after the snap is infinitely more difficult for QB’s and WR’s. As long as Dallas disguises the man/zone coverage, they will hold the advantage.
In addition, Kiffin will not always just call a straight Man or straight Zone. He will frequently mix the assignments requiring some to play zone defense while others will play man defense – all on the very same play. Just because a QB successfully reads zone on one side of the field, does not mean it is zone on the opposite side of the field.
Remember that in the Man coverage the CB’s are required to force the WR’s to the outside? And while in the Zone they have to force them into the inside? Many CB’s will try to make it look obvious what their intentions are. This baits the QB into assuming everyone else is running the same type of coverage. Smart and athletic LB’s like Bruce Carter and Sean Lee will take advantage and provide the turnovers the Cowboys have been searching for.
Coverages are frequently mixed and matched like this. 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. That is why we can logically expect more turnovers. The defense is finally in position to make plays.