All-22: How the Eagles Lean On Cover 3

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Your 2014 Eagles Almanac is now available for pre-order.

If you’ve missed this publication the past two years, it’s a comprehensive look at the season ahead with contributions from a variety of talented writers.




There are also some untalented writers who are allowed to pen chapters. That's where Tim and I come in.

My piece this year focused on the defense as a whole. What did Billy Davis run in his first year as the Eagles' coordinator? What were the strengths and weaknesses? What changes are in store going forward?

Below is part of what I wrote, focusing on one of the Eagles' primary schemes on the back end: the Cover 3.

And remember, order your Eagles Almanac today!

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Where the primary issues surfaced on defense was through the air. The Eagles finished 25th in passing defense DVOA and relied on takeaways (19 INTs) to stay afloat.

"We played basically a traditional three-deep and quarters type coverage, and then quarter-quarter-half zone coverage," said defensive backs coach John Lovett. "[Those] were our main calls. And then on third down, we tightened things up. We played some different forms of man coverage. If you look back in a nutshell as far as what we did, it would fall into those general categories."

The one coverage the Eagles went to over and over again (specifically on early downs) was the three-deep zone, or Cover 3. That featured three deep defenders (two cornerbacks and a safety) splitting the field into thirds and four "rally" defenders (usually two inside linebackers, an outside linebacker and a safety) underneath.

Here’s an example of the Eagles’ Cover 3 from the playoff game against the Saints:

cover3a_all22

Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are the corners. Nate Allen is stationed deep.

The cornerbacks’ jobs in this coverage are to not let anything get outside of them or behind them. The deep safety’s job is to patrol the middle of the field. When played correctly, post routes, corner routes and vertical routes outside should be taken away.

"You gotta have zone eyes in our Cover 3s, and we’re responsible for our deep third, making sure we can see our No. 2 receiver to our No. 1 receiver and sort out the routes as they come," Fletcher said.

The number system Fletcher uses refers to the alignment of the receivers to each side of the formation. The receiver closest to the sideline is the No. 1. If there’s a slot man, he’s No. 2. And so on.

While Cover 3 is a zone defense, it has man principles. Chip Kelly often talks about "plastering" to receivers after the routes express themselves.

"Once routes get down the field, it turns into man at the end of the day," Fletcher said. "At first you have to sort out the routes."

Some defenses, like Seattle’s, will have the corners press receivers at the line of scrimmage and then bail into their deeper thirds. But that technique can only be used if the personnel fits. Eagles cornerbacks often played off and retreated right away.

The deep safety, meanwhile, is asked to overlap his zone with those of the cornerbacks.

"I’m in the middle of the field so I’m protecting the corners on post routes," said Malcolm Jenkins, who admitted he did not play a lot of Cover 3 in New Orleans. "I’m protecting inside players on verticals by your tight ends and wide receivers. But at the same time, somebody like me, I get a little nosy and I like to try to rob some things when I know my corners can lock down their sides, and then I don’t have to babysit them. You can make a lot of plays, especially off tipped balls and overthrows. You’ve just gotta find a way to get around the ball."

Jenkins’ nosiness could be a welcome addition to the defense. The example in the image here ended up being a 21-yard completion to TE Jimmy Graham. All season long, Davis stressed to the defensive backs to play deep to short. Oftentimes, that ended up meaning playing conservative and allowing gaps in their zone defenses.

cover3c_all22

The Cover 3 is naturally going to be vulnerable against throws down the seam, and the underneath defenders failed to get their hands on Graham at the line of scrimmage in this example. But take a look at how deep Allen is playing. He has no chance of getting to the ball in time to break up the pass or deliver a big hit.

Asked what width the safety is responsible for, assistant defensive backs coach Todd Lyght said: "It’s basically 4 yards inside each of the numbers from 4 yards inside each of the numbers. But we like our players to play overlapping. Obviously when you take great angles to the ball and you play with speed and you play with knowledge, then you have an opportunity to do really, really well."

One weakness of the Cover 3 is that it allows offenses to complete underneath passes with relative ease. If a defense were committed to playing Cover 3 for an entire possession, a quarterback could dink and dunk his way down the field.

"The thing with Cover-3 is everybody has to know the weakness is underneath," Jenkins said. "And that’s where we want them to throw it. So if they throw a 5-yard route, we just make the tackle and we live with that. That’s what we’re giving up. What we don’t need to do is get nosy on those short underneath routes and then you open up the seams behind it.

"Then you put the safety in position where he has to drive. And now you’ve got these posts coming behind your safeties. So if everybody’s playing top down, you may give up some yards on checkdowns and it may look bad on the stat sheet, but that’s what you’re playing for. You’re playing to take away the deep routes and make them check everything down."

cover3b_all22

The underneath defenders split the field into four zones. The two outside guys play the curl to the flat. They will sometimes be tasked with starting up near the line of scrimmage, showing pressure and then retreating to their zones.

"It’s a harder drop for the linebacker because we start on the line," Connor Barwin said. "We have to go all the way from the line of scrimmage at usually a 45-degree angle, and we have to get 12 yards deep. So the hardest part is getting your depth. And then you’re curl to flat, so usually you’re departure angle is about 1 or 2 yards inside the No. 1 receiver. And then you just read where he goes."

The underneath defenders are known as "rally" players. Their jobs are to rally to the football and finish tackles, limiting the damage after the catch on the short, high-percentage throws. The cardinal sin for the curl/flat defenders is not getting enough depth, noted Barwin.

Meanwhile, the hook/curl defenders patrol the middle of the field underneath.

"Most of the time [when] we play zone drops, some aggressive defensive coordinators like to hug you up 8 yards, 10 yards [from the line of scrimmage]," said inside linebacker Najee Goode. "And then some guys like to play deep, 10 or 15. Depending on what we see on different opponents, we might do either/or. You’re playing inside the hashes or outside the hashes depending on what the formation is. You’ve got three guys over top of you so you can let guys run underneath and kind of get... those big highlight hits you see."

Davis loves having his inside linebackers threaten the A-gaps to either side of the center at the line of scrimmage. The overall scheme counts on bringing pressure from different areas and disguising looks before the snap. By showing the inside linebackers in the A-gaps, the idea is to force the offensive line to account for them in protection, even if they eventually end up dropping back.

Like the curl/flat defenders, the hook/curl players can’t get greedy. They have to get enough depth. If a pass is completed in front of them, they rally and make the tackle. If they cheat up and allow a pass to be completed behind them, the scheme breaks down.

There are other vulnerabilities as well.

"I think obviously the seam routes are gonna expose that a little bit, especially with play-action pass where the second-level defenders aren’t able to carry the seam route," Lyght said. "Also the dig routes. Play-action pass is gonna hold second-level defenders all the time, so as a defensive back and as a former player, you have to be able to drive aggressively on those routes, knowing that your safety’s gonna be able to back you up if there is a dig and up or a double move.

"Every defense has vulnerabilities, but the key for us as coaches is to explain the vulnerabilities of the defense, explain the strengths of the defense and get the players to understand and comprehend what the strengths are and what the weaknesses are and how the offense is gonna try to attack every defense."

By all accounts, the Eagles are going to continue to play a lot of Cover 3. They are counting on two different factors to produce better results. One is continuity and familiarity with the scheme. Two is Jenkins at safety instead of Patrick Chung.

"The spacing is what is 10 times better now than it was a year ago," Davis said. "Understanding where your spot is in relation to the guys on your right and left and how that fits together. And playing deep to short. We know that there is some error in that coverage. We know that. We make it that way. So I think the spacing is better in our zones."

There’s room for improvement in every area of the Eagles’ defense, but plenty of resources this summer will be devoted to making sure they generate better results when playing Cover 3.

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Thanks to our friend Coach Flinn for his help on this post. Be sure to give him a follow on Twitter.

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  • RyGuy

    I felt like this style of Defense allowed the opponent to get into a rhythm and dominate the time of possession battle. It also kept our offense cold on the benches for long stretches. With a high powered offense like the Eagles, I’d like to see a more “work for every yard” style defense. If they score on a lucky deep route, so be it. But at least our offense will be back on the field faster. The elite teams in the NFL thrive off of long sustained drives.

    • anon

      Agree with you but think the idea is to make people run 20 plays a drive – puts pressure on them to put a drive together instead of just beating us over the top with a big play. That was the worst thing about watching Eagles in 2011/12.

      What worries me is that if we’re going to man on 3rd down then our corners are TERRIBLE at playing man.

      • RyGuy

        Its possible that this defensive scheme is personnel driven rather than Billy Davis’ core defensive philosophy. Perhaps they feel that this will produce the best results with the limited talent that they have on that side of the ball. However, there are so many downsides to allowing the opposing team to dink and dunk their way down the field. It tires out your defense, gets your offense out of rhythm and it usually hurts the field position battle as well.

        I think this philosophy would be okay if our offense wasn’t as potent. But with Chip Kelly’s offensive genius, I’d choose to have the offense try to match points with the other team rather than try to grind out a defense battle with less talented players.

        • Jason

          I think time/score dictate that to a degree. If this is the second half defense that is protecting a two score lead then I can live with a team needing 15 plays.
          But, I completely agree that I would like to see a more aggressive defense early in the game. You have plenty of time to make up a poor coverage or one great play

      • CHRIS – CB with dreads

        Agreed. The biggest improvement I want to see this year is on 3rd down. Gave up too many 3rd-and-long’s last year.

    • Engwrite

      I agree. What’s more, if our Defense stays on the field long–as was the case last year–it under utilizes a key advantage of Kelly’s Offense: grinding the opponents D into the ground. I would rather gamble and try to get the opponents O off the field and if that fails and they score, I’ll take my chances that my O can outscore theirs.

    • 370HSSV 0773H

      This style of defense can create turnovers, but we have to get pressure on the QB to make an errant throw. There were some games where we couldn’t get a pass rush. Any good QB can pick apart ANY defense when they’re not pressured.

    • shady25

      I agree. It just seems too conservative to me. I guess you scheme to your personnel’s strengths. If we had Watkins and Carroll at corner would we still be in so much cover 3 or more man to man? Since they are probably the fastest 2 outside corners on our team.

  • DoctorRick

    I get it. One of the things that can disrupt the pick and poke style of offense is to keep the QB uncomfortable. The ‘Hawks-Broncos game is a great example; I don’t think Peyton was sacked once all game but D-line and DE pressure kept him from settling int his spot. I have some degree of hope that Marcus Smith can bring some of that as the season progresses.

  • DoctorRick

    Bought my almanac!

  • jabostick

    Great work Sheil and Tim et al. Looking forward to the almanac again this year! Glad to be able to get a paperback outside the States this time too.

  • Dominik

    Seeing Chung in some of those pictures made my throw up in my mouth a little bit.

    But that doesn’t neglect the fact that you, once more, enlightened me, Sheil.

    • shady25

      Oh yeah this was an awesome article. I learned so much about the scheme on the backend. Pat Chung was horrible.

  • cliff h-MOAR white goons

    forgot the other weakness…C-Williams giving 10 yd cushion on 3rd and 8.

    • Philly0312

      He went to the Assante Samuel School of Cornerbacks…

    • jpate

      My question is that are CBs told to do that by the coaches or was that Williams decision? Either way someone is taking the stupid pills

    • myeaglescantwin

      i see 3yds above

      • cliff h-MOAR white goons

        if C-Wills didn’t make you want to throw the remote thru a wall the Minne game, you are a way better person than me.
        .
        in fairness, think he gave huge cushions because the safeties sucked and couldn’t trust over the top help. really hope WOlff beats out Allen

        • myeaglescantwin

          hahaha

          i’m withya buddy

          • cloisterwater

            If you only see a 3 yard cushion above, you should probably switch to regular glasses.

          • myeaglescantwin

            do you know what the line of scrimmage is?
            Check that first image again for me.

          • cloisterwater

            The term cushion relates to the space a DB gives a WR. You don’t give the LOS cushion. And he’s still 4 yards from the LOS if you want to be technical.

          • myeaglescantwin

            Even when they did line up hat on hat, they usually were playing some type of bail coverage where the CB’s would drop and give that cushion. Mostly afraid they were going to get burnt, or they couldn’t rely on the safety play.

            So i’d shoot back to our first caveat, that the coaching scheme was more the root of that “style” than the players’ decision.

  • Bullwinkle

    The description of how the big, physical Seattle D Backs play the receiver made me wonder how well DJax will do against them. The skins play the hawks Monday, 10/6. It will be interesting to watch DeSean.

    • anon

      we’ll so how much the NFL wants to enforce new rules of DB contact. However, i always thought seattle was easier to run on than pass on.

      • aub32

        I don’t know about that. Their front 7 is no joke. Plus they have some speed. They may not have the one superstar like Sherman, but the unit as a whole does pretty well.

    • jpate

      They are physical but not speedsters. DJAX can struggle most game but can also hit a homerun

      • anon

        Yeah it only takes that one time for him to get loose and it’s over.

      • shady25

        They aren’t speedsters but they have the best safety in the NFL to make up for their lack of speed.

  • Kleptolia

    Nice All-22, Sheil. Oregon runs variations of this same scheme. The 3-4 over alignment is different, but the coverage is mapped out roughly the same.
    Oregon’s DC liked to bring pressure off the edge in this set. Either from the linebacker or safety.
    Davis seems like he has the same idea, but had to use different set ups due to personnel. It will be interesting to see if his vision of mirrored fronts will come to fruition this season.
    The 3-4 really is a good defense, but only when it can be fully utilized.

  • mtn_green

    Awesome article . More please!

  • mtn_green

    I think this is the defense to mask a weak secondary, overlapping zones, don’t worry about the middle of field, don’t worry about short. Makes db assignments really simple and short on responsibility.

    I think this year we will see more complex defenses that rely on cb to do more. True man to man etc.

  • shady25

    Now I understand why our corners were playing off so much. So the goal should be to get better CB’s so they can press at the line and retreat to their deep third instead of playing off and giving up the short underneath stuff. It seems like we are playing a soft conservative style of defense. Maybe if we had better CB’s we can get more aggressive on the outside. I must say I like Malcolm Jenkins already. He seems to know what he is talking about. Hopefully it translates to the field.

  • brza

    Hi Sheil, from the first picture I was hoping you were going to shed some light on why Davis likes to put Cole, Graham, Barwin and even Cox in press coverage against the opponent’s #1 WR in the cover 3 occasionally. That drives me crazy when I see that alignment and it seems like the LB/DE never gets a hand on the WR anyway.

  • Billy T

    As a big jim Johnson I like the pressure defense… Bill Davis was the one decision of chip Kelly that made no sense when he came in …. Bill Davis has never had a good defense under his leadership and the first year with the Eagles has shown nothing different. …The first round pick of the Eagles for a defensive player by Bill Davis made no sense to the league. ..Also Bill Davis lack of use of Vinny Curry is also very concerning since Vinny was the second most productive defensive lineman per down played, first was Watt. I agree with most of the comments that this prevent defensive scheme ,does just that, prevents us from winning the super bowl.Lets stop talking about upgrading our players on defense let’s talk about upgrading our defensive coach.

  • jrs

    Sheil, do you use the ipad app to create these all 22s?

  • unhinged

    Cover 3 may be a secondary alignment, but its successful deployment is dependent in no small way on the play of the guys up front. If running lanes are being clogged, and the pocket is routinely being collapsed, plays are happening fast, and that pressures the QB/WR timing and execution. Every scheme will have its weakness, but every scheme will look remarkably good if the d-line is dominating LOS.