Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams
Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

Wildcat 2.0
Indianapolis Colts 27 at Miami Dolphins 23
Monday, September 21

It's ubiquitous at this point, but a year ago, when the Dolphins first ran the Wildcat, it was seen as little more than a bailout for a terrible team. One AFC East title later, things have changed. At the 2009 Scouting Combine, you couldn't turn around without bumping into five people who wanted to talk about how the NFL and the spread offense might be meeting halfway through various option offshoots. When the Dolphins selected West Virginia quarterback Pat White in the second round of the 2009 draft, it was thought that he might be the key to expanding the idea enough to make these plays a larger and more consistent part of an NFL offense. Against the Colts on Monday night, the Dolphins went with their old-school plays (detailed here), and a few new wrinkles. Unlike last year's plays, which decimated the Patriots in Week 3 and rolled on just about everyone but the Ravens, Miami's new looks still need some work.

The first Wildcat play of the night came with 12:37 left in the first quarter, and the Dolphins showed a few new wrinkles in the old formation with third-and-2 from the Indianapolis 49-yard line. First, left tackle Jake Long stayed put instead of overloading the right side; tight end Anthony Fasano replaced him on the right side. Last year, he would have replaced Long on the left side. Left guard Justin Smiley didn't pull to the right. The H-back (fullback Lousaka Polite in this case) was about three yards behind the line, as opposed to just behind the right tackle. Finally, instead of a receiver in the right slot, the Dolphins put tight end Joey Haynos outside Long. Running back Patrick Cobbs was split wide right. The Colts brought eight in the box, with safety Tim Jennings (23) and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (26) reading Williams all the way -- they weren't thinking about pass coverage.

Figure 1: Wildcat 2.0 "Steeler" Sweep

As Williams took the sweep, Polite and Fasano dealt with left end Robert Mathis after Fasano's initial solo block pushed him outside. Cobbs blocked Hayden out, and right tackle Vernon Carey took strong-side linebacker Tyjuan Hagler out of the play. Right guard Donald Thomas blocked tackle Ed Johnson, and center Jake Grove (the pulling lineman in this case) looped to the right and cut weak-side linebacker Clint Session. Thomas got to middle linebacker Gary Brackett at the second level, and Williams headed off right tackle for five yards.

The Dolphins went right back to it on the next play, with the same opening formation and the Colts going back to that 4-4 offset look. This time, Brown faked the handoff to Williams and took the Power inside. As Thomas and Carey double-teamed Ed Johnson and walked him back, Smiley (who did pull right this time) laid a great block on Brackett. Brown ran right up that lane for nine yards and a first down, to the Indy 35.

Four plays later, with first-and-10 at the Colts' 14, the Dolphins went with their new base Wildcat formation and the Colts brought seven to the line. Another Power right, and the Dolphins just shredded Indy's front line. Grove and Thomas walled tackle Donald Muir off to the left, and Carey pushed Johnson a good five yards into Miami's backfield. This allowed Smiley (pulling again) and Polite to charge through to the second level and demolish Hagler and Brackett. Brown blew through the free lane inside right, shrugged off an Antoine Bethea tackle attempt, and headed into the end zone.

So, the old chestnuts were in good shape. The new breed of option plays designed for second-round pick Pat White? Not so much. I don't know if he's adjusting to the speed of playbook of the NFL, but he looks slow to me off the snap. It's been that way since the preseason, and the general difference between his play speed at West Virginia and in the NFL is disconcerting. White got his first shot against the Colts with 2:45 left in the first quarter and the Dolphins at their own 36. The Dolphins have designed at least one new Wildcat formation with him in mind, a shotgun look with White flanked by running backs on either side. In this case, the backs were Brown to his left and Williams to his right. The Colts ran a base 4-3, and White thought he saw something up the middle. He handed off to Williams, who started up the right A-gap, but Session beat Grove to the backfield and took Williams down for no gain. One thing I noticed was that when the Colts saw a passing option, they'd resist the temptation to cheat their safeties up, instead relying on their athletic linebackers to make plays at the second level. This would be a major factor later in the game.

The Dolphins tried the same play with 10:16 left in the third quarter, and the result was the same: Williams up the middle for nothing. Before they can integrate White into the next level of Wildcat playcalling, the Dolphins will have to establish him as a consistent passing or running threat -- right now, he's about as frightening as a punter. Near the beginning of the third quarter, Miami ran the shotgun, two-back set with Brown taking the snap, and Williams bounced off right tackle for a 15-yard gain with the handoff. It's not a formation problem -- it's a personnel issue.

Figure 2: Wildcat 2.0: Cobbs Pass

We know that the Dolphins won the time of possession battle to a ridiculous degree (45:07 to 14:53), but we also know that the Colts won the game with the lowest TOP of any team since 1977. On their last drive, I kept wondering why the Dolphins didn't run the play that worked so well for them against the Houston Texans last year -- with Pennington lining up wide right, Williams would take the Steeler sweep, hand it off to Pennington, and Pennington would throw the ball downfield to Cobbs out of the right slot. The Texans feared the burn of the inside/outside run so much, they cheated just about everyone up. Pennington could have thrown a lob to Cobbs with nary a defender around him.

With the Colts up 27-23, and Miami driving downfield late in the game, Indy once again refused to bite. Starting from their own 18 with 3:13 remaining, the Dolphins could only move to the Colts' 30-yard line in 14 plays because the explosive elements of the Wildcat were negated. On every play, Indy hung one or two safeties in a deep shell. I don't know if that's what the Dolphins were looking for, but it might explain why they were so slow on the drive, and so plodding with their playcalling. This isn't an offense with enough options to counter a team used to playing deep coverage, and intent on doing so no matter what.

White's addition might be one answer over time. But is it THE answer? I'm not sure. If a team wanted to make an expanded Wildcat package a major part of their offense, I think there will have to be more vertical options installed, and more ways to beat the teams who don't panic at the sight of a halfback taking a snap, or an unbalanced line. For the Dolphins, that's where the stalemate stands.

Rex Ryan: 46 or 3-to-4
New England Patriots 9 at New York Jets 16
Sunday, September 20

The Jets' defensive dominance has been one of the more interesting early stories of the 2009 season. A week before he put up a league-leading passing DYAR of 223 against the Titans, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub put up a real howler (-37) versus Rex Ryan's new defense. The Jets followed that performance by helping Tom Brady complete less than half his passes under constant pressure. Like all the best defenses -- LeBeau's Steelers, Ryan's old Ravens and the recent Giants and Eagles come to mind -- these Jets have the ability to maximize quarterback pressure while maintaining the concept of coverage. Every defense does this differently.

Ryan's expertise, gleaned in part from dad Buddy, emanates from the 46 defense. The 46 dictates that a defense must:

  • Outnumber point-of-attack blocking schemes (overloads)
  • Blitz the quarterback frequently from different looks and formations
  • Not rely on substitutions to set up those blitzes (immune to the no-huddle advantage)
  • Cover all pass routes, in conjunction with pressure (various zone blitz concepts)
  • Have linebackers free to get to the ball behind linemen who set the position for gaps and lanes

Against New England in Week 2, the Jets embraced and displayed every aspect of the Ryan philosophy. This was evident in three straight third-down incompletions, starting with 11:58 left in the first quarter.

Figure 3: Jets Overload Blitz

On third-and-7 from the Jets' 36, the Patriots lined up in a shotgun, bunch left, and Ryan called for the overload on the other side. Linebacker Bryan Thomas (99) originally set up at the line between linebacker Bart Scott (57) and end Shaun Ellis (92), but he motioned out to tight middle. In addition to his side overloads, Ryan loves to alter the reads for pressure up the middle. He also enjoys fortifying his overloads with unconventional personnel sets -- Exhibit A being the three-defensive back blitz against the Texans in Week 1 -- although this was a bit more conventional. The challenge for the Patriots in this play was how to pick up three blitzing defenders with two blockers. Ellis, Scott, and safety Kerry Rhodes (25) were rushing in off playside. The problem with this set-up is that right tackle Nick Kaczur was left to deal with Ellis one-on-one because right guard Stephen Neal was occupied keeping Thomas from blowing up the pocket from the middle. Running back Laurence Maroney blocked Rhodes outside, which left Scott with a free lane to the quarterback. The play was a quick slant to Joey Galloway (13) on the right side, but Brady didn't have time and threw the ball away. While most defensive coordinators would have favored the bunch formation and the clearout that followed, Ryan prefers advantages away from the obvious groupings, and he already had a nice little village of defenders over there.

The next third down incompletion to Galloway came with 8:59 left in the first quarter, and the Pats with third-and-5 at the Jets' 49. This time, Ryan plugged the middle with Scott and David Harris, putting them at the line on either A-gap. Then, cornerback Donald Strickland came with a delayed blitz from the left side, out of a bunched group of defensive backs pre-snap. This time, Strickland was the extra defender, blowing through the middle to Scott's right and pulling Neal off of Scott. Strickland got just enough penetration to hurry the throw left to Galloway, who was busy putting on a handfighting exhibition with Lito Sheppard. Galloway probably wanted to break outside and further downfield, and Sheppard may have gotten away with one there, with contact coming just after five yards.

On their next drive, the Pats experienced yet another pressure-induced third down incompletion. This was third-and-20 (following a holding call on tight end Chris Baker) from the Jets' 27, the fifth play of a drive that started at New York's 17 after a Leon Washington fumble. With 7:02 left in the first quarter, Brady took the ball under center and had to let it fly early again. The Jets brought a more conventional five-to-the-line approach, but Bryan Thomas just abused left tackle Matt Light on the outside speed rush. Brady had to move to his left out of the pocket, and Galloway wasn't where he needed to be to haul it in.

If there's one thing I re-learned when I wrote the Cover-3 tribute to Jim Johnson a month ago, it's that great defenses aren't born out of generic blitzing. Instead, they are derived from the more advanced concepts of diverse and situational pressure. Last year, the Jets rushed only three defenders 24.8 percent of the time, first in the NFL. Conversely, they rushed six or more defenders only 6.0 percent of the time, 24th in the league. Ryan's Ravens were far more difficult to pigeonhole. They ranked fifth in rushing three and five, and eighth in rushing seven or more. Ryan doesn’t, however, believe in "drop or blitz" -- there's far more creativity going on here. It allows a team built to excel in a 3-4 base to do different things. That's great news for the Jets, and an ever-increasing problem for their opponents. The Patriots hadn't been so upended by formation diversity since those tricky Dolphins gave them something to think about a year ago.

Defending Norv, or "Red is Dead"
Baltimore Ravens at San Diego Chargers
Sunday, September 20

There's a cottage industry built around bashing Norv Turner, and we at FO have certainly taken our shots. The general consensus seems to be that though he's one of the NFL's better quarterback gurus, as a head coach, he's got a knack for early playoff exits, blown fourth quarter leads, and general in-game underachievement despite impressive numbers. Put simply, Turner's seen by many as a hothouse flower who wilts under the pressure of situational football. When the Chargers imploded in the red zone against the Ravens in their Week 2 loss, the natural response was to add the debacle to Norv's laundry list of debits. But looking at the game from an expanded view, and with the benefit of a couple days, I think Norv's getting a bad rap this time.

Counting negative penalty yards and subtracting Nate Kaeding's four field goals, 15 of San Diego's 68 plays were inside Baltimore's 20-yard line, and the Chargers totaled -11 yards on those plays. The ones that will be remembered begin with the call to kick a 23-yard field goal in third-and-5 with 10 second left in the first half. Why didn't the Chargers take one more shot? Rivers threw incompletions on first and second down, and the running game was going nowhere -- in the first half, San Diego ran 11 times for 28 yards. The Chargers were down 21-13, and Norv wanted to go in at halftime with a deficit of less than a touchdown. They had burned their last time out at the 3:40 mark. The percentages didn't seem to favor another play; had they run the ball and failed to score (a very likely possibility), there's no guarantee they would have been able to line up for the field goal. There would have been time for the kick if Rivers threw another incompletion, but you're balancing that against the possibility of a sack ending the first half, and Rivers has already been sacked twice. The Chargers had actually made their way to the Baltimore 1-yard line before the first of Rivers' two delay of game penalties put things in reverse. Rivers defended Turner's move after the fact, and I'd be inclined to side with Norv on that one.

In the larger sense, it's important to remember that offenses don't exist in a vacuum. Perhaps we've become so used to the fact that the Chargers possess this high-powered offense, we're inclined to believe it can score under any circumstances, against any opponent. With San Diego's offensive proficiency outside of the red zone (474 yards overall) we were going to wonder why things fell apart inside the 20.

The answer, in short: The Baltimore Ravens have a really, REALLY good defense. In 2008, no team was better in the red zone; their -50.2% DVOA paced most of the league by a fairly wide margin. Only the Steelers (-50.0%) were in the same ballpark. The Ravens were even better in goal-to-go situations (-62.4%). Rex Ryan and Bart Scott may be gone, but that defense is still what it was. The Chargers countered with a depleted and disappointing line, and a small but talented running back in Darren Sproles.

Sometimes, we just have to accept that defense beats offense, and offense has no answer. Norv, for all his documented faults (and I've written about his prior red zone foibles), should get a relative pass.


41 comments, Last at 26 Sep 2009, 9:12am

1 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

"Conversely, they rushed six or more defenders only 6.0 percent of the time, 34th in the league"

In a 32 team league, 33 teams used a 6-man rush more often than the jets?

2 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Miami's 3-and-a-half minute drill was one of the worst cases of time management I've ever seen. The commentators kept ranting about how the Dolphins were outplaying the Peytonmannings, but they weren't. They were just very slow to score. That's a dangerous strategy, because it increases the probability of a mistake (fumble, interception, sack)

Then on the last drive, they go play action? No one including my dog would bite on that.

ps. Figure 1 and 3 are switched.

9 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Agreed. Miami got the ball trailing by 4 points with over 3 minutes left. It took them an amazing 78 seconds to run 2 plays! Their first play was a run for about 4 yards, followed by a full huddle. Have they ever heard of the no-huddle offense? They finally get to the line of scrimmage for their second play and the play clock is about to expire so they call time out. WTF? Next play after the timeout is another run for a couple of yards. This play ends with about 2:18 on the clock, so they decide to allow the clock to run down to the 2 minute warning. Amazing.

I can't fathom how an experienced QB like Pennington would allow this to happen. In the post game presser, Coach Sparano was asked about the poor clock management and he simply brushed it off by saying something about not having the right personal on the field so they had to call timeout. Their clock management was so incredibly bad I wouldn't fault the owner of the Dolphins if he fired Sparano on the spot.

5 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

I think Norv really screwed up on SD's last possession when he had 3rd and 2 and he went to goal line personnel. The Ravens were having a really hard time matching up with the big SD WRs, taking out Jackson, Floyd, Chambers, etc. was doing Baltimore a huge favor. SD couldn't run the ball all game anyways, so its not like on the 3rd and 2 pass the Ravens would be selling out on the run, odds are Ngata and Gregg could have stuffed it anyways without sacrificing their pass coverage.

It did seem like SD could move the ball between the 20s because if the Ravens played their safeties up Rivers just tossed the ball up downfield and the WRs made a play, and with the safeties back Rivers could dump it off to Sproles and let him eat up yardage. Once SD got into the red zone that advantage went away.

6 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

"With the safeties back Rivers could dump it off to Sproles and let him eat up yardage. Once SD got into the red zone that advantage went away."

Very true, and that seems to be the key to Baltimore's red zone dominance. If you compress the DBs, there's nothing left to exploit.

8 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Picky: 'decimated' means to take away 10%. Many seem to use it the way one might use 'annihilated' or 'obliterated', but that's not appropriate.

11 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

decimate: a: to reduce drastically especially in number (cholera decimated the population) b : to cause great destruction or harm to (firebombs decimated the city) (an industry decimated by recession)

12 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

dec·i·mate (ds-mt)
tr.v. dec·i·mat·ed, dec·i·mat·ing, dec·i·mates
1. To destroy or kill a large part of (a group).
2. Usage Problem
a. To inflict great destruction or damage on: The fawns decimated my rose bushes.
b. To reduce markedly in amount: a profligate heir who decimated his trust fund.
3. To select by lot and kill one in every ten of.

19 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

From the OED, which tends to be the final word in "my dictionary is more authoritative than your dictionary" debates:

1. To exact a tenth or a tithe from; to tax to the amount of one-tenth. Obs. In Eng. Hist., see DECIMATION 1.

2. To divide into tenths, divide decimally. Obs.

3. Milit. To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): a practice in the ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times.

4. transf. a. To kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of. b. rhetorically or loosely. To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality.

Hence {sm}decimated, {sm}decimating ppl. adjs.

The "current" usage sneaks in at the end (4b). Those of us who took Latin when we were younger will always come out of the woodwork when this word is misused.

Correct usage would be "Jamal Lewis decimated the defense by gaining one yard on third-and-ten."

(I also like the Eagles)

22 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Correct usage would be "Jamal Lewis decimated the defense by gaining one yard on third-and-ten."

That would be the single most unbelievably awesome moment in the history of sports broadcasting.

What about, "The Pats defense was nearly decimated by the loss of Richard Seymour."?

32 Re: Decimated

Thank you for backing up my point. I don't know where these other definitions are coming from.


36 Re: Decimated

In reply to by peterplaysbass (not verified)

The same place new definitions of words always come from--repeated misuse by those who don't know better (cf. begging the question).

(I also like the Eagles)

38 Re: Decimated

In reply to by billsfan

but... it makes perfect sense, since if the original meaning to Decimate is to kill one in ten, then getting decimated is a very bad thing that can happen to you. so the effect, the level of destruction is very high, and that is the sense of the word that became "misused"

41 Re: Decimated

In reply to by Reinhard (not verified)

That's not the point. The point is for some jerks with sticks jammed up their butts to tell you how much better and smarter than you they are.

13 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Oh you Romans and your disciplinary measures! Then again, this may be one way to convince the Raiders to refrain from taking stupid penalties......

16 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

But apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, what have the Romans done for us?

39 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Wouldn't you agree that if the Wildcat took away 10% of New Englands D that would give the Dolphins a pretty good advantage? I'd say you can make decimated fit here, because it did look like the Patriots were playing with either 9 or 10 guys against the Dolphins last year (I presume they rounded up or down as necessary to make sure they were accurately decimated).

40 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Good point. In a sense, the Wildcat does decimate defenses. Instead of having 11 guys defending against 10, now you have 11 defending against 11, effectively taking away the "extra" defender, and leaving the defense at ~90% of its effective manpower. It's still not as dramatic as lining up and summarily executing one of the defenders, though.

In another sense, if Wildcat plays average 10% more yards per play, then they're also decimating defenses.

(I also like the Eagles)

10 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

This is one reason why it is still very useful to be able to run the ball efficiently; it makes it harder for coaches like Ryan to create chaos. The best response to a sophisticated yet very agressive defense is a few pancake blocks. Of course, that is easier written than done, but for all the emphasis on qbs and receivers, which is reasonable in a passing league, there is still a lot of value in four and a half yards and a cloud of dust.

I agree that the anti-Norv commentary sometimes gets overdone.

18 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

I stand by my ridiculous and wholly unsubstantiated theory that AJ Smith is secretly sabotaging the Chargers this year so he can hire Shanahan to take revenge upon the entire remainder of the AFC West.

Of course, the inevitable clash of egos would lead to Shanahan's firing in 2013, one year removed from their surprise Super Bowl win. Shanahan then signs to coach the Chiefs, who are immediately hit by tampering charges leveled by the Chargers, Raiders, AND Broncos.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

14 Edit Needed

Wishful thinking? "New England Patriots 16 at New York Jets 9"

15 Re: Edit Needed

In reply to by MCS

Edit done. Probably not wishful thinking, since the article was written by a Seahawks fan and edited by a Steelers fan.

20 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

"... their -50.2% DVOA paced most of the league by a fairly wide margin. Only the Steelers (-50.0%) were in the same ballpark"

.2% DVOA is a wide margin?

23 Re: Ravens D

"Most of the league"--in other words, the other 30 teams, who, unlike the Ravens and Steelers, only have good/average/mediocre/horrible defenses.

21 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Seems like the redzone DVOAs for the Ravens and Steelers is wrong, unless .2% is now a huge gap?

24 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Pat White? Not so much. I don't know if he's adjusting to the speed of playbook of the NFL, but he looks slow to me off the snap. It's been that way since the preseason, and the general difference between his play speed at West Virginia and in the NFL is disconcerting.

- Maybe it's because he's
Under sized
was playing on TURF in college
Was playing against very weak college defenses in college

and was now was asked to play on grass, against bigger people and better defense.

26 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that the scheme Rex Ryan came up with this week was the same one that Dick Jauron came up with last week, and the same one that Mike Smith will come up with next week: Have Tom Brady be extremely inaccurate.

The Jets played good defense, but there were holes, and plenty of them, and Brady couldn't take advantage. At this point, the Pats offense is terrible, and will continue to be until one of two things goes away: Brady's inaccuracy, or throwing 45+ times a game.

27 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

It's also the same one that Rex Ryan came up with in 2007:

Brady went 18 for 38. Pats barely win that one on a bad timeout call and some unfortunate personal fouls.

Oh yeah, and there were some exotic overload blitzes, too.

(I also like the Eagles)

29 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Typically, Blitzing Brady has meant Death-by-Checkdown. The key to beating him has been what the Giants and Eagles did in 2007: Get steady pressure without blitzing.

This year, teams are blitzing him, and hes not hitting the check-downs. They're open, but hes throwing the ball just out of reach. The pressure is forcing those check-downs, yes, but Brady has never been this inaccurate on short passing.

33 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Sheppard may have gotten away with one there, with contact coming just after five yards.

The Pats used that defense almost exclusively when they beat the Colts in the 2003-2004 AFC Championship game.

35 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

Colts Notes.

Tim Jennings #23 is a corner despite a taste for large cushions from time to time was playing corner. The guy you have marked at the CB in the diagram is most likely SS Melvin Bullitt #33, coming up to make it the 4-4 alignment you talked about later.

Also the Muir getting demolished at the line was Daniel, not Donald.

37 Re: Cover-3: Schemes and Dreams

hey guys, great article, i was just wondering if anyone knows if rex ryans uses 1 gap or 2 gap principles mainly