Breaking Down the Cover Two (Cal at UCLA, 2007)

Posted by: Avinash on Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

UCLA has one of the most feared defenses in the Pac-10. Their defense is not only very talented, their coordinator DeWayne Walker is one of the best in the biz. He mixes packages, his corners play great on the edges, his run defense stuffs everyone on 1st down. So the only ways for an offensive coordinator to beat his teams require at least a few of these criteria to be filled:

(1) Be completely stacked with talent.
(2) Be smart with your playcalling.
(3) Force turnovers and do something with them.

Cal accomplished only one and a half of the three criteria in their Rose Bowl matchup last fall. The turnovers they took from UCLA led to other turnovers or resulted in nothing.

However, there were some very smart playcalls this past spring, and it’s time to take a look at how Tedford took advantage of UCLA’s defense early in the game. This first article will examine his knocking of the Cover Two on Cal’s first drive.

The cover two definition goes as follows:

By far the most complicated zone coverage with the safeties playing deep and covering half the field each. In cover two the cornerbacks are considered to be “hard” corners, meaning that they have increased run stopping responsibilities and generally defend against shorter passes, although if two receivers run a deep route on a certain side of the field, that side’s corner has deep coverage responsibility as well. It also relies heavily on the Mike (Middle) Linebacker’s ability to quickly drop deep downfield into pass coverage when he reads pass.

In essence, cover defense is something that’s meant to confuse receiver patterns as well as break down the offenders.
Here we have a 3rd and five situation at UCLA’s 21, two wide receivers lined out to the left. UCLA is lined up in the 4-3, but the package is a Cover 2. One corner (top right) seems to be exclusively playing Jackson at the top (already three catches for 24 yards). The other corner (far bottom right) is eyeing a run play with Forsett at the bottom but also keeps an eye on Craig Stevens, because he’s not well equipped in single coverage to take down a tight end. Nevertheless, that’s his responsibility if it is the pass.
Now the key role is filled in by the middle linebacker (#14), which you can see in this shot. If Cal is expecting pass, the inside linebacker will have to adjust to pass. If they’re running, he’s the last person standing between Forsett and a fifteen yard gain. So it’s up to him to decide where to go on the field, and his decision directly influences the outcome of the play.

Well the middle linebacker is reading the pass, and now he consciously makes the effort to turn for the sprinting receivers on the right side. This is probably a no-win for the middle linebacker. His best idea would have probably been to back up vertically, but instead he commits to one area of the field.

Unfortunately for him, Longshore’s not looking for his wideouts. He’s turning his body in the other direction.
The key to the Cover Two is finding the holes in the defense (just like in any zone), and that’s contingent on the quarterback knowing where the middle linebacker is going. If the linebacker’s going right, then who might have single coverage on his left.
The barreling Craig Stevens, that’s who. Mismatch on the corner, 7-0 Cal!
So, it appears one of two things is possible: (1) Longshore has the ability to adjust on the fly and avoid the bad play, (2) Tedford knew exactly where to make that play go on a 3rd down situation, considering UCLA’s prowess on that down (passing defense holds the efficiency rating of opposing QBs to 83.94). I’m leaning toward the latter, because good coaching is more evident at the beginning of a game. With Longshore throwing to Jackson early, the defense seemed to be honing in on DeSean on pass plays. That left secondary receivers open, allowing for Stevens to get single coverage. I’m sure Nate had the ability to adjust on the fly, but this was Tedford exploiting the defense.

It was an advantage he exploited early. Yet he would go back to Jackson down the stretch, and he would not be as fortunate.

More on the Cover Two here and here.

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