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How Earl Thomas And The Seahawks' Defense Use The Cover-3


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The next installment of the ongoing Field Gulls series discussing the Seahawks (and now Falcons) defensive schemes. This is post #3 in the series.

http://www.fieldgulls.com/football-breakdowns/2013/12/6/5176254/seahawks-earl-thomas-pete-carroll-nfl-saints/in/4102067

By Mike Chan @karatemanchan37 on Dec 6, 2013

If you'd simply took at snapshot of any particular play on the Seahawks defense, chances are you'll see Earl Thomas roaming around deep in the secondary all by himself. Now, this may seem counter-intuitive, considering that NFL offenses have transitioned to a point where they want to beat you with the middle of the field, but consider that Pete Carroll's number one defensive philosophy is to stop the run. This aspect is so important to him that he's willing to frequently move the strong safety, Kam Chancellor, down inside to create an eight man box.

Of course, this creates a lot of potential open spaces for wide receivers to exploit, and thus it is just as important that Carroll implements a good scheme to play off of the run focus he emphasized early on. The funny thing, though, is that he manages to do this with one of the more basic defensive schemes in the field in the Cover 3 scheme, or as Matt Bowen puts it, "a defense taught at the high school level that is still prevalent on Sundays."

One of the outstanding features of the scheme besides its commitment to defend the run is its ability to remain balanced and defend big plays (sound familiar?). The short safety dropping down inside the box now plays more of a role as a linebacker, being able to defend the outside edge and force the RB to cutback at the same time he can drop back into coverage. Likewise, the Cover 3 also sends more players down to defend the pass than with its cousin Cover 2, and with three defensive backs rotating around the deep third of the field teams are hard pressed to make big passing plays down the field.

Let's look at how each section of the defense work in a technical level, starting with run containment and defense: (Note that this is the 4-3 Over, not the 4-3 Under. Seattle does play the 4-3 Over as well as the 4-3 Under, but the Under is the scheme featured most often, not the Over.)

A.jpg

Observe how playing eight men in the box allows each defensive player to take care of each offensive run gap/lane. This is why Cover-3 works so well in this regard - practically every person has one gap assignment, and it really doesn't get as simple as that. You can also see that, with some two-gapping specifications, the 3-Tech and the 5-Tech can force a double team and leave the back four players free to contain the play and make the tackle. In the diagram above, any runs towards the TE side will let the SS force the run back in if he plays with outside leverage, and the WILL does the same thing accordingly.

However, this also make it just as important that each player stay disciplined and remain on their gap. If one person gets trapped or over-pursues, for example, he probably only has the lone free safety to beat for the touchdown. This is why a superb front line is necessary to run the Cover 3 effectively, and why PC/JS have worked so hard to improve that unit overall.

Now see everything happen on the tape:

1-10-NO 20 (6:27 1st Q) M. Ingram left tackle to NO 21 for 1 yard (R. Bryant, B. Wagner)

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First off, it looks as though the Saints match-up with the Seahawks defense as well. If every offensive player does his job, then practically every defender is covered, and with Richard Sherman playing pretty deep inside, Mark Ingram would've only needed to beat Earl Thomas for the touchdown. Provided that the center even manages to get in front of Bobby Wagner and the right guard/right tackle manages to "pizza" towards K.J. Wright, this is a very solid play.

Here's where the Seahawks look to break everything up. Because Brandon Mebane is "two-gapping", his first move is already there to disrupt the center from getting a clean path towards blocking Wagner. With his speed, Wagner then can easily come in and make the play freely. (The same can be said with Tony McDaniel, but because the play design is created so that the RG and RT block him at the first instance, I'll count him out).

Secondly, instead of having a traditional 5-Tech play the 4-3, you have Red Bryant, which, if you ask an offensive lineman to take him one-on-one, is a task in itself. As you can see below, Bryant doesn't do much except throwing a good block and holding his ground, but purely because of that he stops Ingram from cutting towards the outside and makes the play himself.

Womp.jpgWomp1.jpg

Here's the play in review in real-time:

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Edited by RandomFan
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Now let's look over on how Cover 3 is schemed to defense against the pass:

B.jpg

On the technical level, it's a very basic play coverage: the two defensive backs and the free safety each cover a third of the deep field. The short safety, dropped down to near the linebacker level, has to take care of the middle of the field with checkdowns to the running back. The middle linebacker has the exact same thing on the other side.

Remember, both the linebackers and the short safety's primary objective in the Cover 3 is defend the run, so they aren't as emphasized in pass coverage, although the short safety, as mentioned earlier, needs to be a hybrid player.

Rounding out the rest of the scheme, the outside linebacker and the nickel defensive back have the short middle zones, ranging from the outside, and like the DB's and FS, they play with leverage towards the sideline as well. Their focus is on the short routes - the curls, the flats, the screens, etc.

Of course, as Scott Enyeart said, "there is no perfect defense", and one of the most glaring weakness of the Cover 3 is that it's easy to get beat over the middle. Remember, Seattle sacrificed one safety in coverage by running him down inside the box, so it leaves our free safety as the lone man to defend the entire zone. This is why play-action with multiple deep routes down the field is a perfect attack to Cover 3.

If the free safety bites hard on the run, then a wide receiver can get a good situation with the defensive back. Similarly, if two receivers run verticals, the free safety can be baited to help one offensive player, leaving the other with a one-on-one coverage that the quarterback will take every time.

Watch what I mean here:

seahawks2.gif

Now I'd argue that New Orleans, with that good of a coach and quarterback, no doubt implemented some form of that offensive play into their gameplan last Monday. Thankfully, the Seahawks have also significantly improved since that Washington game. The wonders of what a new defensive line could do...

3-5-NO 25 (6:37 1st Q) (Shotgun) D.Brees sacked at NO 18 for -7 yards (C.Avril). FUMBLES (C.Avril) [C.Avril], RECOVERED by SEA-M.Bennett at NO 22. M.Bennett for 22 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

2in3.jpg

Notice how I altered the terminology of Cover 3 "Zone" to Cover 3 "Press". That's because the Seahawks variant requires a lot of physicality up front, even if the defensive backs are playing zone. So for example, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell are all lined up as if they are playing man coverage. At the snap, each of them will at least press the guy (maybe do a little hand-fighting) they are in front of before moving to their respective zones. This is so that the rhythm of many quick gain routes - slants inside, hitches, can be disrupted. A well-run West Coast Offense is kryptonite to any zone defense, so by being physical at the line of scrimmage the defensive backfield can alleviate some of the pressure and weakness.

Now, Drew Bress and the offense run a good counter to Cover 3. As mentioned earlier, if two receivers run deep down the middle of the field, it theoretically should isolate at least one favorable match-up because the free safety is forced to decide who to help. Additionally, the inclusion of Jimmy Graham as a wideout is already a mismatch on its own. Plus, with only five yards to go for the first down, Graham shouldn't even be the primary target - the out routes by the other two receivers would be the most optimal options, as well as the checkdown to the RB if he frees up the middle of the field.

But once again, Seahawks are there to break everything up. First, see how seamless the transition between moving from "press" to "zone" is. Maxwell is already backpedaling to get on top of the vertical route, and Lane "checks" his man before moving out on to the flat. On the other side, Sherman moves deep to get a head start on Graham, and Wright quickly bounces to his zone on the sideline. Thomas is already moving backwards at the snap in preperation for the deep ball, and Chancellor/Wagner are staying put in the middle.

C.jpg

In the middle of the route, Chancellor manages to check on Graham running down the middle to slow him down, and allows Sherman to get a better angle on the route. Watch Brees looking at his TE as his primary target, but realize that Sherman and Chancellor are doing a good job of bottling him up (let alone give him the space to make the throw).

D.jpg

Edited by RandomFan
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The Saints are a smart team, and suddenly, the receiver that Wright is covering turns the corner and runs a streak down the sideline, forcing Wright to go into man-to-man and leave Sherman to cover his top. Sherman, now realizing that Graham is not running a streak but a deep in-route, now has to change directions and get the top coverage of the man that Wright just bailed coverage on. At the same time, Thomas makes his decision and gives Chancellor the help in covering Graham over the top. This, is what the team calls "trust".

E.jpg

Brees, from the pocket, realizes this and immediately tries to loft the pass over to his running back for the easy yards. Even if Cliff Avril wasn't there to come with the behind strip sack, note how Chancellor and Wagner immediately abandon their coverage and charge at Darren Sproles.

F.jpg

Again, the play reviewed in real-time:

iHTMLkzaD5ycl.gif

Does the scheme make the player or does the player make the scheme? This is a question that has haunted the game of football, and like the chicken vs. the egg argument, there's compelling evidence for both. We saw how Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha struggled when they switched from man to zone coverage respectively, and neither the Jets nor the Raiders have ever been the same since both players left.

Of course, what this article shows - and what Earl Thomas, Pete Carroll and the rest of the Seahawks believes - is that you need a bit of both to succeed. Thomas is arguably the centerpiece of the defense, and his pure speed and athleticism allows him to travel large stretches of the field at the speed of light. When you combine this with a Cover 3 - which gives him the opportunity to use those skills to advantage, well - you don't really need to do much to shut down one of the best offenses in the NFL today.

Edited by RandomFan
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One thing about this post is it should make clear how important speed really is for the FS position in this scheme. Being able to get from sideline to sideline in a hurry is a HUGE deal for this FS. And also having the speed in your back pocket that allows the FS to wait until the very last second before commiting to one side of the field greatly helps both CB's in each of their third's of the field. It allows an extra tick to go by that helps the pass rush too.

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The one thing that concerns me about the 4-3 under/cover 3 is the great precision required.

I'm ecstatic to have an aggressive defense, but if the DL is 2/10ths of a second too slow, or the FS is 1/10th of a second slower, the entire D can be tough to implement. Football is always a game of inches, but it seems even more so with this D.

While I hope it works out, and while I also like keeping the gameplan simple for most of the players, I also hope they have a more traditional 4-3 option to fall back on with A gap blitzes. I know we won't be exceptionally multiple, but I'd like to shift between 2 or 3 similar variants so that if we need to fall back to one, we're prepared.

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The one thing that concerns me about the 4-3 under/cover 3 is the great precision required.

I'm ecstatic to have an aggressive defense, but if the DL is 2/10ths of a second too slow, or the FS is 1/10th of a second slower, the entire D can be tough to implement. Football is always a game of inches, but it seems even more so with this D.

While I hope it works out, and while I also like keeping the gameplan simple for most of the players, I also hope they have a more traditional 4-3 option to fall back on with A gap blitzes. I know we won't be exceptionally multiple, but I'd like to shift between 2 or 3 similar variants so that if we need to fall back to one, we're prepared.

Meh, it's going to be a learning process, for sure. I think we'll see as I post these articles that range from 4 years ago to as late as 1 year ago, there will be a noticeable evolution and growth of the defense. And I think that is something similar to what we're going to have to go through. Perhaps not so much in how the positions evolve, because that's something they already went through the last 4 or 5 years in Seattle perfecting how they wanted these positions played. But moreso in how our players are implemented into these positions and learn not only how to play them, but also how to perfect them with more and more experience. Also, we don't have all the personnel to execute this scheme the way Seattle is currently able to.

That is going to be a big deal in developing our defense. First, in acquiring the players over the next few years to fit the scheme. But second, tailoring our scheme to fit our current players to do the best we can for now while developing and acquiring more talent. You'll notice in the next few articles I post in this series that there were some serious questions if this defensive scheme was ever going to be any good at all, much less the best in the NFL. They had to go through a growing phase, just like I'm sure we will have to do also.

EDIT: a correction in your post. While the Cover-3/Cover-1 is pretty straight forward and doesn't change much at all, conversely the front-7/8 is actually very multiple. I'm pretty sure that was already talked about in one of the articles I posted. And it will be talked about much more in the future.

Edited by RandomFan
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Absolutely love reading stuff like this. Thanks for the posts.

While this does look a little complex in certain ways, I hope Quinn and Smith can tweak it based on our own players strengths/weaknesses to enhance our chances of shutting down the opposition. Sure looks more realistic than that hybrid/amoeba crapp we were peddling last year.

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The one thing that concerns me about the 4-3 under/cover 3 is the great precision required.

I'm ecstatic to have an aggressive defense, but if the DL is 2/10ths of a second too slow, or the FS is 1/10th of a second slower, the entire D can be tough to implement. Football is always a game of inches, but it seems even more so with this D.

While I hope it works out, and while I also like keeping the gameplan simple for most of the players, I also hope they have a more traditional 4-3 option to fall back on with A gap blitzes. I know we won't be exceptionally multiple, but I'd like to shift between 2 or 3 similar variants so that if we need to fall back to one, we're prepared.

No doubt Thomas is priceless for the Seahawks but I think the pressure that Brees had in the back of his head is just as important. He knew against this Dline he only had a few seconds to get the ball out. Making a QB think like that is key. Against us Bree's knew he had all day to throw. We have to instill that in opposing QBs. Then let our secondary do their thing

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Thanks for your continued series of threads to show what we can expect from our new defense. With this simplified, straightforward defense we should see significant improvement from our defense. I don't expect them to be top five, but anything between 15-20 would be a good step in the right direction.

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One thing about this post is it should make clear how important speed really is for the FS position in this scheme. Being able to get from sideline to sideline in a hurry is a HUGE deal for this FS. And also having the speed in your back pocket that allows the FS to wait until the very last second before commiting to one side of the field greatly helps both CB's in each of their third's of the field. It allows an extra tick to go by that helps the pass rush too.

So, How does Ricardo Allen fit into this role? He isn't known for being fast, so it seems like he would have to commit much earlier to a route and therefore give the QB more time to find the 1 on 1.

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So, How does Ricardo Allen fit into this role? He isn't known for being fast, so it seems like he would have to commit much earlier to a route and therefore give the QB more time to find the 1 on 1.

You can make up for lack of timed speed with instincts or with game planning. Similar to how Jairus Byrd was used. Maybe you give him an extra couple yards of the LOS to work. If his instincts are sound, he'll be in position most of the time. We also have the luxury of leaning heavily on Trufant if we need to.

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So, How does Ricardo Allen fit into this role? He isn't known for being fast, so it seems like he would have to commit much earlier to a route and therefore give the QB more time to find the 1 on 1.

Well, it means he wont fit the role as well as Earl Thomas, obviously. Thomas is an extremely rare player with his combination of speed and instincts. But let's not blow it out of proportion too far. Allen is slow for a CB. But for the FS position, he's got pretty solid speed. But more importantly, he's supposedly got good instincts that have translated well to the position, which is even more important than the blazing speed.

Let's put it more like this: you've got to have some minimum requirements to be able to play the position adequately, without killing your team on a regular basis. Allen seems to have enough of those traits, so far. If you also can add some great instincts to the mix, that increases the productivity of the player. If you also add some blazing speed, then that boosts his productivity even more.

There is a minimum amount of speed that is obviously needed for the position to succeed. Allen seems to have that. But then there is another level of speed, like what Thomas has, that allows the player to excell at that position. Allen doesn't. There is a difference between successful and excellent. Thomas is the latter, we hope Allen is the former.

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Quickness is more important than straight-line speed.

Earl Thomas just so happens to have a combination of both. Ed Reed was not that fast, but he made up for it by having excellent quickness and fast instincts to diagnose where the ball was going before the ball left the QB's hand along with great preparation in the film room.

Even without great speed, quickness + great preparation = really good to great FS. Let's hope that Allen has quickness with great preparation.

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Thanks for posting - love these threads.

I'll be interested in seeing how Alford develops in terms of making the transition from the press to the zone. He's had issues with hand use before leading to penalties and it makes me wonder if he's going to end up in the nickel where he'll be closer to the line and so hand fighting won't be as scrutinized.

Trufant, I think, will excel at what he'll be asked to do and Moore is a natural for the role he'll be asked to play.

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