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Cover Zero Is a Risk Worth Taking for the Redskins

The 'Cover Zero' defence is something that's been talked about a lot when discussing the Redskins defence. It got a lot of negativity after two key plays we used it in, and it failed (namely, the Rams TD with Orakpo missing coverage, and the 3rd and 21 play against the Cowboys). But I personally, am a big believer in it. As a defence, we are very aggressive. Look at our key players, DeAngelo Hall, LaRon Landry, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan. All aggressive play-makers for us. I think the Cover Zero suits their aggressiveness perfectly and allows us to really attack the QB and rush his throws. But what exactly is the Cover Zero defence? Let's have a look...

The concept of the Cover Zero is simple, with a few main principles. The first principle is that any potential receiver is marked man-to-man. This includes TE's, RB's and FB's along with the obvious WR's. 



In this example, the Eagles go with an empty backfield. You can see at the far side of the picture, we have 3 WR's, all in man coverage with 3 DB's. On the near side, we have both safeties, Oshiomogho Atogwe (wow, that's not easy to spell...) and Landry in man coverage with the extra WR and the TE respectively. 

What you'll notice is that everybody else is stacked up on the Dline. The men in coverage have no coverage help over the top, or at all for that matter, it's all one-on-one, man-to-man. This brings us t the second principle of the Cover Zero defence. The defender's covering any potential blockers that could be receivers (so for example, a TE or a RB) are in read and react mode. Usually this is the job of safeties or OLBs, in this case Landry is the best example. He is in man coverage with the TE. Now the TE could stay in and help protect Vick to give him a little bit extra time in theory. If that happens to be the case, Landry joins the rest of the defence along the Dline with the blitz. The idea of this being that you want to send one more man than the offence can block, which is virtually guaranteed with this defence because the QB doesn't count as a receiver or a blocker, leaving the offence with only 10 blockers maximum, and the defence with a maximum of 11 blitzers.  



However, as you can see, in this case the TE is running a route, forcing Landry to drop into coverage. I've also circled Kerrigan coming off the edge on the far side. You can see he has a free run, and that's because all the other blockers are occupied one on one. That's the other big advantage of this defence. It forces one on one's, making a statement to the other team that says "Hey, we're better than you guys matched up one on one. We're good enough to cover your receivers without any help and we're good enough to beat any blocking scheme you attempt to stop us with." It also tells your own defence that you have confidence in them that they are good enough to play this style. 

But back to the play, we have Kerrigan running free, meaning Vick HAS to get the ball out quick, or he's going to get blown up. We also have a one on one with Orakpo on the Eagles back up LT, a favourable match up for us.



With the pressure coming from Kerrigan, Vick is forced to back-pedal and throw off his back foot. Orakpo was beating his man, and has the awareness to stick a hand up and bat the ball down, forcing the Eagles into 3rd and goal with 7 or 8 yards to make to get it.

So now we've clarified what the Cover Zero is, lets see how productive it's been for us.

Here's a 3rd and goal for the Eagles, they were up 14-0 already, and a TD here could have killed the game for us. 



The Eagles have a bunch formation with 4 potential receivers on the far side. I've put an arrow above the 4 guys that are in coverage with them. On the near side of the picture, we have Hall all on his own with Jeremy Maclin. I've circled the vacant area in the middle of the field to highlight the fact that there is no safety help. No doubt this is a risky defence.



Once again, the Eagles let Kerrigan have a free run at Vick. The offensive line slides to the left to pick up the blitz from that side and make sure there's no gap for a defender to run up the middle at Vick. So this leaves Kerrigan unblocked.



The Eagles like this match-up with Maclin on Hall. If they can get the ball in Maclin's hands before Hall can eat up the cushion, they think Maclin can break the attempted tackle from Hall. 



The quick pressure from Kerrigan forces Vick to throw quicker than he would have liked to, and at a slightly different arm angle than normal to get the ball past Kerrigan's raised arms. This messes up the timing between Vick and Maclin, and the ball is behind Maclin, falling incomplete.

The main reasons the Cover Zero fails is either down to a mistake from a player in coverage, or a QB that can scramble and extend the play. We saw examples of both of these in the Cowboys and Rams games as I mentioned earlier. First lets look at the Rams TD.



This is a perfect example of the risks involved while using the Cover Zero. Orakpo has to read and react to whatever the RB Steven Jackson does. If Jackson stays in to block, Orakpo blitzes, but if Jackson runs a route, Orakpo has to cover him.



Orakpo takes his first step instinctively as if he's rushing the passer, before realising that Jackson isn't blocking. Orakpo then has to turn back on himself, playing catch up to Jackson.



Bradford is much too good to miss that opportunity. Jackson pulls in the pass and takes it for a TD. 

Then there was the infamous 3rd and 21 play against the Cowboys. We're in a great position to win the game. It's 3rd and 21, Cowboys are down by a point, backed up in their own half and only 2:20 left on the clock. All the Redskins need to do is stop them here and potentially on 4th and long, and the game is theirs. But instead of sitting back in zones and trying to force an underneath route, the Redskins take the aggressive route, Cover Zero.



The key to this play is that Tony Romo does an excellent job sliding the protection and that he has two blockers in the backfield to slow down any pressure on Romo.



What Romo calls for is the Oline to slide left, and the two blockers in the backfield to get on the free runners from the right. The key here is that the Oline does a good job of not allowing space for free runners, despite being overloaded on the far side. This buys Romo more time than he was expecting.



This is when Romo was meant to throw the ball. But he's aware enough to see that no pressure has gotten to him yet. So he decides to roll outside the pocket...



Signalling to Bryant to get up the field.



The extra man from the far side has more ground to make up thanks to Romo scrambling, by the time he forces Romo to throw, it's too late...



And Dez Bryant gets himself open and catches it for a first down. The rest is history.

So yeah, the Cover Zero is a risk, but here's another example, from the Cowboys game no less, of how it can be very effective.



This is earlier in the game than the 3rd and 21. The Cowboys attack it this time by spreading out the defence, with 4 WRs and Jason Witten in at TE.



The Oline doesn't do as good a job this time, leaving our star pass-rusher, Brian Orakpo with a free run on Romo.



The pressure from Orakpo (and Kerrigan who is getting the better of his one-on-one on the outside) forces Romo to throw off his back-foot.



Kevin Barnes does a fantastic job locating the ball in the air. He then leaves his man and goes to make a play on the ball.



And he comes down with it. A really nice example of the potential benefits of the Cover Zero.

So there you have it, The Cover Zero defence. It's definitely a risk, but the pressure it can put on a QB so quickly can be deadly. It can force rushed, off-balanced throws like we've seen, and that can lead to CB's like Hall (or evidently, Barnes as you just saw) jumping routes and getting INTs. It's been a very effective play for us, and I didn't even touch on how we show the offence it at times, before checking out of it into zone coverage, which can really mess up an offensive play. What do you guys think? Do we use it too often, or not enough?