Mr. E is back to his old tricks. His overall production is above average, but he seems to trade a few games where he is a plus to our rosters with a game where he is completely shut down. He is the type of WR who is usually money in PPR leagues, doing much of his work as a possession receiver. Mr. E never scores on long TDs — only scoring his TDs in the red zone, and has essentially picked up most of his yardage on underneath stuff. If only we could figure out how to identify those matchups where he will struggle to succeed.
If the major reasoning behind Mr. E’s inconsistency doesn’t immediately stand out, it’s very possible an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of specific coverage types is missing. Nobody is ever going to be able to predict when a receiver will leave a game early due to injury (i.e. Diontae Johnson on multiple occasions during 2020), or when the offense will shift its approach after building an unexpected, substantial lead early in a game. However, the name of the game is minimizing risk. It doesn’t matter if you're focused on a season-long, keeper, dynasty, Devy, or DFS format, there is significantly more preparation to be done beyond knowing each offense inside-and-out.
The defensive side of the ball will dictate every single fantasy point scored. No way around it. And it all begins with the run game. With the focus of this series centered on the passing game, why would the run game be the initial focus of our attention? For one, because that’s the initial focus of the offense — establishing it, and by the defense — stopping it. Teams obviously want to run the ball directly down the throat of the defense in order to force the opposing DC to alter his personnel appropriately to halt the run. When the offense is completely unable to get their ground game going, an OC will only force the issue for so long before slowly but surely abandoning the run. When he does, the defense will liter their personnel with defensive backs.
Even when the offense is only mildly successful with the run, outside of the obvious passing situations, the defense is still forced to field coverages that can be exploited by the pass. Every DC must make the offense think there is a possibility that what appears to be a single-high defense is actually a masking for a multiple-deep defender zone. For the defense unable to mask its coverages, we find a coaching staff set for a very long season. We’ve already discussed Cover 1. While the man-to-man basis of Cover 1 is great for adding pass rushing components without surrendering holes in its coverage, no other shell is more vulnerable to long TDs, or safety manipulation. We’ll wait until the next installment to go in depth on Cover 3 but, while it provides far more stability than man when defending the deep ball, it leaves a pair of underneath zones completely unmanned.
The goal of every DC is to reach the point in the game where his team is both ahead on the scoreboard, and he’s able to play the remainder of the game from either Cover 2, Cover 4, or Cover 6 zones. With his team out in front, his defense can take more risks. His defense isn’t as desperate to mask its coverages. At that point in the game, the majority of coverage camouflaging is done to confuse the QB on the type of zone. The only time you’ll see a defense in that scenario utilizing man coverage will be in obvious, short-yardage rushing situations. With all of that understood, this entry will go over the pertinent details of the Cover 2 scheme to provide you with a head start in understanding, exploiting, and avoiding the defenses who play the shell at the highest rates.
As with the opening installment (Cover 1), we’ll close out each coverage entry examining the strengths and weaknesses of each coverage shell, the aerial shutdown defenders to avoid, and the top offensive players that succeed facing each respective coverage at each of the skill positions. By the end of the series, you’ll have complete access to the information needed toward taking down your league crown, and turning a profit during the 2021 season. When the calendar turns to the in-season action, I will include links to these articles whenever a coverage scheme is referenced.
Pre-Snap Reads by the QB to Identify Cover 2
Many of the entries on the QBs pre-snap checklist are independent of the coverage scheme. The first task for a QB inside the 40-second play clock is still to identify the defensive personnel. Determining the number of defenders in the box is a significant step toward recognizing the blitz. When the pass rush is able to get home, passing efficiency metrics decline exponentially, determined by the amount of time the integrity of the pocket is maintained. An inappropriately managed blitz only magnifies the situation.
The QBs checklist for identifying the blitz includes counting the number of box defenders, and keeping a closeful eye on the safeties. One of the tricks a QB uses to identify the intentions of the safety is sending a receiver into motion. If he sees either of the safeties adjust, it’s very possible a five-to-seven defender blitz is coming. When the QB does believe a blitz is on the way, he has three choices:
- Notify a designated receiver of a Hot read, targeting the area vacated by the blitz.
- Audible the formation to add protection.
- When all else fails, call a timeout.
As with Cover 1, the defense will not simply hand the scheme over — the QB must look for his tells. During a search that could end with identification of the Cover 2 zone, the QB will immediately know he’s unlikely facing man coverage after he sent that receiver into motion. When a defender doesn’t follow, his ears are perked. That’s substantial information. Removing man coverages removes 50% of the most common coverage schemes from the equation. Pretty certain he is looking at a zone, the QB will evaluate the depth of the outside corners, and the safeties. The strong safety (SS) may try everything in the book to disguise his intentions, but the QB will see both safeties near their hash landmarks, and with more depth than the CBs just prior to the snap. However, a curveball comes into play when the ball is already stationed on the hash. The QB will be forced to look at the strongside CB since, with that ball placement, the safety will already be on the hash. In order for the QB to eliminate the last possible man scheme (Cover 2-Man), he’ll look at the hips and eyes of the CBs. With two deep safeties and the CBs hips square, with eyes locked on their assignments, he knows it’s Cover 2-Man.
If the QB sees the CBs hips are at or close to perpendicular to the LoS, he is close to identifying it as Cover 2. A massive factor for the QB to distinguish Cover 2 is spotting the weakside CB showing press. The QB is around 85% sure with that information. A defensive line working strong over the O-line, with the Nose Guard shaded to the strongside is further proof. To settle on 99% certainty that he isn’t dealing with a different zone, he must determine the role of the Outside LB (OLB) to the weakside. If he is using outside leverage on the No. 2 receiver (slot), he is considered the Flat defender, and Cover 2 is eliminated. In that case, the scheme is either Cover 6 or a Cover 3 with a rotation. It may seem as if the QB has been reading the defense for 10 minutes by this point. But the QB must go through each of these processes within that 40-second play clock, and he must be very careful not to hand the defense any tells himself.
Take a look at the best QBs to ever play the game. Tom Brady and Joe Montana are, obviously, outstanding examples. The routine they use/d on every single play is indistinguishable from the prior. Even with all of the prior information noted, only the most careless of defenses will allow the QB to verify their exact coverages prior to the snap. The best QBs will always read the defenders, never their receivers. Otherwise, they’ll end up throwing directly into coverage. When you see a QB throw a ball directly at a defender, you know he has been caught reading his receivers. After the snap, the QB will look at the outside LBs (OLBs). He expects to see the rush OLB come from the weakside, and the other OLB dropping into coverage on the strongside. In fact, he may sometimes catch that Curl-Flat/drop OLB cheating to his landmark just prior to the snap. Beyond that, digging into the post-snap, Cover 2 reads would require an understanding of what the offense is attempting to achieve.
Reads by the Cover 2 Cornerback
Both CBs in a Cover 2 will position themselves with their outside foot back, knees loosely bent. The strongside CB will align with much more depth than the weakside CB, who will give a press look over the outside WR. With Cover 1 CBs, they are only provided with the option to view the QB until the third step of his dropback. Far from the case for a zone CB, he will keep those pre-snap eyes transfixed on the QB. After the snap, the CB must keep his vision moving between the QB, and receiver within his zone until the specific route is determined. After that point, the eyes will then fall back on the QB until he releases the ball.
Techniques to read routes are different for different DCs. Most only read the evenly numbered receiver — numbered from the outside-in on both sides of the formation, with the outermost on either side considered the No. 1 receiver, next receiver inside as No. 2, etc. When the No. 1 enters their zone, their first responsibility is to maintain outside leverage. The goal is to funnel them inside and/or redirect to slow them down. If No. 1 takes an inside move on his own, the CB will not give chase. Even if the No. 2 receiver works under their zone, the CB must not give chase, but continue to sink until he sees the outside shoulder of the QB crosses his face. The outside CBs must play high-to-low in order to aid the safeties in defending the “Honey Hole.”
Strengths of Cover 2
The optimal defense for defending underneath targets
Toward the top of the list vs. intermediate targets
Five of the six underneath zones are defended
All six zones are accounted for if a defensive end drops back to defend the Curl
Underneath defenders should be strong vs. receiving TEs
Outside leverage by the CBs on both outside WRs should take away Out routes
Allows a four-man pass rush
Weaknesses of Cover 2
Extremely risky vs. the run
Only two deep defenders leaves two-of-four deep zones uncovered
The two uncovered deep zones 20-25 yards behind the outside CBs are referred to as the “Honey Holes”
Need elite athleticism at safety; the two deep defenders are forced to cover one half of the deep field by themselves
The MOF (in between the safeties/two deep defenders) is left open
Vulnerable to inside receivers with strong Skinny Post potential
Also accessible to Corner patterns
Underneath Curl zone — either covered by a LB or DE
Stretching the flats vertically with wide splits can open lanes
Horizontally stretching the safeties can be achieved by Spread & Air Raid formations
How to Attack Cover 2 in Fantasy
Consider that, on throws under 10 yards facing Cover 2 last season, QBs combined to pass for a single TD to 13 INTs. Compare those numbers to the 139/45 at the same depth when facing man coverages. And the numbers do not get much better at intermediate depths (4/20). However, on deep throws of 25 yards-or-more, QBs combined to toss for 15 TDs to nine INTs. As with all deep targets, the completion rate is cut way down. It’s clearly a situation where we want to avoid deploying low-air yard, possession type receivers.
Since only three teams played Cover 2 at a rate of 20% or more last season — only eight played it at least 15% of the time, we need additional factors in place favoring the play before we insert players into our lineups. And we should not sit our studs solely due to struggles facing Cover 2. However, if a borderline play has succeeded in the past facing Cover 2, and that defense will also feature another shell the player holds favorable metrics, that is more than enough reason to factor him in lineup decisions.
2020 Defenses Utilizing the Highest Rate of Cover 2
- New York Giants
- Minnesota Vikings
- New York Jets
- Detroit Lions
- Atlanta Falcons
Cornerback Shadows to Avoid
Neither Pittsburgh or Washington utilize shadow corners, but Haden and Fuller still offer elite Cover 2 skills to consider when deciding upon the upside/downside of an opposing receiver.
Off-the-Ball Linebacker Shadows to Avoid
- Eric Kendricks
- Rashaan Evans
- Blake Martinez
- Darius Leonard
- Mykal Walker
Strong Safety Shadows to Avoid
Top QBs vs. Cover 2
Top WRs vs. Cover 2
- Chris Godwin
- Marquise Brown
- Michael Thomas
- DeAndre Hopkins
- Brandon Aiyuk