Defending the Spread

By Alen Dumonjic
April 12, 2013

Alen Dumonjic examines alternate defenses as answers to the spread offense, and how this is effecting CB demand.

The oft-forgotten theme of the NFL (which, this year, has consisted of the analysis of draft prospects, an MIT Sloan Sports Conference featuring a football analytics panel, and free agency) has seemingly been inefficient markets. Teams are looking to find the undervalued players, statistics and/or schemes, and it's becoming the trend.

For instance, in the last couple of years, while many defenses have shifted to smaller and quicker players to battle spread offenses, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have been acquiring bigger and stronger players because less and less teams are looking for them. Another example is the Seattle Seahawks acquiring bigger and longer cornerbacks that can beat up perimeter receivers by way of press-man coverage.

That latter instance is the basis of this post because there have been indications that other general managers are going to move in that direction, too. Acquiring oversized cornerbacks, who were once deemed too slow to play on the perimeter and best fit as safeties, is a smart way to take advantage of the market, but it is not the ideal long term path.

The main reason it's not the ideal forecast is because press-man is not the answer to spread offenses. Press-man is exactly what it sounds like: cornerbacks, rolled up to the line of scrimmage and the receiver, play very tight coverage from the beginning of the snap to the end. This is typically played from a single-high coverage shell, such as Cover 1 (Man-Free), which uses one safety – the free safety, who is the keystone of the coverage – to patrol the middle of the field while another covers the tight end in man coverage.

Cover 1 is not a new coverage, as it's been around for seemingly ages and has arguably been the most popular coverage in pro football for a long time. But it's not the best or only answer moving forward.

Shifting Coverage

I firmly believe the best answer to the proliferation of spread offenses that stretch the field horizontally at a rapid pace, among other ways, is more Cover 2 and Cover 3.

Traditionally, Cover 2 is a pure zone coverage, consisting of five underneath defenders (three linebackers, two cornerbacks) and two deep, split-field safeties.

As for Cover 3, it's also a pure zone coverage that utilizes only one deep safety controlling the middle of the field. The safety and two outside cornerbacks split the field into thirds, while the underneath zone coverage consists of four defenders of splitting the field into – you guessed it – fourths.

These two coverages are different, but together they test the one thing that offensive coordinators don't have regardless of their weapons: patience.

The roots of these two coverages are defined by a popular football cliché: bend but don't break. They force the offense to move the ball down the field slowly, much to the chagrin of headstrong play callers. That's not easy, especially if the defense is playing fundamentally sound football.

We've seen teams use them extensively to slow down high-octane offenses in the last couple of years. The New York Giants played a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 3 last season when they faced the Green Bay Packers in Week 12. The result? Nearly 50 percent of the Packers' third downs were seven yards or longer, two turnovers forced, the second lowest completion percentage of the season (56 percent) for Aaron Rodgers and five sacks that disrupted the offense's rhythm.

The Next Market

The demand for press-man cornerbacks is the NFL's way of exploiting the market. This is a frequent occurrence in the NFL, and it'll happen again in a few years when one team realizes the best move is to go back to playing more Cover 2.

That team will be able to exploit the lack of demand of squat cornerbacks, who don't rely on speed to run in man coverage and can be very aggressive moving forward. They also don't require high draft choices, which is important because it allows the resources to be allocated to the most important area of the defense: the middle of the field.

There are no perfect coverages and a team will never rely on only one but if they're smart, they'll rely on Cover 2 and Cover 3 more than man coverage.