The NFL at time can be a very complex game that has many moving parts that seem to be constantly changing. We used to have John Madden giving us a very profound “BOOM” when evaluating offensive linemen and Jaws would take over a Monday Night Football broadcast by breaking down the intricacies of quarterback play. We got a taste of the zone read last year and it lead to a lot of conversation on how to stop it. The NFL is always changing and evolving.
Pete Carroll’s defensive philosophy does not have this same evolving belief. The Seahawks playoff run last year opened many eyes to cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman has found a home with fellow CB Brandon Browner and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. They play in what I’m referring to(with props to our EIC Nath) as the ‘Cover 3Hawk.’
In my time as a high school football coach I was given the responsibility of coaching the defensive and offensive lines. A second part of my job was to breakdown the film or our opponents. I’ve had a lot of filmwork in my years of football from recruiting, breaking down other teams or evaluating my own team. I said all this to say that there is a drastic difference in defensive gameplanning from high school to college in that many smaller school high school teams run exclusively what is known as the cover 3. Even larger high schools do this but as you get more talent and move onto college teams will make the switch to playing both zone and man with man getting the majority of snaps. There are reasons for this, it’s easier to teach zone, there will be no blitzing in high schools with teams that run purely zone so its one less thing that has to be covered by small school high school teams that maybe limiting what they teach defensively due to kids playing both ways, and just the lack of talent at the cornerback and safety position will force you into running zone.
So why say all that? We don’t see NFL teams run base cover 3. Yes we have teams that run zone, the Monte Kiffin Tampa-2 being the most famous of these zone schemes but that was cover 2. A base cover 3 zone is rare. Two teams run it, The Seattle Seahawks and the Jacksonville Jaguars, coached by Seattle’s former defensive coordinator. That is not to say that other teams don’t run cover 3 but its not their base defense. Just like Seattle and Jacksonville will find themselves playing man or 2 high safety on occasion. But more often than not those two teams will drop into a cover 3. So because of the rarity and how well the Seattle defense has played I just had to take a look at them a bit more in-depth.
Here is my best way of explaining the basic cover 3. The cornerbacks will have a deep third of the field while the free safety will have the middle deep third. So all three thirds of the deep part of the field are covered by those 3 players. Then underneath there are 4 defenders, typically a nickel corner and the strong safety will cover the flats, or the zones to the sidelines close to the line of scrimmage. And the two middle linebackers will cover the two middle quarter of the field. I’ll probably never do this again, and the image I found does not completely represent what I just posted(there are 3 LB’s on the field instead of 2 and the extra DB). But here is a cover 3 picture from Madden:
OK…here we go into the Cover 3Hawk:
Let’s go over a basic look they have. It’s 3 deep pre- snap. Our highlighted players from left to right are Richard Sherman(yellow), Earl Thomas(red), and Kam Chancellor (Green). Brandon Browner will be blue from here on out but on this play pre-snap looks like he is playing underneath. This is a coverage against a Gun Trips Left formation from the Colts.
But just before the snap the Colts motion and Chancellor runs up through the box to the line of scrimmage and makes himself into an edge rusher. Sherman stays to his deep third, Thomas who moved over with the motion, still has the deep middle. Browner who looked like he had flat pre-snap now has his typical deep 3rd.
As you’ll see this is what offenses will typically get. Three guys deep with everything in front of them. You’ll notice that the LB’s also have a line of coverage across the field as well. The windows to complete passes are very small.
OK lets take a look at a big play the Colts made and why it happened. We see Browner at the top of the screen playing his press position. He’ll still have his deep third responsibility but with only one WR his way and a blitz potentially on for the ‘Hawks Browner will basically be in man coverage and will be pressing at the line. This is called a “smoke coverage” where you have a player playing man coverage despite the rest of the defense playing zone. We have Thomas in the middle of the field and Chancellor in his Monster Back position in the box. Sherman is in off man and has the deep third closest to the sideline. Hilton is just running a deep corner route away from the middle zone hopefully getting one on one coverage with Sherman and maybe can hit a big play.
At this point in the play Browner has blanketed his WR. Chancellor is playing his technique perfectly and our LB is in position against the flat route. Chancellor has freedom to push his coverage to the sideline on the TE Fleener due to Sherman leaving for a deep zone. This is a flood route trying to catch Sherman peaking in front of him instead of dropping back and that is exactly what happens.
Sherman is not the safest DB. He got well ahead of himself when he called himself the best corner in football, personally I have at least 6 CBs in front of him and maybe even his own teammate Browner as a better overall corner. But what Sherman does possess is incredible ball skills. He has the knack for jumping routes and getting a hand in for a breakup or even better an interception. Unfortunately that aggressiveness hurts as much as it helps. In this spot Sherman gets caught peaking at Fleener and even puts blame on Irvin for not getting to his flat fast enough(http://seattletimes.com/html/seahawks/2021983047_millen07xml.html). A weak excuse for allowing a WR to get into your zone freely.
Thomas was playing a middle zone so getting over to the sideline was almost impossible. Hilton ends up with a very long touchdown on this play.
We’ve moved to Seattle against Arizona now. Again we are going to see the smoke coverage from the last play. This time its Sherman in man coverage while we have Chancellor in the box and Thomas deep. Browner will take the other deep third zone. Chancellor looks like an edge rusher on this play but what will happen is he will feign a rush to drop into the zone, trying to deceive the QB.
The play develops nicely for the ‘Hawks as Palmer makes an ill advised throw towards Browner with a LB sitting underneath. Chancellor has the flat player locked down and Thomas is sitting passively back in case any deep fly routes came through. Sherman had a tough assignment against Fitzgerald and had Palmer not thrown the ball there and checked his #1 he potentially had a huge play. Sherman was beat off the ball and actually pulls down Fitzgerald’s jersey under his shoulder pad but gets a break from Palmer not challenging him, maybe because of Sherman’s reputation?
Here is a very interesting pre-snap look from our Cover 3Hawks. It’s a 2 deep safety. Something we have not see them stick to(remember last time they ended up blitzing Chancellor of the edge and playing cover 3). No such blitz seems to be on the plate, what is even more interesting is that for the first time Thomas is in the box over a slot WR and Chancellor is the deep safety. On Sherman’s side we see stacked WR’s. So Sherman and the nickle corner will work what is called an “Iowa” check or isolation. Sherman will take whichever WR goes inside and the other DB, Walter Thurmond, will take the outside WR.
We actually get a robber coverage from the Seahawks. Chancellor goes to the deep middle. Thomas has man to man coverage as does all of our other highlighted safeties. The other deep safety on this play is actually going to cheat up field and maybe be able to jump a crossing route or post route. Robber coverage means that one safety plays intermediate middle while the other safety plays deep middle. So the ‘Hawks can most definitely mix it up.
Our last play is looking at the last bit of advanced defensive playcalling the Cover 3Hawks can do. We see 2 deep man to man on the outside coverage. The slot receiver to the bottom of the screen seems uncovered though. A pre-snap tell that this very well might not be man coverage or that the Seahawks are faking pressure and will drop into a man under 2 deep.
Well it wouldn’t be the Seahawks if they played a 2 deep safety and stuck to it. For the third time the 2 deep safety was just a ploy, which suggests that they will likely catch some unlucky QB offguard when they actually do run it. They work towards a similar coverage to their Cover 3. Browner, Thomas and Sherman all have deep thirds. Chancellor is attacking from his safety position to the slot WR. The middle LB with the receiver over the middle of the field and…the defensive linemen has the flat! Yes this play was a zone blitz in which pressure was sent from the defensive left and a defensive linemen drops back into the flat for coverage. This is the Steelers zone blitz scheme used extremely successfully for years.
This was a break away from breaking down individual players. The Seahawks defenses statistically has been quite good. They are 5th in points allowed and 4th in yards allowed. But more importantly they are 2nd in yards per play allowed at 4.6. Advanced Statistic websites have the defense ranked highly as well. FootballOutsiders has them as #2 overall and #1 against the pass(#15 against the run); ProFootballFocus as the #2 overall and #1 in pass rush/#2 in pass coverage(8th in rush defense); and finally AdvancedNFLStats has Seattle at #3 overall, #2 against the pass(#13 against the run). The bulk stats of Net Yards per attempt(they are #1) and yards per rush attempt(they are 18th) seem to back that up.
Yes the Seahawks play a little different scheme than most teams but what makes them so successful is the talent on the field. I may have knocked Sherman a little bit but he is still a tremendous cornerback. Browner even better. Thomas is a terrific deep safety and Chancellor is extremely versatile and also plays at a high level. Having that type of back end is tremendous for a defense and is the reason why they are being mentioned when it comes to possible super bowl winners.