Over the summer, I took on the project to study the Cowboys defensive coverages by going through all of the 2015 games and charting it to the best of my ability. Now, this is an ambitious project since there are about 1,000 defensive snaps and it requires a fair amount of detective work to try to figure out exactly what they are doing.
Now, ask any player or coach, and they will confirm to you that there are dozens of different coverages. In fact, anyone who has played Madden knows that there are a dozen ways to play each coverage. If you line up in "Cover 1", you can actually offer many variations to try to keep an offense off balance.
I will not pretend to be able to offer a great understanding on this to the level of a normal football coach, because that would be impossible given that I am just a radio guy and part-time blogger. But, I wished to be able to increase my understanding to at least a basic level over the summer and now I wish to pass that along to you. We will keep it simple, so as not to lose our audience here. But, I would like to - for one morning - try to familiarize those who are interested in what the basic coverages that the Cowboys run would be. And how often they run them.
Please understand that this is my scorecard and while it may not be 100% accurate (if a QB can't always identify the coverages he sees, you shouldn't expect that I can), it is my best effort. I believe these numbers to be very close to the truth.
Here are the results of identifying the coverages (on pass plays only) from 2015.
As you can see above, despite Rod Marinelli being called a Cover-2 or Tampa-2 coach, I would attempt to verify that the Cowboys ran Cover 2 just 146 times (25%) out of a total of 576 passes. The Tampa-2 variation (which is a Cover 2 subcategory) was run less than 25 times all year. So, next time someone in the National Media identifies Marinelli as a Tampa-2 guy, feel free to change the channel. They aren't watching the Cowboys play enough to consider their opinions.
I wanted to show you a still photo to replicate what the players see on the sideline. They don't get moving video. They get 2 photos (from 2 angles (sideline and end zone), so technically 4 photos) from each play. One is taken at the snap and one is taken about 1-2 seconds into the play. This is how they see coverages. So, I showed you the still from the sideline view to show each coverage.
They ran Cover 1 (and its many variations) about 47% of the time. That was easily the coverage they ran the most as the season went along. I found this interesting because I know they wanted to do more of that, but once Orlando Scandrick was lost in training camp, I expected to see it far less.
Below is a look at Cover 1.
You can identify it from seeing a single-high safety combined with man-to-man coverage underneath.
Now, Cover 1 is man coverage, but there is an extra man available to use as well. This man, in the picture above, is Sean Lee. He stands on the 15-yard line and is playing at a shallow depth to either spy or act as a robber on an underneath coverage. As you can see, everyone else is locked in man and then your single-high safety patrols deep to make sure nothing causes trouble down the field.
I would call this the default Cowboys coverage.
Of course, the issues it runs into will be when you don't have guys who cover well in 1-on-1 situations, mismatches, and the dreaded rub-routes or pick plays. Veteran teams with veteran QBs love seeing you in Cover 1, but it does make sure that targets don't get much space.
The next most frequent coverage is Cover 3. This is the Seattle coverage that has taken over the NFL as Cover 2 has gone down in its use. In fact, I have talked to many Cowboys operatives that have often said that this is the defense they were attempting to pattern themselves after from an Xs and Os standpoint. The Seattle Cover 3 is run all over the league now, and it is a zone coverage with the corners forcing their threats into the single-high safety by generally playing outside leverage.
The other thing you are looking for is to see the shallow defenders playing a 4-across zone underneath all with their eyes on the QB. This is usually the 3 linebackers and the other safety. By the way, the Cowboys often run Cover-3 from a Cover-2 shell, which means that they look like Cover 2 at the snap, only to have one safety move to center field high while the other races down to join the linebackers.
This defense deploys eight men to stop the run but also can adjust to drop seven into coverage and can allow all sorts of options for a coordinator to play aggressive defense without a whole lot of weaknesses exposed.
QBs do like to work the sidelines behind the first line of defenders to attack this, but otherwise, they often check down and now the defense flies to the balls in front of them in packs.
The biggest issue with this coverage is if you don't have Richard Sherman (a corner who can play man concepts while playing zone) and Earl Thomas (the industry leader at FS). It requires a real solid centerfield safety and the Cowboys are hoping Byron Jones is now that guy. Because, if you have a safety that plays poor angles and always gets there late, big plays happen.
That leaves Cover 2 for most of the remainder (25%). They are pretty much just in these three coverages and this is more of the "let's be careful" coverage. You will see it on most 3rd and long situations and in most 2-min drill situations. When the Cowboys are just trying to survive a situation, chances are they are in a Cover 2 or even a deep Cover 2 that almost becomes a Cover 4. Both of those are zone coverages that intend to flood the deep areas with so many defenders that you will see no choice but to accept the check down targets and therefore limit your gains and eat more of the clock.
Again, see what will become a 3-underneath, 4-deep type coverage as the corners carry their guys deep and try not to allow any window (the Cover 2 beaters) to the deep sideline - beyond the corner but in front of the safety. Cover 3 is 4-underneath and 3-deep. This is the opposite.
Of course, you can beat a Cover 2 in front of the safeties.
They ran this a lot, but not a lot on 1st or 2nd downs. Although, they did show a Cover 2 shell a lot. I suggest that the opponents saw that this was largely a bluff, though.
This Coverage was run in the first 4 weeks some and then pretty much disappeared. It is 2 safeties high and man coverage underneath. We saw it quite a bit in Week 3.
And then, for reasons I don't totally know, they stopped running it. I don't remember them being bad at it, they just went in another direction.
As you can see, it is very much the same as Cover 1, except both safeties are deep. The Cowboys run Cover 1 with a safety deep and a middle linebacker shallow to take away underneath things, spy the QB, and even blitz.
Here is the coverage breakdown by downs:
Beyond those four coverages, they ran a handful of other looks here and there, but this is the majority of what they do.
I hope this helps. Leave any follow up questions below.