Bengals vs. Browns 101: Cover 2 and Cover 3 Zones


Nov 17, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Vincent Rey (57) tackles Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron (84) during the game at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati won 41-20. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Hello again everyone. Like last week, this will be another installment of Football 101, with your ever most amazing writer. This time around, we will be discussing and breaking down what exactly a Cover 2 and a Cover 3 zone is, and if it will show its head in the latest Battle for Ohio.

Let’s start with the Cover 2… shall we?

Cover 2

Cover 2 is just a really fancy name for running a basic zone defense with two men dropping out deep to split the back end of the field into two separate, but equal parts. It can be run out of many defensive alignments, but most likely would come out of a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. The safeties drop back immediately after the snap and cover the deep part of the field. This leaves five smaller zones underneath to be covered by the two corners and the three other men who did not rush the quarterback.  It could be any combination of linebackers and defensive linemen, but is most often the three linebackers on the field.

Obviously, this is most often used during passing situations and that concept also applies to the Cover 3 defense.

Cover 3

Now, if my semi-college and high school education taught me anything, it is that inductive reasoning can be very helpful, especially in the case of numbers. So knowing that a Cover 2 calls for two men deep down the field in zone coverage, then what could it possibly mean when running a Cover 3? You guessed it. Cover 3 calls for three defensive backs down the field in a deep zone.

You would mostly likely see this play called out of a nickel formation. If you need to know what a nickel is, click here for last week’s installment of Football 101. It is used primarily out of the nickel formation because the added defensive back allows the two safeties to play deep along with one of the three corners.  It could also allow the strong safety, who is typically more apt in the run game, to come up into” the box” (the area of the field where the linebackers and defensive linemen reside) and still drop three defensive backs into the secondary. So when you have three men splitting the back end of the field, and a basic four-man-rush, this defense asks the four other members of the defense to cover the middle of the field.

Bengals’ Utilization of these Defenses versus the Browns

As much as I personally do not like it, the Bengals love to have Adam Jones cover big No. 1 targets in man-to-man coverage.  However, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther hasn’t blitzed as much this year as many thought he would heading into the season. This means that it’s less likely fans will have to worry about Jones getting burned on double moves as Guenther will likely run extra defenders in coverage.

Jones will be playing an outside receiver unfortunately, but because the Browns should have an issue running the ball in this game, it would not be a surprise to see the Browns utilize multiple (>3) receiver sets especially as the Bengals are depleted at corner this week. Because Hall is out, the Browns know that an inexperienced corner such as Dre Kirkpatrick or Darqueze Dennard will receive a significant amount of playing time.

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While they will have their playing time, a way the Bengals can combat both of those issues would be with the Cover 3. It would allow the Bengals to keep two linebackers in the game, even if the Browns decide to go with four wide outs, as the Bengals linebackers are capable in zone coverage. It would prevent big plays deep, and keep underneath throws from turning into big plays. The only soft spot would be over the linebackers and in front of the safeties, or middle-deep down the sidelines on post routes.

It should normally concern fans that a team would allow a soft spot on medium deep throws; however, a quarterback needs time for those routes to develop. With Nick McDonald playing center for the Browns, Brian Hoyer may not get that time. There has been a resurgence in Geno Atkins’ play as of late, and the play of Nick McDonald has been nothing short of pathetic. This means that the Browns will have to double team Atkins, which should give Carlos Dunlap one-on-one match-ups on the outside.  If the Browns keep an extra man in protection to counter these potential one-on-one match-ups, it will require the removal of a receiving option, hence making the zone that much more effective.

So there you have it.  Expect the Bengals to utilize these looks early and often tonight.  As long as the Bengals’ front four provide the necessary pressure up the middle and limit the ground game, the onus will fall on Brian Hoyer to try and pick apart the Bengals’ zone defense under pressure or with less receiving options on the field.  Let’s hope Geno Atkins’ resurgence continues tonight as divisional wins are key to the Bengals winning their second straight divisional crown.