Strategy Guide
How To Run a Cover 2

Last week some of you may have read my article about beating a Cover 2 defense. This week you’ll learn how to run it. The Cover 2 is a staple defense that has variants that can be run in almost any situation. It can be run as the Tampa 2, which is best at eliminating the short rhythm passing attack; it can be run as a soft zone to keep the intermediate gains in front of the defense, or it can be run as more aggressive prevent style defense with man coverage but both safeties over the top.

Before we get into the more technical aspects of the Cover 2/T2 defense, the first thing to know about the defense is what beats it. My first suggestion is reading my article from last week, which highlighted a few simple techniques to beat it. If you see your opponent/computer using these styles of attack it is important to change up your defense. No defensive philosophy is impossible to attack, so don’t hesitate to change to a Cover 3 or play straight man with more blitzing, or even a zone blitz.

Now that the forward is over, lets get into the X’s and O’s. The Tampa 2 is the classic “bend but don’t break” defense. It's balanced to stop the big plays to the outside in the running game and to stop anything over the top, but sacrifices the 6 or 7 yard gains. It requires sure tackling, especially by the safeties (think John Lynch). The T2 isn’t going to produce a ton of shutouts and isn’t going to just dominate an offense, but it is going to keep them to field goals in the red zone and force the offense to play perfect. In short it gives yards, but not a lot of points.

To achieve success you must have a great “Triangle." This means both your defensive tackles and middle linebacker must be very good. Another key aspect is the defensive tackles must be able to stop the run on their own. The T2 can only be run with 7 or fewer in the box (i.e., a straight 4-3 with the safeties staying deep). If the opponent can run for 4 or 5 yards a carry right up the middle you will be forced to bring a safety up into the front 7 then the T2 can no longer be run. Having your DTs eat the G/C/G blocks on their own, as well as getting a few tackles in the backfield is crucial for success. Furthermore, you must be able to collapse the pocket in the middle. The pass rush in the T2 is the biggest key for success, and having a Warren Sapp type is crucial if you expect any sort of success.

The middle linebacker must be able to play coverage first as he is responsible for the deep middle (i.e., post patterns, deep crossing routes and anything deep by the TE) as well as getting into the “alley” on a running play. The MLB has a lot of ground to cover and is going to have to be able to make a tackle in the open field. He can’t do this if he has to step up against the run even if he is athletic enough to cover the pass.

In the true Tampa 2 the corners take the flats, the OLB takes the curl patterns and quick slants while the safeties cover deep and the MLB takes anything vertical from the slot/TE. The quick passing game is very hard to execute against the T2 as the corners can take away dump patterns, curls, and quick slants. The one route that usually is successful -- the TE sit -- is unlikely to gain more than a few yards. This means the offense is going to have to attack midrange with outs or deep ins. The only way to stop this is with the pass rush from the DL. I've already discussed the importance of a DT that can collapse the pocket from the middle quickly, but you also need defensive ends that can pin their ears back and get sacks. The only thing that will beat a T2 team is time in the pocket. If you can’t generate a pass rush you’ve lost before you began.

The Cover 2 has more ways to run than the pure T2. It has a soft zone which takes the corners out of the flats and into the area for out patterns, but that leaves you softer against the run to the outside and against swing passes -- but on 3rd and 8 that’s not your biggest concern. You can also play Man 2 which is a simple man coverage with safety help over top -- but man coverage is much weaker against the run and should only be used in obvious passing situations or against a team that simply doesn’t run a lot or run very well.

Beyond the playcalling is the crucial fact that you must vary your defenses. Any opponent, real or AI, can easily pick up if you only call Cover 2. Mixing in some heavy blitzing, or even the blitzing plays out of Cover 2 is very important. I like to go nickel or even dime at times since it gives me a bit more speed on the field. You also need to change up your DL play by calling stunts, slants or pinch/fan to help them generate pressure. Just because it's called a Cover 2 defense does not mean you only call straight Cover 2; you still have to keep the offense guessing.

The T2 is a very effective defense with the right players. It's not a fit for all defenses as it requires a lot of talent in the front 4. It's not a catch all defense as I only run the pure T2 20% of the time, and only a T2 variant maybe 60%. Everything else is a combo of blitz/man, Cover 3 or zone blitzes. Calling stunts and overload blitzing while changing the coverage to generate a rush is also a must. However, when called correctly the Cover 2 defense will generate a sack or the key incompletion to effectively end the opponent's drive.