Introduction to Pass Coverages

It really wasn’t that long ago when things on defense, especially pass coverages, were a lot simpler. The Sixties really weren’t that long ago, were they? When that decade started pro football was finishing what most thought was the great revolution from two-way players to two-platoon football. But, besides this personnel move, the game was still the running game it had always been and defenses, especially coverages, were very simple. So simple, some NFL teams didn’t even have multiple coverages, actually doing the same thing every down, every game. Playing any type of zone was frowned upon, the toughness of the league demanded man on man battles.

Remember, in the “Greatest Game Ever Played” a few years earlier Johnny Unitas handed off to Allen Ameche to beat the Giants in overtime to win over the hearts of America’s sports fans. And the biggest match up on any field on Sunday afternoons was still Jim Brown going head-to-head with Sam Huff.Then things happened very fast, both figuratively and literally, and by the end of the decade the game would be changed forever, and would closely resemble the game we all love today. The Cowboys signed the world’s fastest man, the 1964 Olympic hero Bob Hayes. And what they found out was not only was he the world’s greatest track athlete, he was a tough and competitive football player. For the first time teams just couldn’t ‘put someone on him,’ he was too fast and athletic for any defensive back to cover man-for-man. And then the AFL hit stride and all hell broke loose. After watching their favorite NFL teams grind out the ground game for 16-13 victories during the 1:00 games on the east coast on CBS, fans were then turning to the 4:00 AFL games on NBC and saw Sid Gillman and his Chargers throwing passing routes on three levels and no matter what the coverage someone got open. Oakland’s Al Davis wouldn’t get outdone, so he did the same thing but found a QB with a better arm (Daryl Lomonica) and faster receivers (Warren Wells and Co.). The Chargers and Raiders were playing in shootouts with scores like 42-38, and America’s eyed were glued to the AFL instead of pro wrestling. Suddenly quarterbacks like Joe Namath and Len Dawson would be telling Curt Gowdy and Al De Ragtis how they “read” the coverage and we all know what happened in Super Bowl III and IV.

Even in the best and most innovated offenses that preceded these events in the Sixties, there really very little reading of defenses and coverages. When Otto Graham ran Paul Brown’s offense in Cleveland in the Forties and Fifties, with it’s innovative screen passes and trap plays, Otto ran Brown’s plays that were sent in using another of his coaching innovations, the messenger guard. Otto knew his meal ticket was Paul Brown, and 99% of the time he did what he was told. A dozen years later you had Joe Namath telling his team in the huddle to listen for the audible on the line of scrimmage. Yes, things happened fast.

Probably the two biggest influences since the Sixties have been the Howard Schnellenberger and Bill Walsh affects, which both brought the running game back into the passing game. Schnellenberger was a Bear Bryant protégé, who as an NFL assistant and then as head coach of the Colts and then later Miami University, attacked the whole field using both the run and the pass and the defense had better be ready. Bill Walsh did the same thing, but with a moving quarterback who was told to just move the chains and touchdowns would soon follow. Now everyone in the NFL, east coast, west coast, and everyone in between, runs a variation of these offenses.

NFL defenses for the last forty years have had to make adjustments to multi attack offenses. Plus, when was the last time the NFL helped out the defense in the rules department? Most major changes in the actually structure of the game have almost always been to benefit the offense. Holding, except for the most flagrant of incidences, is legal. Receivers are pretty much allowed to roam free off the line of scrimmage, and quarterbacks are electronically attached in communications with their offensive coordinators to receive plays and advice instantaneously. Meanwhile, almost anything the defense has come up with has gotten outlawed. Remember when teams would break the huddle with 15 defenders, with guys running off the field depending on the offensive formation? It did not take the league long to outlaw this defensive innovation. Touchdowns sell commercials.

Which leads us all to the latest efforts in defense calls, especially in the department of coverages, and the latest coverage du jour, variations of Bill Belechick’s New England Patriot’s two deep coverage.

Before we go any further, lets talk about how defenses are called, usually three ways. First what front will be used, then what coverage, then any blitzes or stunts. For example, a call like Patriot Shade Fire Cover 2 Weak could translate into a 3 man front (Patriot); an offset nose guard (shade); some sort of blitz off the edge of the strong side (fire); with a two deep zone look, possibly with man coverage on the one receiver side (weak). There is no universal language shared by teams, even though many teams run the same stuff. Each defensive coordinator wants to put his own stamp on his own defense, which means more jargon than is usually necessary. Another topic for another column.

Defensive coverages in the NFL have evolved in the last twenty seasons or so into combinations of both man and zone. Teams would cover better receivers with a corner back man-for-man, but also with a safety behind them in some sort of zone to help out. “Man Free” defenses gave athletic safeties like Felix Wright or knockout artists like Jack Tatum the chance to play centerfield on top of team’s defenses. The idea was to occupy the receivers until Lawrence Taylor or John Randle could run down the quarterback, either sacking him or forcing him to throw. Sure, you’d give up the short stuff because it wouldn’t lead to too many touchdowns, especially if your offense was pretty good at scoring them.

So what are teams doing now against the likes of Peyton Manning and Randy Moss? One thing Bellichek has really emphasized in New England, and he started it when he had Taylor in New York, is defense players who can play more than one position, moving the personal mind games advantages back to the defense. Safeties that can come up and play linebacker, linebackers that can also be affective rushing defensive ends, are very common today.

But remember Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are no dummies, and guys like Antonio Gates are big and athletic and can catch passes with two defenders hanging on. How do you cover the studs?

Next time we will get into more specifics about pass coverages, but please remember all this change over the last forty years or so has given us today a great game, structured to let big athletic competitive athletes make plays. Putting players in positions to be successful, and we as fans love it, either sitting in the stands at our favorite stadium or watching it at home on television.

Two thoughts for you to think about until next time as far as defensive coverages go:

  1. TalentHow do you cover the Randy Moss’s of the world? How many times have we seen players like him with two defenders hanging on to still go up and come down with the ball?
  2. The Running GameHow much defensive backs, especially safeties, have to worry about the
    running game strongly affects the pass coverage a team runs. It may seem like an oxymoron,
    that the passing game is so reliant on the running game. You could go back to all the Super Bowls John Elway didn’t win until Terrell Davis came along, or to as recent as the current Steelers, to see the effects of a good running game and defenses trying to stop it along with a solid passing attack.