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Colts Scouting Journal: Time to stop calling the Colts a Cover 2 defense

Colts have a new base defense look and it’s not the cover two

New York Jets v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus was hired by Frank Reich in 2018 to run this Colts’ defense. With him, he brought the style of defense that almost every mentor he has worked with has run. That defense is a base cover two or Tampa 2 in another form.

For the last two years, fans have bemoaned the cover two defense and it’s “passive” tendencies. While the cover two defense does have some areas of weak points, it was mostly getting the job done for the Colts in 2018 and 2019. Late in the 2019 season though, the Colts began experimenting with more cover three and single high safety looks.

My friend Kennan (@VeveJones007) put together a nice little thread that features a lot of the Colts experimenting with some cover three/single high looks last season. This thread however highlights the Colts’ struggles in that defense while this article highlights a success. What changed from last year to this year? That is what we will be covering today.

Today’s Scouting Journal will have a bit of a different format but only because this schematic conversation deserves a whole article of coverage. Today we will look at how Matt Eberflus has evolved this defense so far in 2020 and why this new style is having so much success.

Evolution to the Cover 3

When the Colts initially began in a cover two scheme under Matt Eberflus, I speculated that we could eventually see a shift to a Seahawks style cover three in the future. One reason is that GM Chris Ballard admires Seahawks GM John Schneider and the way he built that defense. The main reason however was the way that Pete Carroll transitioned to cover three from a Tampa 2 style scheme back in the day. Carroll has even referred to his cover three scheme as an “inverted Tampa 2” defense.

The Colts appeared to building up to a similar style of scheme as they actually have some of the exact same height and arm length requirements for their cornerbacks that the Seahawks do. The main question then seems to be, why so long for the switch to this defense? The simple answer is personnel.

In 2018, the Colts simply didn’t have the talent or experience to play this style of defense. Last year they had the talent but throwing a rookie CB in Rock Ya-Sin into a scheme that asks corners to read and diagnose a lot in front of them would have been a recipe for disaster. Now having a cornerback group with stable veterans and a battle tested Ya-Sin, the Colts were finally able to roll out this style of defense.

2019 Failures and the Introduction of Match

So like I mentioned above, the Colts rolled out some cover three late last year and ran it quite a bit out of a single high look. The results were not incredible as the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers carved up this defense.

The biggest reason why a zone defense struggles is that offenses can attack the open areas. Back in the 90’s, two defensive geniuses in Nick Saban and Bill Belichick were facing the issue of how can they play man coverage when the other team’s receivers are simply better than their defensive backs? They then came up with the rip/liz match defense. Here are the basic principals of the rip/liz match defense (via Pats Pulpit):

  1. The Flat defender has the #2 receiver (Slot or Tight end) man to man IF he goes vertical
  2. The Cornerback has the #1 (Outside receiver) receiver man to man IF he goes vertical
  3. If both #1 and #2 go vertical, the hook defender will cover #3 (the remaining receiver to that side)

Essentially a rip/liz match defense, or a cover three match buzz, combines aspects of man coverage with elements of a cover three to take away downfield throws. If you look back on that thread that Kennan made above, you will notice a lot of seam throws beating the Colts in their cover three. This style of defense is made to defend against that and take away those deep shots that a typical cover three would struggle to defend.

Film Examples

Let’s look at some film examples to put video with all these things I am saying. The beauty of this style of cover three is that it looks initially like a cover one man call and can be mistaken for it by opposing offenses. This gives the defense an element of disguise and simplifies the line between multiple coverages. On this play below, the Colts appear to be in man across the board as the outside corners are manned on the outer most pass catcher and the SAM (Bobby Okereke) is lined up over the slot.

While this coverage looks like a man call, it is actually cover three match with the liz/rip concepts. The safety is in the box along with the linebackers, creating a stacked box. When the pass is identified, the safety and the two inside linebackers drop into their middle of the field curl zones. Rock Ya-Sin at the top of the screen bails out of press and stays vertical with his receiver. Okereke carries his man to the middle of the field before letting him go as he enters the other linebacker zones. He later drops back onto that receiver as the receiver swings back outside. The deep safety in Malik Hooker is hanging over the top reading his keys. This play had no chance of success due to the pass rush but you can see the base elements of this zone on this play.

This next play is a perfect example of the liz/rip concepts being put into this pattern match zone the Colts have. The Colts are lined up across the line in again what appears to be cover one man. Where the liz/rip concept comes to play is with the slot corner in Kenny Moore II. In a typical cover three, Moore II would either drop into a hook zone or a flat zone. Since this is a pattern match cover three though, he actually carries the vertical receiver on the deep over route. Since he carries the receiver, this allows for the linebackers to key the run and not worry about getting beat behind them.

This is also a great play by Ya-Sin as he passes off his drag route to the linebackers and fades back into his cover three spot to help Moore II with his man. The coverage is suffocating here and Khari Willis flies up from his buzzed flat position to make the sack.

I want to preface this next clip by apologizing for the lighting (please keep the roof closed Jim Irsay). From what we can actually see on this play is yet another aggressive pattern match cover three. The outside corners are in man on their guys while the buzz safety (over the tight end) and the slot cornerback are looking for vertical routes. At the snap the outside receivers push vertical and both TJ Carrie and Xavier Rhodes are able to move to man on those routes and take away those options.

Willis, as the buzzed down safety, sees the tight end run vertical and carries the deep route to the safety over the middle. Moore II passes off the drag route underneath and drops into his curl/hook zone. The linebackers in the middle have excellent communication as they pass off the running back option/slot receiver drag route perfectly. This is excellent coverage across the board and another sack as the result.

Last clip we are going to look at is Xavier Rhodes’ first interception from this past weekend. In a typical cover three or cover two defense, Rhodes wouldn’t stay on his man through this route. He would get to his spot and lock down his zone. Since this is cover three match though, he stays on his man off the line of scrimmage. This is where the experience plays a part as Rhodes understands the Jets will try and attack the sticks on third down so he sits on the deep curl/comeback route. He reads it perfectly and makes the play.

This also gets to another aspect of this defense that we will likely see more of throughout the season. This type of defense is based on defenders reading the opposing quarterbacks’ body language and playing aggressive to the ball. Look at how the inside defenders in their curl/hook assignments react when they see Sam Darnold turning to the left side. They are all flowing that way. This is a very aggressive style of defense that is intended to confuse offenses and create turnovers. So far this year, it is working.

Final Thoughts

For the first time since Coach Eberflus took over in 2018, we are starting to see real variation and disguise in this Colts defense. Eberlfus did a lot with the cover two the last two years but he finally has the personnel to begin implementing some ideas and shifts that he has wanted to move into the defense.

The biggest takeaway is how cerebral this style of defense is. Players have to be in constant communication with each other and know when to pattern match which routes on given plays. That is likely why we saw so many coverage mistakes and miscommunications in week one.

The big picture of this piece though is the Colts are moving away from being a “Cover 2” defense. They do still run their Tampa 2 plays, especially with a lead, but the new norm is becoming this cover three, single high look. The Colts finally feel like they have the proper personnel to run this single high style of defense.

In hindsight, this was always the move for the Colts. This style of cover three has the same emphasis that Eberflus has always had with this team. Stop the run, forces third and long, and eliminate the big play. Only difference is this defense is much more aggressive in what it wants to accomplish.

There will be some growing pains and I’m sure there will be some weeks where it burns the Colts but the main point is that this defense is evolving schematically and so far it is working. The Colts have big tests the next two weeks against the Bears and the Browns so hopefully this style of defense can sustain some dominance against those offenses.