CHICAGO (MCT) — As trends go, the Cover-2’s heyday has come and gone. Like trucker hats and Crocs, the Cover-2 is nowhere near as prevalent as it was in the mid-2000s.
But as defensive schemes go, the Cover-2 still works just fine.
Seven NFL teams once majored in the Cover-2, but now there are only two. Critics have said the Cover-2 is no longer as effective as it once was because of rules changes.
Even Buccaneers defensive back Ronde Barber, who has made a career playing in the scheme, has questioned the Cover-2’s viability moving forward.
During an interview on Sirius XM radio Barber said, “Our theory was all these guys got to the ball and intimidation was a physical act. It was, ‘Get guys to run through zones. We’ll shoot our guns and separate them from the ball.’ The rules will definitely affect it. ... I know we don’t play Cover-2 now the way we used to.”
Last year there were 388 defensive personal fouls in the NFL. In 2008, there were only 250. That’s an indication that Cover-2 defensive backs can’t load up on receivers coming across the middle the way they once did.
But the teams that still rely most on it are not backing down, and there’s no evidence to suggest they should.
“This is our defense,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We have a philosophy we believe in. Whether it’s one or 32 teams using it, we don’t care. To us, it’s what we believe in.”
The Bears defense entered the weekend ranked second in the Aikman Efficiency Ratings, third in points per game and sixth in yards per game. The Vikings, the other team that still runs a Cover-2-based scheme, ranked eighth in the Aikman Ratings, sixth in points per game and seventh in yards per game.
“We’re at the top of the Aikman ratings just about every year we’ve been here,” Smith said. “The things we think are important — take the ball away, third-down conversions, we’ve been doing that pretty much every year. So I know it’s a good system.”
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier thought so much of the system that when he was looking for a new defensive coordinator this year, he prioritized finding a coach who was familiar with it.
“A lot of people were talking to me about why don’t you look at the 3-4, or look at this, that,” said Frazier, who hired former Colts defensive backs coach Alan Williams. “I knew we had success here in the past with this.”
But Frazier understands the recent fuss about the scheme.
“The new rules have changed things a bit,” he said. “It’s probably contributed to fewer teams running it. I don’t know if you can major in it like you once could.”
Frazier said his team probably runs Cover-2 40 to 50 percent of the time. The Bears have run it more than that.
Former Colts general manager Bill Polian, who won a Super Bowl with the scheme, said he wouldn’t shy away from the Cover-2 if he were to get another job as a general manager. He said coaches just have to convince defenders to lower their aiming point.
Because defensive backs can’t be as physical with receivers, the pass rush, which always has been the key to the scheme, is more important than ever.
“That Cover-2 scheme isn’t that good when it’s ‘Five Mississippi’ as opposed to ‘Two and a half Mississippi,’” said former Bucs safety and current Fox commentator John Lynch. “The name of it comes from playing halves of the field. Fifty-three and a half yards (the width of a field) is a lot of ground for guys to cover if the rush isn’t getting there. What the Bears have, and Vikings have is consistent pressure up front. That’s what makes that defense go for them.”
Most teams can’t generate the kind of pressure with a four-man rush that the Bears and Vikings can. So playing a heavy dose of Cover-2 doesn’t make sense for them.
The fact that only two teams still wave the Cover-2 flag is an advantage for both.
“Offenses don’t see it quite as much as they did, so it does create a little bit of a curveball effect,” Frazier said.
There are benefits, too, in sticking with one scheme. Longtime Bears defenders like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman have their Ph.D.s in the Cover-2 because they have been in it so many seasons.
“I don’t think you can be good if you do this one year, that the next,” Smith said. “You can’t just say, ‘What’s the hot defense?’ every year.”
The reason teams have gone away from the Cover-2 might have more to do with coaching migrations than rules changes. Some of the primary proponents of the Cover-2 no longer are running NFL defenses.
Tony Dungy has graduated to broadcasting. So has Herm Edwards, though he moved away from the scheme later in his head coaching career.
Monte Kiffin is at USC. Raheem Morris is a secondary coach with the Redskins. Ron Meeks, with the Chargers, also is coaching DBs instead of coordinating.
Rod Marinelli and Smith each ran the scheme on different teams but now are together with the Bears.
Only one of the coaches who had been most closely associated with the defense is now running a different scheme. Mike Tomlin ditched the Cover-2 when he became head coach of the Steelers because he wanted to maintain the status quo in Pittsburgh and allow Dick LeBeau to continue to run his scheme.
Those who have stuck with the Cover-2 point to its history and the fact that it’s a part of every playbook in the NFL.
“Coach Dungy used to talk about how long the defense has been around,” said Williams, who learned the scheme in Indianapolis. “He showed me the playbook they had in Pittsburgh (in the 1970s) when he played with some of the same things in it we have now. He would say playing good defense is not that complicated.
“I try to make it not that difficult where guys can line up and execute. And the guys have bought in. They like it and are having fun playing it. As long as they are executing, it’s here to stay.”
The Cover-2 teams take pride in going against the grain.
“People say you can’t play it anymore,” said one of the assistants on one of the Cover-2 teams. “Watch us.”