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Football University - Cover Two Systems

MHR University

A lot of folks know about the popular Cover Two system. At the same time, there is a lot of misunderstanding about this system.

Some common myths:

Cover Two is a formation.

Cover Two and Tampa Two are the same thing.

Cover Three is a system.

Two deep safeties is what a Cover Two is primarily known for.

The Cover Two is a 4-3 system.

Let's take a deeper look at the Cover Two and it's major variant, the Tampa Two. Knowing how these defenses are set up is key to game planning and game prep for the upcoming season.

See you below the fold!

The C2 is not a new system. It has been around for decades. In its inception, the C2 was a zone system that was a balanced defense against the run and pass.

The idea behind the C2 was to place the LBs in zones that divided the 2nd level of the field. The LBs could be of any type (fast/coverage or slow/big), but the OLBs were normaly faster than their MLB counterparts.

The MLB played close to scrimmage, while the OLBs could vary from playing inside the OTs to wider out.

The cornerbacks also played zone. They didn't have to be fast, but they had to be good at jamming receivers on the line and making either powerful hits for fumbles or sound tackles (depending on how much assistance is near the play).

With the receivers slowed by being jammed (especially under the older NFL rules), the LBs had more time to assist with tackles and to get into position for plays. The MLB was more focused on the run in his zone.

The safeties played in deep zone coverage, ensuring that no big plays got behind them.

The defensive line was standard for the time. The 2 DTs played a lot of 2 gap and the line was built to stop the run.

The original C2 was used to defuse timing offenses. As QBs became more adept at the deeper intricacies being brought to football, more and more offenses relied on finesse. Offenses started spreading the field, and the original defense player types in the NFL (geared towards stopping the run) were unable to keep up with the new emphasis on passing that began to take hold in the 1960's. Teams running the C2 used the system regardless of the formation on the field. It was run out of 4-3, 3-4, and the several nickle packages.

The C2 was one of many systems that was used to counter pass plays, but it was far from being a household term. In fact, most people can only name the C2 system if asked about defensive systems (though I'm sure that the MHR faithful can do better than that).

Then a funny thing happened in the march of football ideas...

Some nut case decided to develop the West Coast Offense.

The WCO ran over the NFL's best defenses for awhile. In Tampa Bay, Coaches Dungy, Lovie Smith, and Kiffen had had enough. They took the old C2 and modified it. The modification started in Tampa Bay, and the name Tampa 2 took hold.

Tampa 2

In the T2 variant, several changes were made.

First, the MLB was required to play deeper, and to be a faster, coverage kind of LB.

Second, the defensive line was modified to be a platoon of 1-gap players. The sole job of the DL was now to get a pass rush, and to do it with little to no help from the LBs.

While the (West Coast Offense) short, high percentage passes to set up the run was killing other teams, "T2" defenses had LBs and CBs in place to make a hit almost everywhere on the field. Thus the T2 did the job it was designed to do; stop the WCO.

Does the T2 stack up well against other offenses? Well that depends. The rule of thumb in assesing match-ups is that "the team that masters their own system better is the better team". That being said, some systems trump (to some extent) other systems.

There are weaknesses in the T2.

A power running team can run up the gut and take advantage of the 1-gap line, the deep MLB, and the widened OLBs.

Passes to the seams are deadly too, and the natural allignment of TEs allow them to be a threat in that area. Deep passes down the sideline are also potential dangers.

The T2 is a bend-don't break system. The offense may score, but they will spend a lot of time trying to do it. With the high number of plays it takes to move the ball downthe field, the T2 coordinator is betting that the offense has more oppostunities to make a mistake (a fumble forced by the hard hitting zone players, or an interception). On the other hand, teams that like to "eat clock" love to face this kind of defense. It's all a matter of taste.

Who runs the system? Right now the T2 is run by INDY, CHI, MINN, and DET. KC used to run the scheme, but seems to be moving away from it. TB and BUF also ran the system for awhile, and seem to be moving in other directions.

One interesting team is SD. They run a 1-gap version of the 3-4 (yes, there are 3-4 teams that are 1-gap and we'll cover this next week) that is very similar to a 3-4 T2 in execution, as does DAL. It is more correctly called the "Phillips System" (after Bum Phillips, father of former Denver HC and DEF coordinator Wade Phillips), and moving further from T2 every year with the emphasis now on man coverage CBs.

So if C2 is a system, is C3 a system? No. The alignment of two safeties deep in order to cover two deep zones is common in most systems. What is NOT common is to have three safeties on the field, or to have three players playing in deep zone. If such a thing happens, the formation may be called a "cover three". But Cover Two and Cover Three are different contexts all together. C2 is a system. C3 is a formation. In fact, C2 is the proper name for a system, but like many football terms it can be misleading. It has nothing to do in today's game with the fact that a team has two safeties deep.

The original C2 system still exists, but is rarely used for long by teams as it is sometimes a "transitional system". The T2 is the only surviving variant.

Some trivia:

So why is it called the "Cover Two"? Because in the early days of football there weren't two players playing in deep zones. At the time, the concept of multiple zones and players lining up more than a few yards from scrimmage was unheard of.

The C2 can lay claim to one enduring concept. Most teams in the NFL operate with two deep safeties, even if the rest of the system isn't in vogue.

The famous "Steel Curtain" was a cover two system (not a T2 at all). Dungy used the knowledge he gained from playing for the Steelers to turn the more balanced "Steel Curtain C2" into an entirely different, pass defense oriented, Tampa 2.


Any questions on the C2, T2, or anything else related to systems or Xs and Os on the field? Drop a comment down below. There are a lot of members with a lot of knowledge on the site in many areas of football, ranging from Broncos history to salary cap rules. We're all here to help, and no question is too simple.

Have an idea for a future University article? Let me know. I've got quite a list already, and your idea would be a welcome addition.

Next week I'll be covering the three major systems being run in 3-4 formations in today's NFL.

Take Care!