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Super Bowl XLVIII: Beating the Seattle Seahawks Cover 3 scheme

Good Morning Broncos Country! Just a few more days now until these two teams actually play the game. In studying several of the Seahawks games from 2013, I've come to a conclusion....gatorade is better than coffee Seattle so put that in your bowl and smoke it!

Doug Pensinger

All joking aside, this is not a smoke and mirrors defense that will do a lot of shifting and movement presnap to try and fool Peyton Manning.  They will line up how they will and they dare your best to beat their best.  Coverage wise a lot is predicated upon Earl Thomas being an intelligent and rangy centerfielder that allows his team to play a variety of zone and man coverages underneath.  When they do mask, it is to hide to hide Chancellor in that robber role either in Cover 1 or Cover 3.  In fact the Seahawks play a ton of Cover 3.

For the Seahawk perspective of how they will utilize their personnel in Cover 1/Cover 3, I highly recommend this fantastic article written by Danny Kelly over at Field Gulls.  Danny's work is top notch and you'll be hard pressed to find a better understanding and explanation of Seattle's schemes out there.

Remember when I mentioned the Seahawks play a ton of Cover 3?  What exactly is Cover 3 in the first place?  In the simplest terms imaginable Cover 3 is a coverage shell where three players break the field into thirds and are responsible for protecting those deep areas.  You can do this different ways, but the most common is to utilize the FS to protect the deep middle while the corners on opposite sides of the field protect a third on each sideline.  Instead of describing it, let me show you a Cover 3 diagram courtesy of National Football Post:


Notice this is from a base personnel perspective - 4 DB, 3 LB, 4 DL. Your flex player is that SS who can start off in the box.  If you planned on blitzing or utilizing some zone blitz concepts you could shuffle personnel around his role.  What you have are both corners bailing with the FS taking up in center field.  The four underneath defenders will drop into a zone with the outside guys defending against flat routes and short curls.  The inside guys have similar responsibility and are also in position to defend against crossing routes from their perspective quadrants.

The example above is just a basic outline of Cover 3, you're likely to see more variation in how they use their corners on the outside:

In Seattle's Cover-3 or Cover-1 schemes, Earl Thomas is almost always patrolling the deep middle third of the field. On the sidelines, the corners play a mixture of press-man and press-bail. Sometimes both corners bail, sometimes one bails and one jams, and sometimes they both jam at the line.

Sometimes you see one corner playing in man-to-man and the other in a zone deep-third look. Sometimes both play thirds, and sometimes they both play man. Every once in a while, you'll see Richard Sherman playing man-to-man in the slot. They like to vary their coverages. What they don't do, though, is disguise their looks all that much.

Bottom line don't expect to see a lot of run of the mill Cover 3 with both outside corners bailing automatically at the snap.  That would set up the Broncos to attack those outside thirds with a lot of comeback routes.  Let's take a closer look at how the Broncos might defense the Seahawk Cover 3.  I'm going to include a couple of diagrams that Mr. Kelly drew up as they are more closely representative of what the Broncos are like to face.

Seahawks Cover 3, 3-3-5 nickel


Seahawks Cover 3, 4-2-5 nickel


From a defensive perspective, it is all about taking away the big play.  It is set up at levels to keep plays in front of each unit.  From an offensive perspective, the key is to stay patient and take what the defense gives you.  If a big play happens, someone deep blew their assignment or got beat a double move or superior athleticism....if a big play happens underneath, it means a lot of guys missed tackles or took poor angles to the receiver, which is not a trait I see when I watch the Seahawks play defense.

Against the three man line, you can see that the defense still has 7 close to the LOS (technically a box count of 6 minus the WILL).  You could run against this line with moderate success especially if a tandem block from our zone blocking scheme makes it to the 2nd level against #50 KJ Wright.

From what I can tell, the Seahawks like to use the "sky" concept more than the "cloud" concept.  Cover 3 Sky will see both corners take deep responsibility, while cloud will see the SS take a deep third.  Generally speaking, they like to use Sherman deep and Chancellor in the box.  If they use a four man zone underneath, look for Wes Welker and Julius Thomas to get a lot of targets.. Especially Welker, he is so smart at understanding how to identify some sweet spots in the zone.

Now depending exactly on what Seattle does with their coverage, there are a variety of routes and concepts you can use in order take advantage of the sweet spots.  Let's take a look at some of those:

Four verticals

Four verticals against 3 deep coverage is going to ensure some one on one's.  If you load one side of the formation with three receivers, it might also pull the FS playside opening up the possibility of the post on the backside.  It puts the FS in spots where he will have to choose precisely which man to take.

Furthermore, the receivers can push their men upfield and come upbrubtly to a comeback or hook route.  Four verticals especially the way the Broncos run it always leave some options in there depending on what the WR reads.  Hell you might even see a dig if one of the verticals successfully pulls the FS away from that side of the field.

Flood Routes

Against any zone, sending multiple receivers to the same space puts strain on that defender and makes him choose which to defend.  You could attack the flat are by running a drag from the backside while simultaneously running that defender out of the zone with a corner route or hook.

You can use a levels concept where you put strain on that zone high and low. There are endless ways to "flood" a zone and pull defenders into precarious situations.

Double Post

The key here is for the first post to cut under the FS.  This stretches him low to high and leaves potential for a huge play.  If the safety stays deep, you throw to the first post that undercut, and if he takes the undercut post, you throw the high post.

Mesh/Rub Routes

Yep, send Wes "The Crippler" Welker over the middle along with another receiver on short crossers in the face of the initial zones in order to pull and stretch people away from their responsibility.  Big YAC can come from these.

Two-Route Combos

Specifically talking about one of the Broncos favorites--that Dig/Clearout combo.  Lined up to one side of the formation one receiver will clear out with a vertical with the outside receiver runs a dig.  Broncos use this concept all the time.

Deep Cross

A deep cross ran between the linebacker and deep men is always there and also provides ample opportunity for the receiver to use reads to find space between these zones.

Wrap up

The Broncos have the firepower and intelligence to chip away at this defense as they march down the field.  Contrary to popular belief, the Seahawks are capable of giving up big plays in the secondary.  The Broncos are just the team to do that with each receiver being capable of attacking all levels of the field.

No doubt Gase and Manning have been working on their Cover 3 beaters this week.  Later on this evening or perhaps very tomorrow morning I will have a film study detailing how the Denver Offense has approached Cover 3 thus far

GO Broncos!!!