A few weeks ago, in an article I wrote on areas where Kenny Pickett can develop, the conversation centered on reading coverages. I asked if people would be interested in an examination of some of the coverages the Steelers run, how those coverages work and how the Steelers disguise them. The feedback was positive, so I got to work.
I’m dividing the product into two parts. Part One is on Pittsburgh’s basic coverage schemes — Cover 1, 2 and 3. Part Two will be on variations of these schemes, like Buzz, Palms and Robber, and how the Steelers use them to make life hard on opposing quarterbacks. Thanks to those of you who suggested I write these pieces, and I hope you enjoy.
Cover-1 is basic man-coverage with a single free safety over the top. Defenders are given a “MEG” rule, which stands for “man everywhere he goes.” Every defensive backs coach in America has told his players some version of the following: “You got 86. If 86 goes to the bench to get a drink of water, you fill the bottle for him.” That’s MEG.
The strengths of Cover-1 are that it allows a defense to close the windows inherent in zone coverages and to let coordinators get aggressive with the blitz. The weaknesses are that man-coverage can be disrupted by picks, rubs, stacked formations and motions. Also, teams who don’t rush the quarterback well can be exploited since NFL wide receivers are too good to leave a defender locked on for long. If a defense can’t get to the QB in three seconds or less, it’s likely to get burned.
Here’s a clip from last season of the Steelers playing Cover-1 against the New York Jets. In the image below, the Jets are in a 2x2 spread set with a slot to the bottom the screen and a twins set to the top. Pittsburgh rolls safety Minkah Fitzpatrick down to cover the tight end in the right slot. To his left, Levi Wallace is locked on the split end. On the other side, the Steelers are in a bracket look with one defender assigned to the in-breaking route and another taking the first route out. Safety Tre Norwood, who is fifteen yards off the ball in the middle of the field, provides help over the top:
This is actually a poor job by the Steelers on both sides of the ball. Up top, the corners (Arthur Maulet and Cam Sutton) seem confused as to who is taking which receiver. They both step out on the stem of the widest player, which gives the inside man an open release up the seam. Sutton has to race to catch up, and Norwood seems too far inside to provide help. Luckily, the receiver takes his route back into Sutton. Had he continued up the seam, New York would have had a big play opportunity.
On the other side, the Jets run a man-beater. They rub Fitzpatrick off of his coverage with the inside stem of their wide out. That collision leaves the tight end open in the flat. The throw from quarterback Zach Wilson is high, though, and bounces off of the tight end’s hands. Like it often does, the ball finds Fitzpatrick, who picks it off. In both situations, it’s poor communication by the Steelers. Yet it yields a great result:
Here’s a better job of executing the scheme. In this clip, Buffalo lines up in 22-personnel with two tight ends in a wing alignment to the left and an off-set fullback and single receiver to the right. Pittsburgh is in their base 3-4, playing Cover-1 behind it. The man-to-man assignments are shown below:
In the far right of the frame, you can see Fitzpatrick aligned as the free safety. This changes when Buffalo motions their wing. Pittsburgh bumps its coverage to the motion, with Sutton, who is initially assigned to the wing, kicking down to take the tight end. Norwood then rotates back to the free safety position, while Fitzpatrick comes down to pick up the motion man. This is much better communication by the Steelers. It also lets quarterback Josh Allen know there will be no safety help over top of the vertical route outside. Allen targets that route, with Gabe Davis matched against Wallace:
It’s a good decision by Allen. It’s just better defense by Wallace. Look below at how Wallace plays textbook man technique by tracking Davis’s inside hip and then waiting until Davis turns his head to find the football. A basic rule for DBs in this situation is, “When the receiver turns his head, you turn yours.” Wallace follows this rule, and the result is excellent.
According to StatMuse, Pittsburgh had the 8th highest frequency of Cover-1 usage in the league last season. That’s an increase from in recent seasons. With Sutton possibly leaving in free agency, and Ahkello Witherspoon a potential cap casualty, the Steelers have a clear need for a corner in the draft. Their increasing use of Cover-1 could mean that a prospect who excels at the scheme, like Devon Witherspoon of Illinois, may be attractive.
Cover-2 features two deep safeties who have half-field responsibilities and five underneath players who divide the field into sections. Two are responsible for the flat areas outside the numbers, two play the hook-curl zones from hash to numbers and one player occupies the middle of the field to disrupt seam and crossing routes:
Cover-2 is a solid base coverage because it provides protection against the various quick routes offenses like to throw while potentially employing four deep defenders (if corners are not threatened in the flat, they continue to sink vertically). It is not without its weaknesses, though. Cover-2 can be exploited by divide concepts that split the safeties, or in the hole along the sidelines between the flat and deep-half defenders.
Cover-2 safeties must have good range in order to play half the field and must anticipate well so they can see routes develop and get a good jump on the ball. Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee have skill sets that fit well in Cover-2. Terrell Edmunds, who is better closer to the line of scrimmage, does not.
At corner, Cover-2 requires diverse players. They must be physical enough to jam receivers to prevent them from running free up the sideline. They must also have fluid hips to change direction quickly when they need to peel off of vertical routes to attack receivers threatening the flat. Cover-2 corners also wind up as force defenders against the run at times, so they must be willing to bloody their nose in the run game. Sutton fits that mold. Wallace, who was billed as an effective Cover-2 player when he came over from Buffalo, was not as good. Wallace did excel in Cover-1, however, where he finished in PFF’s Top-10 for corners in man-coverage.
Below, we see the Steelers execute the Cover-2 scheme to perfection against Joe Burrow and the Bengals. Pre-snap, the picture is murky. There are two deep safeties, but the configuration underneath suggests a blitz. Burrow, on a 4th-and-6 play, is probably anticipating pressure with some sort of rotation in the secondary:
At the snap, though, the Steelers fall into a standard Cover-2. The safeties bail to their deep-half responsibilities while the five underneath players man the short-to-intermediate zones:
The Bengals run a series of quick in-and-out breaking routes in an attempt to convert the first down. But Cover-2, with its five-across net, is a perfect foil for these combinations. Burrow is forced to throw the ball into traffic where Witherspoon, playing in the slot, picks it off:
In this next clip, the Steelers are rotating to a Cover-2 look late in their victory over Las Vegas. This is Sutton’s interception on Vegas’s final drive that sealed the win. I’ll let the clip run before breaking it down:
At the snap, you can see Sutton (near the left hash) and Kazee (near the ‘40’ to the top of the screen) begin to retreat into their deep halves. Fitzpatrick, who is out of view, is squatting near the Steelers logo at midfield, looking to interrupt deep crossing routes. The other coverage players are dropping to their flat and hook-curl zones, while four rushers are attacking quarterback Derek Carr.
Here’s a freeze-frame of what the coverage looked like from Carr’s perspective:
The Raiders are running a post-dig combo to their left. Receiver Davonte Adams breaks in while Hunter Renfrow runs the post. Fitzpatrick takes Adams, but Sutton and Kazee are protecting against deep sideline routes and are wide as a result. This allows Renfrow to come free in the deep middle. Thankfully, as Carr steps up in the pocket, his feet aren’t set and his throw sails outside as a result. Had Carr led Renfrow more towards the right goal post, he may have been able to fit it in. Regardless, Sutton closes quickly and makes a diving interception to seal the win:
This clip also demonstrates the value of pressure. Had T.J. Watt not forced Carr to step up, he probably would have been able to set his feet and make a more accurate throw. No matter what the scheme, pressure is a coverage player’s best friend.
As recently as 2016, the Steelers led the NFL in percentage of snaps played in Cover-2. That tendency has disappeared. Today, Pittsburgh mixes in more Cover-1 and Cover-3, and a host of combo coverages as well.
Cover-3 features four underneath defenders who man the flat and hook-curl zones and three deep defenders who divide the back end into thirds:
Cover-3 is vulnerable in the flats, where offenses often run two-on-one combinations that force a defender to play both at once. Curl-flat is one such route. Sail, which features a bench route with a deeper breaking out behind it, is another. Cover-3 is also vulnerable to offenses flooding the three deep zones with four vertical routes. These can come in several forms: two routes up the seam and two up the sideline; a switch-verticals concept, where the slot and outside receiver exchange positions; four verticals from trips, where the inside receiver to the trips side crosses the field from one hash to the other as he climbs. Whatever the scenario, the goal of the offense is to create a math problem when the defense plays Cover-3.
The key to playing Cover-3 effectively is to take away the deeper-breaking of the two-on-one routes, forcing the offense check down to the shorter one. It’s also important to have back-end players who have good spatial awareness so they can defend two vertical routes at once.
In this clip, the Steelers are playing Cover-3 against Carolina. It’s 3rd-and-long, so you can see how deep the underneath defenders are positioned. They are using a “sticks” philosophy whereby they line up at the first down marker and keep everything in front of them. Meanwhile, the back-end defenders get plenty of depth to protect against four verticals:
The Panthers run a version of Sail, flooding the short side of the field with a go route, a deep out, an intermediate out and a swing from the back. The Steelers squeeze them all. Edmunds, who is the flat defender, does a nice job of ignoring the swing to sit on the intermediate route, forcing a tough throw from quarterback Sam Darnold:
Cover-3 and Cover-1 can look alike at the snap. If you want to recognize the difference, focus on how the corners open up. If they turn into the near receiver with their backs to the quarterback, it’s Cover-1. This means they are locked up and don’t need to read the other routes. If it’s Cover-3, they will backpedal or open inside, with their eyes to the field. This is so they can see the patterns develop. Identifying whether the corner makes a “man-turn” or a “zone-turn” is a great way to pinpoint coverage.
All of these coverages have variations, compliments and manners in which they can be disguised. Next week, we’ll look at how the Steelers employ those.