Here’s a quick refresher: in Cover-1, defenders man up against the receiver in front of them while a single-high safety patrols the sky. Man defenders stay attached to their receiver no matter the route, meaning there is no switching or pattern-matching. The safety, meanwhile, looks to either double the offense’s most dangerous threat or anticipate where the quarterback is throwing the football and provide help there.
Cover-1 is best used with pressure since it’s unrealistic to expect DBs to stay in coverage for an extended period of time. Often, teams try to disguise their cover-1 looks so an offense can’t check into their man-beaters (more on that momentarily). The combination of pressure with single coverage makes Cover-1 a high-risk, high-reward defense. It can yield sacks and turnovers when it works. When it doesn’t, it is susceptible to big plays.
The Steelers have become increasingly Cover-1 oriented on defense in recent years. In 2017, they allowed the league’s lowest completion percentage when running Cover-1. In 2018, they ran some form of man on 52.2% of defensive snaps, which ranked third in the league for man coverage usage. After decades of zone-heavy schemes, it appears the Steelers are transitioning to more of a man-to-man philosophy.
Looking to 2019, one of the interesting questions involving Cover-1 centers on our opponents. With Brown now in Oakland, will teams be tempted to play more Cover-1 against the Steelers offense?
There are several ways to attack man coverage. The simplest is to match a superior receiver against an inferior coverage player. With Brown in the lineup, the Steelers had a built-in coverage beater against most defenses. Few teams could single up on AB. This forced them to commit their free safety to help on him, thereby leaving other receivers in pure one-on-one situations.
In the image below, we see Kansas City in a one-high look against a 3x1 formation from the Steelers with Brown alone at the bottom of the screen. Normally, a defense would single-up on the solo receiver and cheat their safety to the three-receiver side. But Kansas City elects to align the safety towards Brown and to play pure man coverage to the trips.
The result of this play was a touchdown pass to Jesse James, who was the inside-most receiver to the trips. James came open on a deep crossing route, one of the hardest routes to cover in man due to the distance the defender has to cover and the clutter he must avoid while traversing the middle of the field. The safety, meanwhile, followed Brown on a post route to the opposite side of the field.
With Brown in the lineup, defenses had to pick their poison when playing Cover-1. They could either risk playing single coverage on Brown or double him with the free safety and single everyone else. It’s a scenario that often favored the Steelers.
The only team the Steelers have seen in recent years who had the personnel to throw heavy doses of Cover-1 at them was Jacksonville. The Jags locked Jalen Ramsey on AB or played bracket coverage on him while going solo against everyone else. Even New England and Kansas City, the only two teams to use man more frequently than the Steelers in 2018, went zone-heavy when they played here. The difficulty of trying to man-cover Brown combined with Ben Roethlisberger’s veteran savvy and the Steelers experienced offensive line made playing Cover-1 a risk.
Now what? With no AB in the lineup and with OL guru Mike Munchak off to Denver, might teams decide to change that philosophy?
There’s no doubt defensive coordinators would like to play as much Cover-1 as they can get away with. The simplicity of the scheme makes it attractive. “I Got This Guy” is the most popular coverage on just about any playground on the planet for a reason. It requires no communication among defenders, no understanding of zones or areas, no trading off or matching of routes. In football, man coverage allows defensive coordinators to dial up an array of pressures and blitzes without having to worry about voided zones or holes in the coverage. If a DC can play heavy doses of man because his defenders are able to lock down an opponent’s receivers one-on-one, he will gladly do so.
I, for one, hope those DC’s see Brown’s departure as an invitation to play more Cover-1 against the Steelers. Juju Smith Schuster and Vance McDonald are both big and strong and can body up on smaller defenders. Donte Moncrief is a burner with a knack for catching contested throws. James Washington is a physical receiver with great body control. Rookie Diontae Johnson is said to be a precise route-runner, which should make him difficult to cover on short and intermediate throws. And running backs James Conner and Jaylen Samuels are polished receivers capable of beating linebackers and safeties in space. The sum of all of that is an offense which retains plenty of answers for man coverage.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner demonstrated that he was an adept play-caller versus man schemes in his rookie campaign. Fichtner’s 2018 offense featured an array of horizontal and vertical concepts designed to defeat Cover-1.
The GIF below is from the season-opener in Cleveland. The Browns have seven defenders at the line of scrimmage and are pressing the Steelers receivers. This is a classic Cover-1 pressure look. The blitz is coming and the Cleveland defenders will only have to cover for a few seconds before it gets to Roethlisberger. Fortunately, Fichtner recognizes the matchup advantage he has in the right slot with the 6’2-215 pound Smith-Schuster against 5’9 corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Calhoun tries to jam Juju upon his release but Juju gets one of his long arms inside on Calhoun and creates separation. Notice where Calhoun’s right arm is here - outside Juju’s body. In any battle at the line of scrimmage, the player whose hands are inside usually wins. Here, that player is Juju.
The rest is easy. Once he has created separation, Juju drifts away from the free safety as he progresses up the seam to provide Roethlisberger a safe target outside the numbers. The offensive line handles Cleveland’s stunt and Big Ben puts his throw on the money. This is a great play call against Cover-1 and the execution is flawless.
The fade route in the red zone is another vertical concept used to combat Cover-1. Defenses utilize Cover-1 in this area of the field because there’s less ground to cover, thereby reducing the burden on the defender. Offenses with big receivers who can jump and get the football at its highest point will counter by throwing fade, which exploits defenders aligned to take away the inside slant (a much easier throw).
On fade, the quarterback will try to throw over top of the defender by placing the ball on the receiver’s upfield shoulder. When executed well, it looks like this:
That’s Steelers’ free agent signee Donte Moncrief as a member of the Colts catching a perfect fade ball from Andrew Luck. Moncrief has shown the ability to use his 6’2 frame and 4.4 speed to separate from man coverage throughout his career. You can bet Fichtner will find ways to get him matched up against smaller defenders should opponents play Cover-1 in the red zone.
Another way to attack Cover-1 is with horizontal concepts. These generally involve flat or crossing routes that make defenders chase a receiver across the field. Sometimes two receivers will cross from opposite sides of the field within close proximity of one another and attempt to “rub” opposing defenders off by forcing them to go around the mesh point. Horizontal concepts require receivers either strong or shifty enough to escape a defender at the line of scrimmage and fast enough to run away from him once they do. With players like Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer and Diontae Johnson on the roster, the Steelers appear to have them.
Another effective horizontal concept the Steelers often use is the option route. An option route is predominantly run against loose man where the defender is providing a cushion. On an option route, the receiver reads the defender’s positioning and breaks away from it. A typical option route might involve a three-way read. If the defender is sitting inside, the receiver will break outside. If the defender is outside, the receiver will break inside. And if the defender anticipates the break and jumps up to impede it, the receiver will go vertical and run past him.
Below we see an option route by Jaylen Samuels against San Diego. When Samuels releases from the backfield, he recognizes that strong safety Derwin James has come down into the box to defend him. James does not square up on Samuels (likely, he is anticipating some sort of swing or flat route) and maintains outside leverage. Samuels gives James a stutter-step to freeze him before breaking inside where Roethlisberger drops him the football. He picks up a nice chip block from Juju that frees him from the closing James and then scoots into the end zone. This is a nice read by Samuels and good execution by the offense.
The key to making an option route work is the receiver and quarterback must both read the adjustment correctly. When you hear people talk about QB’s and receivers being “on the same page,” this is one of the points they reference. If the QB reads inside leverage and anticipates an out cut but the receiver goes vertical instead, it can end with the quarterback throwing the ball to no one. Or worse, as anyone who remembers Super Bowl XXX can attest, to the guys on defense. This is one of the reasons it’s been nice to hear reports about Roethlisberger and Moncrief being in sync throughout OTAs and Mini-Camp. The quicker those two get on the same page, the more effective Moncrief will be.
Cover-1 can also be attacked by formation. Bunch sets, for example, are an effective way to neutralize man defenders. In Bunch, an offense aligns its receivers close to one another in a compressed alignment, thereby denying the defense the ability to jam them at the line of scrimmage. If all three defenders walk up to the line they will run into one another as the receivers release. By forcing the defenders to stagger, the offense can create clear-outs from early-releasing receivers who provide natural picks that void areas for other receivers to occupy.
This is precisely what the Steelers do in the GIF below against a Cover-1 look from Tampa Bay. To the Bunch side, Juju Smith-Schuster is the tightest receiver, James Washington is in the middle and Antonio Brown is outside. Washington releases inside, forcing the defender covering Juju to go over top of his release. Meanwhile, Brown’s vertical route clears space in the flat for Juju, who is open should Roethlisberger chose to throw him the football.
Roethlisberger has a better option. To the short side of the field, the corner assigned to cover tight end Vance McDonald is aligned about twelve yards off of the ball, providing an easy pitch-and-catch between Roethlisberger and McDonald. The rest is the stuff of legend.
Bunch concepts are especially effective against Cover-1 in the red zone because they create picks like the one above that free receivers from man defenders in tight spaces. They can also be used to throw perimeter screens where the quarterback whips the ball to one receiver in the bunch while the others block. This puts the ball in the receiver’s hands quickly and forces the defender assigned to cover him to navigate a mess of bodies to make the tackle.
Here’s one such Bunch screen from the rematch with the Browns in week seven. The Steelers start out in a spread trips look before motioning Brown into the formation to create a Bunch set. This is a great wrinkle by Fichtner because it forces the corner covering Brown, Denzel Ward, to go behind his fellow perimeter defenders when following the motion. The timing of the snap is perfect as Roethlisberger calls for the ball precisely as Ward is shielded from Brown by the bodies in the bunch. Juju and Justin Hunter, two big receivers, simply get position on their defenders and Brown scoots into the end zone virtually untouched.
With the rest of the defense packed inside the box, there’s practically no way to defend this if the offense executes properly. Insert a quick player like Diontae Johnson or Ryan Switzer in Brown’s place and this should remain a staple of the Steelers playbook against Cover-1.
Defenses may be tempted to load up on Cover-1 looks now that both Brown and Munchak are gone. They should do so at their own peril. The Steelers return their offensive line predominantly in tact, which means their ability to diagnose and neutralize blitzes should not suffer much. At quarterback, Roethlisberger remains an elite talent and is coming off of a season where he finished in the top five in the league in QB rating versus the blitz. Roethlisberger’s stable of receivers includes a host of players who, via their combination of size, speed and strength, present problems for man coverage units. Throw in the fact that Randy Fichtner proved adept at combating Cover-1 in his rookie campaign as play-caller and opposing DC’s might want to think twice before dialing it up.
No Brown, no problem. The 2019 Steelers remain well-positioned to attack anyone who decides to man them up.
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