"We play man-to-man or Cover-3 -- not much more than that. It's not a secret." - Kam Chancellor
The Seattle Seahawks almost always play what's often referred to as '8-in-the-box,' as most commonly, you'll see Kam Chancellor creeping in prior to the snap to man a gap or mark a tight end/running back in short coverage, based on the flow of the play. Four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and Kam, almost a de facto fourth linebacker in that sense. Now, sometimes, Kam does play deep, in order to free up Earl Thomas to move around, but you'll most commonly see 1st-Team All Pro Earl 'The Alien" Thomas patrolling the deep middle of the field.
This is what Kam is talking about -- "We play man to man or Cover-3 -- not much more than that. It's not a secret." I'm sure there are numerous wrinkles therein -- blitzes, change-ups, looks meant to confuse, but by and large, when you watch the All-22, the most common thing you'll see is either Earl or Kam back-peddling down the middle of the field at the snap, making up the difference between outside receivers or minding a slot guy or tight end running up the middle of the field. Earl has to make up tons of ground, from the middle of the field to the numbers, and often must rely on anticipation or instinct, play recognition, reading the QB, and obviously scouting, to choose which receiver to break on.
You want to know how good Earl Thomas is? Despite consistently being the only one down the deep middle of the field in defense for the Seahawks, Seattle surrendered up only 15 passes to the deep middle in the entire season -- best in the NFL.
Now, one of the fun things about being the editor of Field Gulls is that I've been able to sponge football knowledge from some of our contributors and friends, namely Derek Stephens, Thomas Beekers, Scott Enyeart, and Davis Hsu, among many others. Davis, Scott and I have an on-going text message thread that acts as a sounding board of ideas, and recently I was party to (but not an active participant) in a really interesting conversation between two solid football minds in Scott and Davis. On the topic of the Seahawks' Cover-3. Here's how it went.
Davis Hsu: In a recent interview, Seahawks Safety Kam Chancellor said something to the effect of "it's no secret that we typically play Cover-3". So, basically 8-in-the-box and the three remaining defensive backs play deep thirds. Why is that a popular coverage for our defense?
Scott Enyeart: Well, in the Seahawks case, the other three defensive backs cover deep, and it frees up Kam to be a factor in run support.
DH: If the free safety, Earl, covers the deep middle, how wide of an area do the corners have to cover-to the numbers or the hashes?
SE: To the hashes, and all the way to the back of the end zone.
DH: In traditional Cover-3 do the corners bail deep immediately?
SE: Generally, yes, and they don't necessarily "bail", but they usually play "off". The difference between the Seahawks and many other teams that play Cover-3, is that the Seahawks make the "press" element a fundamental.
DH: I imagine having the rangy free safety is key?
SE: Definitely, because if a corner can't cover his deep third, you're screwed.
DH: Do the underneath defenders (linebackers and strong safety) typically play man or zone underneath?
SE: This isn't a copout answer- but it really just depends.
DH: The weakness of a traditional Cover-3, especially when the corners play off, is the short pass.
SE: Exactly, there is no perfect defense, but in our case, our corners do not play off, they play press, and that should disrupt the short pass.
DH: If the two outside corners do not have to chase a WR all the way horizontally across the field, it is a zone scheme, not truly a "man" scheme, correct?
SE: Correct, the corner will chase the WR then hand him off to the next zone, typically the deep middle for the free safety.
DH: So we are technically not playing "press-man" as much as many people think?
SE: Correct, there are three deep zones and up to five underneath zones.
DH: So you could describe the Seahawks secondary scheme as a cover-3-press-zone?
SE: Cover-3-Press, the "zone" is implied.
DH: So, this scheme shows how dedicated Pete and Gus are to making the opponent one dimensional and shutting down the run.
SE: Well, more than anything, this scheme is set up to take away the explosive play. That's the number one reason why you play 3-deep. Cover-3 is just a different evolution off of Cover 2. Cover 2 was effective, and still is effective, but Kam is better against the run than as a Cover-2 safety. Cover-2 can make you vulnerable to TEs.
DH: So it takes away the big play and lets you play 8-in-the-box.
SE: It's not truly 8-in-the-box, it is eight defenders that can have run/pass responsibility. Cover-2 commits four to coverage only, and leaves only seven with run/pass responsibility. Not exactly the same thing.
DH: Do the outside corners typically play outside leverage or inside leverage?
SE: They typically play inside leverage and force everything to the sideline. If the corner has inside leverage he can dictate where the route can go. BUT, depending on where the additional help may come from, he can also play outside leverage to "funnel" a WR where he wants him to go.
DH: So, typically, inside leverage, but if he knows a WR has to go out of bounds to kill clock, or some other game situation, he may play outside leverage.
SE: Exactly, it can vary depending on the game situation.
DH: So when Seahawk fans complain because we play "too much zone", we actually are playing zone on most plays?
SE: Correct, it looks like "man" because our corners press. Now, how the linebackers and Kam cover is a different story, they may be in zone or man depending on the call. Most fans can't tell the difference between Cover-3 in the way the Seahawks run it, and Cover-1 (Man-Free). In Cover-1, the corners are truly in man-to-man coverage with only one safety deep.
DH: With our big corners, who only run about a 4.5 and may not have the best change of direction, it's probably not smart to have them truly in "man" chasing a little quick wide receiver horizontally across the field?
SE: Yes, I don't think we want to see them very often in a true Cover-1. In Cover-3 their number one job is to stay on top and not get beat on the go route, covering the comeback is secondary. Getting beat on a comeback is better than getting beat on a double move!
DH: So playing 'Cover-3 Press' allows the Seahawks to use a Brandon Browner, when no other NFL team would take him.
SE: Exactly, most teams wouldn't even use him in Cover-2.
DH: Why is that?
SE: In Cover-2, the two deep safeties play the deep ball to the sideline, while the corner is supposed to cover the flats.
DH: Seems the Seahawks played Cover-2 the most against Detroit, probably to take away Calvin Johnson, but it didn't work out that well overall (they did take away Calvin Johnson). Hopefully against Atlanta they stick to their "bread and butter".
On Sunday, against the Redskins, Earl played deep a good amount and the Seahawks, from my preliminary viewing, stayed true to their Cover-3 principles. Earl's main job on the afternoon was in making sure that RG3 wasn't allowed the ability to strike downfield on play-action and break the game open. Earl did his job, quite well.
One play in particular outlines the thin line that Seattle walks with their Cover-3 system. Thankfully, RG3 missed Pierre Garcon streaking down the left sideline while looking to the right side of the field, but on the left, wide open and deep, ran Garcon after beating Brandon Browner the double move. Browner was called for a defensive holding penalty, and burnt like toast, but dodged a bullet on what would have been a sure touchdown. On NBC's NFL Turning Point this past week, following a reviewing that play, you can hear Seahawks DBs Coach Kris Richard in a meeting after the possession on the sideline, yelling angrily, 'STAY ON TOP! STAY ON TOP!', meaning... Dont. Ever. Get. Beat. Deep.
This is how the Seahawks play - it's one of their core philosophies. Limit explosive plays, and don't get beat over the top. When your corners are on islands, with only Earl Thomas for help, this principal is extremely important.
Let's take a look at a few examples:
2-7-WAS 29 (3:54 2nd Quarter)) (Shotgun) R.Griffin pass deep left intended for P.Garcon INTERCEPTED by E.Thomas at SEA 24. E.Thomas to SEA 26 for 2 yards
On this play - the Redskins run a classic Cover-3 beater on play-action. They send Josh Morgan right up the middle then across on a deep crossing route, meant to get Earl Thomas to bite down in coverage, and then throw the ball up deep. Earl plays this perfectly, 'making up the distance between the two routes', as Pete Carroll would instruct, and then when the ball is thrown deep, he turns on the afterburners and makes up tons of ground to intercept it. The ball is slightly underthrown, but it's a brilliant play by Earl to get there.
He stayed over the top, made the pick.
Now, the one wrinkle to note in this game is the positioning and coverage of Richard Sherman. It's my belief that Sherman is actually in a cover-3 here, but as he looks to pass Morgan off to the middle safety - Earl Thomas - he sees that Earl is playing the deep route outside the numbers.
Normally Sherman would pass off Morgan at the hashes or before.
Sherman decides to just follow Morgan (kind of) across, even across the middle of the field, just in case, while keeping his eyes open for any crossing routes behind him to his side of the field. This might've been a Cover-1 (with Sherman/Browner playing man), but the way that Sherman looks at Earl and then sort of runs with the Redskins' other receiver, knowing the Skins are in a two WR set, leads me to believe he ad-libbed. This sort of thing will come into play later in the game.
1-10-WAS 36 (12:00 4th ) (Shotgun) R.Griffin pass incomplete deep right to J.Morgan.
Below, you see the Redskins come out in their Pistol look in what looks like a running formation, and down. Brandon Browner is on an island on the right wing, Richard Sherman to the left, with Earl Thomas playing deep. Kam Chancellor creeps down into the box as box safety.
On to the fourth quarter:
1-10-WAS 24 (7:03 4th Quarter) R.Griffin sacked at WAS 12 for -12 yards (B.Irvin).
Above, you can see Robert Griffin looking deep for Pierre Garcon, who is running a post-route up the middle of the field. I love this angle because it shows, very well, just how quickly a QB must decide to let 'er rip or bring it down. Russell Wilson has to make this type of decision several times a game on their play-action stuff, with defensive ends running at him. It's a very fast game, this.
Anyway, you can see that Earl Thomas and Brandon Browner have Garcon bracketed quite well, so Griffin pulls it down. His escapeability is severely hampered, obviously, and Irvin sacks him. The stuff that the Seahawks do on back-end, the principles of the Cover-3, are what make this play so successful (and interesting). Let's break it down.
Redskins come out in what looks like a 'run grouping' - I-formation, Griffin under center. Brandon Browner watches as WR Josh Morgan motions into the backfield as an H-back of sorts. Sherman is matched up across from Pierre Garcon, and deep in the middle you see 1st-team All-Pro safety Earl Thomas (I like how that sounds, so I'm going to say it a lot). I've circled Morgan at H-back, Logon Paulsen set in-line at TE left, and Garcon on the wing to the right.
Ball is snapped - this is another cover-3 beater type of play, meant to confuse defenses and open up receivers. Paulsen will release downfield and run an underneath crossing route. His route is meant to either grab the attention of Earl Thomas or come in underneath Sherman on the far side.
Garcon, however, is the primary receiver, and he's going to run a post. The Seahawks love plays of this ilk on their offense as well, incidentally.
Here's where it's schematically very fascinating. Sherman sticks with Garcon as he runs tight up the hashes but he also sees Paulson running a crossing route toward him -- Sherman will be responsible for the TE on his deep third of the field, so he passes Garcon off to Earl Thomas, who is patrolling the middle. It's an instantaneous moment of recognition between the two defensive backs, and something they've practiced thousands of times before.
When the bullets are flying though, this is a scary proposition for Sherman, because if Earl misreads it and plays down on Paulsen, then Garcon is possibly home-free deep.
Below, you see Sherman shift his hips and rotate out to his wing. Earl picks up Garcon. This is the moment that Griffin is waiting for - the 'pass off', and after Earl picks it up, RG3 knows the play is dead.
Coverage sack. The next play, Griffin would buckle to the turf in pain, with several torn ligaments.
On NBC's Turning Point, this play was also broken down in detail, and Sherman's reaction after the series was over is priceless. Mic'd up, the cameras follow Sherman as he first tells a Seahawks' assistant coach, "Hey, that over? I knew my boys had me." This is in reference to the Paulsen crossing route. His boys had him, so he could pass Garcon off.
Sherman then moves on to start screaming at Earl Thomas -- "THAT'S CALLED TRUST!! THAT'S CALLED TRUST!!", and the segment ends with Sherman talking to a now-seated Thomas and Browner - "You picked that post up. I had the over. You my dog. I love y'all. We too good. We too good."