There has been a popular tweet making the rounds this week pertaining to the Jets’ loss to Cincinnati last week.
Snaps vs Cover 2 by week for the Bengals offense:— Andrew Russell (@Andrew_Russell7) September 26, 2022
Week 1: 30 (31%)
Week 2: 26 (39%)
Week 3: 1 (2%)
We got stubborn Saleh.
For a fanbase frustrated with its defensive coaching staff, the response to this was predictable. It was another case of Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich failing to adapt their system to attack the weaknesses of an opponent, right?
I think the truth is more complex.
Yes, it is true the Cowboys and the Steelers ran a lot more Cover 2 in their victories over the Bengals than the Jets did in their loss. It is also true Dallas and Pittsburgh had more success defensively against Cincinnati than did Gang Green.
We need to dig deeper, though. Just saying these teams had success running Cover 2 is meaningless unless we understand why Cover 2 was successful.
Let’s take a moment to examine what Cover 2 is. The “2” refers to the safeties. Both of them play deep. (A Cover 1 has only a single safety deep.)
The two deep safeties each are responsible for half of the deep part of the field.
This is a fairly conservative coverage. Having two safeties protecting the deep part of the field is designed to prevent big plays.
While it wasn't the only factor, I think game situations played a hand in the defensive calls Pittsburgh and Dallas made during the game. The Bengals were behind on 83% of their offensive snaps against the Steelers and trailed by double digits on 27%. Against the Cowboys, Cincinnati was trailing on the scoreboard on over 95% of their offensive plays and facing a double digit deficit on 52%, just over half.
You can say the Bengals were stopped because the opponent played Cover 2. The defense is designed to take away big plays, and when a team trails its playbook becomes more limited.
However, I would argue Cover 2 was as much of an effect as it was a cause. It wasn't completely responsible because Dallas in particular does play a lot of zone looks. However, the Bengals probably faced so much of Cover 2 in part because they were behind.
I think it is also important to consider the weaknesses of the defense.
Since both safeties are deep, the Cover 2 is usually a weak defense against the run. A safety who would otherwise be in the box is protecting deep.
If you can dominate up front enough to shut down the opponent’s run game in Cover 2, the offense isn’t going to have much of a chance. The defense is designed to take away deep shots.
Despite playing so many two safety looks, Pittsburgh and Dallas were still able to shut down the Bengals rushing attack due to strong play in the trenches. The Bengals averaged just 3.76 yards per rushing attempt in the two games. Even that is overselling how effective they were. A bunch of Joe Burrow scrambles made the number look more respectable than it really was. Cincinnati running backs averaged just 3 yards per carry in those games.
The other weakness of the Cover 2 is the pass rush. With two safeties deep, there aren’t enough players close enough to the line of scrimmage to blitz frequently and cover the underneath part of the field. A Cover 2 team needs to be able to get home rushing four.
Cincinnati and Dallas both did this very well. They not only got to Burrow. They finished sacks.
This season, Burrow has been pressured on 25 dropbacks. Here's how they went:— Ahaan Rungta (@AhaanRungta) September 29, 2022
12 incomplete passes
6 complete passes
Immediately, note the 39% sack rate when under pressure. I'll have MIA team sacks in one of my parlays tonight (available on DraftKings).
The Jets generated pressure on Burrow, but they did not finish.
Every defensive scheme has its own strengths and weaknesses. When your players execute so well that the opponent can’t exploit the weaknesses, they won’t move the ball.
Pittsburgh and Dallas were dominant up front to the point the Bengals couldn’t run it or protect against a four man pass rush.
Would more Cover 2 have worked for the Jets? Their pass rush wasn’t putting Burrow on the ground, and during a key sequence in the fourth quarter they allowed the Bengals to eat eight minutes off the clock when everybody in the stadium knew they were running the ball.
Finally let’s talk about the specific coverage weakness of Cover 2 defenses.
Based on where the defenders are aligned, the most vulnerable spots on the field are typically the middle intermediate part and deep outside the numbers.
Now if Burrow had difficulty hitting passes to these areas, there would be an argument that Cover 2 is the right defense to run.
If these areas are Burrow’s weak points, he didn’t show it in this game.
I think in the days following this loss to Cincinnati there has been too much talk as though a Cover 2 defense is like some sort of magic wand that will shut Cincinnati down. There are reasons Dallas and Pittsburgh had so much success defensively using the call. The Jets did not execute in the same areas that would have made Cover 2 more useful.
I’m not saying this to say the coaching staff is above criticism for this game. But I think this particular criticism misses the mark.