Why can’t the Buffalo Bills defeat Cover-0?
Josh Allen threw three interceptions against the New England Patriots. Against the Baltimore Ravens, he suffered six sacks, lost a fumble, and broke his streak of 2+ touchdown games. Both teams make major use of the Cover-0 defense; in fact the Ravens used it 16 times on Sunday (per Brian Daboll). That’s out of 30 total blitzes the Ravens sent at Allen and company. For most of the day, Buffalo struggled to respond to the onslaught. Why did this happen, and what could they have done? To understand the context, let’s start with understanding Cover-0.
The name might conjure visions of an 11-man blitz, but in this case we’re talking about man coverage across the board, with zero zone defenders. For instance, Cover-1, or “man-free”, has everyone in man coverage except a single free safety, who takes the middle of the field. Cover-0, on the other hand, has no deep safety and no bracketed coverage. Receivers are in one-on-one match-ups. When it comes to running backs and tight ends, the decision depends on the type of blitz called (and Cover-0 is pretty much always a blitz, since you cannot rush only four when the offense has five men who can’t be covered man-to-man—the linemen). You might see an approach like a “green dog” blitz, where the linebacker is in man coverage on a running back unless the player stays in to block, where he’ll blitz instead.
Cover-0, the ultimate risk-reward call, can be confounding for young quarterbacks because it unlocks so many zone-blitz opportunities. With no deep safeties, you can have seven or eight potential pass rushers in the box. It’s ripe for overload blitzes or rat defenders to screw with a player’s perception. The setup can break protection calls, create pressure where there shouldn’t be any, or create the illusion of pressure in a clean pocket.
This is why the Ravens and especially the New England Patriots have seen so much success from deploying the tactic this year. In a year where long-tenured veterans like Roethlisberger, Flacco, Manning, Smith, Stafford, and Luck are replaced with a wave of youth, defensive coordinators are throwing so much at these players that they start “seeing ghosts.”
Imagine you’re Josh Allen on the field against the Ravens. It’s 2nd and 8 from your 30-yard line, near the start of your drive. You’re in your favorite personnel package with Devin Singletary, Cole Beasley, John Brown, Dawson Knox, and Isaiah McKenzie on the field. Baltimore responds with a 3-2-6 Dime package—Carr, Humphrey, Smith, and Peters at cornerback, Thomas and Clark at safety, Bynes and Judon at linebacker, and Williams, Pierce, and Ferguson on the defensive line.
You line up in shotgun with two wide to the left, a tight end off right tackle, a wideout to the right, and Singletary beside you. At first, the defense comes out with what looks like man-free. But as you start your cadence, something insidious happens:
Oh yeah. Sure looks like a blitz is coming. In fact, this defense is calling a play from Rex Ryan’s playbook: Cable 0 Train. It’s a six-man pressure package, where two safeties, a dime back, a defensive tackle, and an end will rush the passer, while an end contains or drops into coverage as a rat defender. But the offense doesn’t know that.
And therein lies the rub. Maybe Allen sees the safeties come downhill, and he calls a blitz beater. But what if it’s a disguise, and the safeties drop after the snap? (By the way, the Bills do something very similar by mugging the A gaps with their linebackers pre-snap, and usually dropping them into coverage.) Let’s consider the possible responses to this pre-snap look, and the assumed Cover-0 blitz.
Double-check the protection, identify a hot route, and run your play
At a minimum, you need to read the defense, set your protection, and decide who your hot route is. We talk a lot about gap control as a defensive concept, but gaps matter for offenses too. Look at this defensive front—there are seven gaps a rusher could attack, and eight potential rushers.
It’s not likely that everyone comes downhill, but with only five or six blockers to allocate for seven gaps, you need to set up the best coverage available. For one thing, don’t expect the linebacker and safety to both blitz—because the tight end would be wide open. Another thing to watch is the dime back—that he’s mugging the right guard is a strong suggestion that he’ll blitz instead of covering someone.
The Bills have Ghost/Tosser called, a standard Erhardt-Perkins play. The left side is a tosser concept, made to beat Cover-2 or man-to-man coverage. The right side is ghost, a Cover-3 beater.
Against a blitz, the hot route is the running back leaking into the flat. That’s Allen’s primary read, then, and that’s what’ll keep the chains moving. If he weren’t pressured, he could read low to high on the ghost concept. Against this defensive call, the blitzing safety has responsibility for the running back running a route to his side, so Allen will need his throw to fit around him.
Go to max-protect
The classic response to a defense throwing the kitchen sink at the pocket is to add more protection. Allen can call in his receivers, condense the formation, and switch to a play call that inserts his running back and tight end as pass protectors. If the defense plans to send seven or eight rushers, then doggone it we can block with seven or eight of our own.
The tight split formation has a side benefit in that it shrinks the available pass-rushing gaps. When there’s less room to maneuver, there’s less room for a free rusher to escape.
Out of this plan, you can also have receivers do a chip release. They’ll bump their defender (or a nearby lineman) on their way out into their pass route. It slows down the development of the play, but helps buy additional time in the pocket.
Max protect is a common choice for deep passing plays. To keep the safeties deep, reduce the blitzing, and open up the running game, just connect on a deep pass or two. Having extra protection—more time—lets you run deeper passing routes.
The downside here is, of course, fewer pass options to work from. You’ll have, at most, three routes (maybe only two). Imagine if the defense looks like it’ll run Cover-0, but then two safeties drop at the snap. Now you might have two pass routes and four defenders in coverage. Yuck.
Another issue: With everyone clustered in the box, there won’t be any room to escape the pocket and extend a play. You need to count on your’n to beat his’n.
Below I have a play that could be called specifically to beat this Cover-0 blitz. This switch-pump-smoke concept is made for a touchdown. Two receivers, in one-on-one coverage, run switch routes (they cross then start a smoke route downfield). As they reach about 15 yards downfield, Allen pump fakes and the receivers stutter like they’re about to sit on the pass. Then they burst downfield again and prep for the deep ball. Another receiver, to the right, is available on a short hitch/throwaway if the deep throw isn’t available.
As long as protection holds up, one or both of those receivers should be open downfield. It’s onto the quarterback to deliver the ball into the receiver’s hands.
Spread out the defense
As an alternative, you could send everyone out and operate out of an empty set. You lose any extra protection, but you’ve made your decision easier now. With five receivers to cover, the defense can only leave six in the box. That’s fewer potential blitzers and it simplifies your protection.
This could play to your advantage with an athletic quarterback like Allen—if the defense blitzes, and he escapes, there won’t be anyone in a zone to defend him. He could gash them for a 30-yard run outside the pocket. Because of this, the defense will probably allocate at least one player to containment or as a spy.
More players running routes also means more chances for one-on-one wins. If the defense has a weakness in coverage, the empty set can help find it. And the Bills have a few man beaters on their roster, mainly Singletary and Beasley.
That being said, teams like the Ravens and Patriots also have elite depth in the secondary. They run Cover-0 because they can run it. As we saw on 4th and 8 Sunday, sometimes great man-to-man defense wins the day.
Another issue with Empty is that it removes a running back as the backup plan from the backfield. He can’t pass protect, he can’t chip and release, he’s not a hot route. It’s just the line, the rushers, and the quarterback.
Here’s an example of a play you might call from an empty set against Cover-0. It’s a flood concept from an empty set, with Allen rolling to the right. If the defensive end crashes on the pocket, Allen can dodge outside and run for yardage behind his receivers. If the defensive end tries to contain (or drops into coverage), Allen can take the sail concept to his right or the high-low read on his left.
So why did the Bills struggle so much against the Ravens?
We say it time and again: Football is 11-on-11, and if one player can’t do his job a play may fail. The Bills had a half-dozen opportunities to blow open the game with deep touchdowns, but Allen was pressured or he out-threw his teammate or the teammate dropped a pass.
Allen thrives when he feels comfortable moving in the pocket, but he succumbed to early pressure. He tried rolling out to space, but Judon and the other Ravens were so fast he couldn’t reach any openings. We saw the same thing against the Patriots.
After Sunday’s loss, Nate Geary made a great point on Twitter that I agree with: When the defense sends a challenge to the offense, the “answer” is two parts—a scheme solution on paper, and the execution of the solution.
The Bills correctly schemed opportunities to beat Cover-0 on numerous occasions. The execution, on Sunday, was lacking. And while Buffalo similarly struggled against the Patriots, it’s not all bad. Allen beat Cover-0 on Thanksgiving with his touchdown pass to Dawson Knox. He has had answers on other opportunities. But the Ravens had his number on Sunday, and teams will keep dialing this up until he proves he can handle it.