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Why It Worked, Divisional Round: Packers breaking Cowboys’ Cover 1

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Rod Marinelli employed a Cover-1 scheme to attempt to slow down the Green Bay Packers. Let’s see how it worked.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

A game that left me speechless needs no further recap, so let’s cut to the chase. This past Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys attempted to stop the world’s greatest (and currently hottest) quarterback using a myriad of defenses. While I applaud the typically conservative Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli for trying multiple looks, there was one particular defensive strategy that he should have stayed away from: cover 1.

When a defense plays cover 1, it is essentially a challenge to the wide receivers, saying “we don’t respect you and think that we can match up with you at every spot”. In 2015 in particular, the Green Bay Packers’ receivers struggled to get open against tight man coverage. Without Jordy Nelson and with Davante Adams playing injured, the remaining receivers were not skilled enough to win one-on-one battles. That is not the case for this season. A recovered Nelson plus a breakout season from Davante Adams has given Rodgers his best cache of receiving weapons in several years. When you combine a smart, accurate quarterback with receivers capable of beating man coverage, it can spell disaster for a defense. The following examples help to shed a bit of light on the different ways that Rodgers can beat cover 1.

Looking off the Free Safety

A free safety’s duty in most cover 1 calls is to cover the deep middle of the field, while reading the quarterback’s eyes and break on the ball. Smart quarterbacks know this, and can play that defender worse than Brock Osweiler played Texans GM Rick Smith.

With 8:58 remaining in the first quarter, Aaron Rodgers fooled Barry Church and threw a nice touch pass to Richard Rodgers for a touchdown. In the beginning of the first clip, you’ll see Church, number 42, at the top of your screen. He is the Free Safety in this play, tasked with deep middle coverage. Richard Rodgers, not initially shown, is flexed out to the left side with Sean Lee in man coverage. Now pay attention to the direction of Rodgers’ head as soon as the ball is snapped.

Rodgers looks right, and Barry Church - like he’s supposed to do - follows suit. By doing so, he leaves the left side of the field exposed to the deep pass, as long as a receiver is able to break open. Here’s where a bit of veteran savvy comes into play. Since Rodgers went with a hard count and got David Irving to jump offsides, Rodgers has a free play. The offensive playcall had two downfield routes; Adams, in the slot to the right, and Richard Rodgers. Poor Barry Church isn’t privy to this information, so he is still reliant upon reading Rodgers’ eyes. Choosing to target Richard Rodgers, as he had a linebacker in coverage (Adams had a cornerback), all Aaron Rodgers had to do was to move the free safety out of playmaking position by looking away from his target before delivering the pass. Mission accomplished.

Pocket Presence

Adding an additional pass rusher is an important piece of the cover 1 defense. Since you are rolling a safety down into the box, it frees up a defender to blitz with no coverage responsibility. Most blitzes don’t result in a sack, and defenses know this. Ideally, however, a blitz will move the quarterback off his spot and make him throw from an unnatural position, affecting the accuracy of the pass. With 1:10 remaining in the first quarter, the Cowboys defense sent 5 rushers - three linemen, an outside linebacker, and strong safety Byron Jones, who rolled down once the ball was snapped. Seeing Jones creep down, Aaron Rodgers knows he will be coming to blitz and has single man coverage on the outside with Davante Adams.

In the first clip, you’ll see Jones (#31, top right of the screen) start to walk down toward the line of scrimmage. The Packers’ offensive line sees the outside linebacker blitzing and shift their protection to pick him up, but Christine Michael picks up the blitzing Jones late. Rodgers has to fire a pass with a defender fast approaching, but doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

Rodgers’ internal clock was shortened as he knew his pocket would be collapsing quickly, and he got rid of the ball in time to avoid the blitz.

Later in the third quarter, the Cowboys manage to collapse the pocket with their four down lineman. #90, Demarcus Lawrence, gets inside David Bakhtiari and flushes Rodgers out to his left. For most right-handed quarterbacks, this would spell disaster; throwing on the run to your off-hand side is extremely difficult, and often results in interceptions as velocity is lost due to poor mechanics. Compounding the problem is Sean Lee, who has a spy coverage on Rodgers, removing the option to continue rolling out and pickup yardage on the ground. Typically, a best case scenario here would be to throw the ball away and try again next time. Instead, Aaron turns it into a 14 yard gain.

This is much more difficult throw than he makes it look. In the next clip, pay attention first to his head and eye level, then his shoulder positioning, then his footwork.

Rodgers’ eyes are upfield the entire time, not even bothering to glance at the pressure coming his way as his feel of the pocket has become second nature. His shoulders and feet stay square to the line of scrimmage, which gives him both the option to run and to pass. If his feet were set as if he were still in a dropback, with his left foot and shoulder forward, it is much more difficult to run. It could also potentially put a fade on his pass, as he would be falling away from his arm action.

Better luck next time, Lawrence. Oops, I forgot, there isn’t a next time.

Possessing a live arm

One of the advantages of playing cover 1 is that it defenders have tight coverage to their receiver. Against tight coverages, a quarterback must be able to make every type of throw, whether it be a quick release bullet to a guy running a slant, or a touch pass over the head of a defender to a receiver running a fade. Rodgers is certainly capable of making every type of throw possible. While tight coverage can occasionally throw off the timing of a route, Green Bay’s offensive line usually gives Rodgers enough time to re-assess the coverage during the play instead of solely relying the originally scripted timing.

In the first quarter, Green Bay dialed up a nifty fake screen pass. As Jared Cook (bottom of your screen above Geronimo Allison) sprinted towards Morris Claiborne, it seemed to the defense as though he was setting up to block for Allison. Instead, Cook ran a wheel route outside the numbers. Claiborne bites on a Rodgers pump fake just enough to fall behind Cook in coverage, while Barry Church begins sliding over to that side as he reads Rodgers’ eyes. Rodgers throws a nice touch pass out of the reach of Claiborne, but not too far ahead as to lead Cook into Church. Maybe Jared’s already a religious man and doesn’t need another church in his life. Sorry, I had to.

Anyway, what’s most impressive about this throw is not necessarily the window that Rodgers fits the ball into; instead, what sticks out to me, is how quickly Aaron is able to reload his arm and throw an accurate pass. This is what is considered a “live” arm - the ability to throw an accurate deep pass with little effort. In what appears to be merely a flick of the wrist, the ball is arriving right on target and in time.

Now that you have a small glimpse into how Aaron Rodgers can dice up cover 1 defenses, you should be licking your chops whenever Dan Quinn shows a single high safety this Sunday in Atlanta.

If there are other plays, players or schemes you would like to see covered by Bob in his film breakdowns, leave a comment below!