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Stout Assessments: banjo coverage and the Chiefs

What is “banjo coverage” and how does Bob Sutton utilize it in the Chiefs defense?

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Since I started writing here again over the past month, I’ve touched upon the secondary a couple of times. It’s arguably the biggest question mark on the defensive side of the ball for the Kansas City Chiefs.

I started with some of the basics about press coverage and how some of the Chiefs’ current cornerbacks handle it well. I then turned around last week and showed how some of the former Chiefs coverage players could get lost in communications errors or misalignments. That groundwork needed to be laid to discuss this week’s topic: Banjo Coverage.

An offensive coordinator’s job in the passing game is to get receivers in good positions to make plays. The easiest pass for a quarterback to make is to a wide open receiver. If the coordinator can create confusion and miscommunication, then he can scheme up open looks for big plays. One of the best ways to create this confusion is with bunch or stack sets involving your receivers, then utilizing crossing routes out of those sets. You, of course, know this, dear one, because you’re a knowledgeable and handsome/beautiful reader of this website. (Sup, still following along? Good.)

As I covered last week’s post, the 2017 Chiefs secondary struggled at times to pass receivers off and with miscommunications off the snap. Well, nothing is harder to defend than a bunch formation with multiple crossing routes if you can’t communicate. Fortunately, the Chiefs deploy a coverage technique that both defends these bunch/stack formations well, incorporates a press coverage element, and requires good communication, and they’ve used it successfully over the Bob Sutton tenure.

The bunch or stack formation is set up to give a receiver free release from the line of scrimmage and force confusion in coverage. To defend this, a banjo coverage concept consists of at least two defensive backs—one in press coverage and the others in off coverage. Before the snap, none of the defensive backs have a defined offensive player to be responsible for in coverage. Instead, the defensive backs will pick up receivers based off of their release, similar to that of a zone coverage scheme. After the defensive back sees the particular release they are looking for, that defensive back is locked in man coverage against that receiver. It’s a man coverage scheme that plays similar to a zone coverage scheme.

A hybrid coverage scheme

Why is this hybrid coverage scheme important, you ask? (with a savvy tone indicating intelligence on the subject, but still probing to learn more) Well, there are lots of advantageous positions the offense can put itself in from bunch and stack formations. Bubble screens or pick-rub routes are common and allow offenses to get players into open grass with the ball in their hands.

By utilizing banjo coverage, not only does the defense help prevent pick/rub routes (the defensive backs aren’t bunched in coverage), it also can help defend against bubble screens better by having a press coverage defender to help stymie the blocker(s) and create easy lanes for the off-coverage defenders to come up and make the tackle. Add on top of all this the ability to easily pass receivers to other defensive backs without major communication and the advantage of not having a defensive back have to track a receiver on a slant or an out route from all the way across a bunch formation.

Clearly, we all understand exactly what’s been described, because we’re all smart, ravishing, and definitely NOT three beers deep into the day. But just for grins, let’s take a look at some examples of how Bob Sutton has deployed banjo coverage in the past.

Right off the bat, you can see that the Chiefs are lined up with one press cornerback and two defensive backs in off coverage. The press CB is lined up with outside shade on the outside receiver of the bunch. He is responsible for the receiver that has an out-breaking release from the bunch formation. The boundary off-coverage defensive back is responsible for anything vertical and outside, and the other off-coverage defensive back is responsible for any inside release. Off the snap, each player waits for the receiver to make their releases, then matches up in man coverage as the receivers continue their routes. If the press CB was in strictly matchup man, he would have had to navigate the initial cross (creating a natural rub route), and then would have been behind in coverage the entire route. Conversely, the out-breaking receiver would have been wide open for an easy completion if the press CB doesn’t make the switch at the line and one of the off-coverage defensive backs has to come up to make the play.

Most definitions of banjo coverage have the press CB taking the first inside-breaking release. Bob Sutton, however, likes to utilize a sort of “inverted” banjo and seals the edge of the bunch formation with his press CB. By doing so, he limits some of the quick boundary throws and drops a linebacker into coverage inside to help against slant routes out of the bunch. There’s little space that is afforded on that side of the field for completions by lining up and executing this way. Let’s take a look at an example of Bob’s banjo that has a greater inside-breaking release.

This time, the press CB is lined up with outside shade on the receiver on the line of scrimmage, but still has responsibility for the outside breaking route. Off the snap, one receiver runs a quick, inside breaking route, which is then immediately picked up by the linebacker in off coverage, preventing an easy completion with a line to the end zone. The press CB covers Julio Jones in the flat, being particularly sticky in his coverage. The second off-coverage defensive back picks up the leftover, covering the vertical route to the end zone. This is complete and total coverage out of the bunch formation on this side of the field. No communication errors, solid man coverage and all of the defensive backs are kept clean from any pick/rub routes out of a formation designed to get receivers free.

Now let’s take a look at how the initial banjo coverage lineup holds up against some screens.

Once again, the Chiefs deploy a press CB opposite a bunch formation with two off-coverage defensive backs. It’s not known if the Chiefs would need to operate a banjo coverage concept, as the Denver Broncos run a fast screen, nullifying the need to switch. Off the snap, the press CB is engaged by the receiver on the line of scrimmage. The off-coverage defensive backs then are responsible for collapsing on the receiver with the ball. The boundary defensive back crashes down and sets the edge, preventing the ballcarrier from getting to the sideline and forcing him back into the Chiefs pursuit. Both the press CB and the boundary defensive back do their jobs well, and the ballcarrier is forced into a herd of Chiefs players for a short gain.

As with the theme of this post, the Chiefs line up with two players in off coverage and one in press coverage. Due to the outside shade alignment of the press CB, he has outside-contain responsibility against any screens to that side of the field. The ball doesn’t go to that side of the field, but if it did, the receiver would have been forced back into the pursuit of the defense due to the disruption of the press CB.

So there you have it: some banjo coverage concepts and what that lineup can do for you from a defensive perspective against a bunch formation. By facilitating this hybrid coverage, it can alleviate some of the stress that an offense can put on a secondary with crossers, screens and rub routes, all while staying flexible and minimizing miscommunication.

I’d like to give a shout out to Matt Lane for some help clearing up this concept and furthering my (and your) knowledge of what Bob’s really doing out there. It takes a village here at Arrowhead Pride, folks.

You hybrid-coverage knowing beautiful readers, you.

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