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Summer of Spags: 2-read coverage rules and permutations

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How could Steve Spagnuolo implement 2-read coverage?

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It’s another wonderful day in the Summer of Spags!

After a brief overview of pattern-matching coverages, we’re set up to finally talk about some coverage schemes! We’re not wasting any time up front this week, as we have a lot to get to.

First up on the list — 2-read coverage!


2-read — sometimes called Palms, Cloud, or Nick Saban’s Cover 7 Clamp — is a common split-safety pattern-matching scheme. In it, the defense can account for four vertical routes anywhere on the field and still drive quickly on bubbles and out routes. This ability to take away the dreaded “four verticals” and still be able to close quickly on some underneath routes makes this a very versatile and dependable coverage.

Coverage rules vs. 2x2 formations

Against 2x2 formations (two eligible receivers split out to each side), 2-read operates in a triangle of players — three coverage defenders over two receivers. These three defenders can cover two vertical routes to that side of the field and can switch to cover bubbles or out routes under the following rules:

  • Cornerback (boundary): Open stance on snap with eyes on the No. 2 receiver while keeping the No. 1 receiver in peripheral vision. If No. 2 takes an out step off the snap or runs an out route within linebacker depth, drive on the No. 2 receiver while colliding with the No. 1 receiver. If No. 2 runs a vertical route stem, man on the No. 1 receiver.
  • Apex (first player inside boundary CB): Open stance and gain depth diagonally while reading the No. 3 receiver (running back in the backfield) and keeping the No. 2 in peripheral vision. If No. 2 runs underneath within linebacker depth, call “UNDER,” drive on the route, and carry No. 2 to the MIKE linebacker. If No. 2 runs a vertical route stem, hold inside leverage and widen the route stem. Break on the No. 3 receiver if he kicks out into the flat.
  • Safety: Read No. 2 to No. 1 receiver. If No. 2 is vertical, man on the No. 2 receiver. If No. 2 is underneath or out, zone over the top of No. 1.

These three players working in tandem each read two receivers and react based on a vertical route stem or a break underneath linebacker depth. Let’s look at some examples in action.

This play is exactly what 2-read is designed to prevent, and defensive backs coach Dave Merritt makes the call on third-and-short to come up with a stop. The offense has the No. 2 receiver run a bubble with the No. 1 receiver running a curl.

The cornerback reads the No. 2 receiver and sees the out step, then gains depth with a step-replace technique, ready to drive on the route. The apex — in this case, the WILL linebacker — identifies pass and gains depth with eyes on the running back. The safety zones over the top of No. 1, ready to cover the vertical route, then breaks on the player when the curl develops and the quarterback releases the ball.

Although the WILL linebacker should have pushed a little wider — which would have completely taken away the curl from the No. 1 — this is a textbook 2-read execution and game situation. All of the shallow routes should be covered, and the safety is there to aid with anything vertical while the linebacker’s coverage role is minimized.

However, this isn’t just a coverage for short-yardage situations. It still has plenty of functionality on vertical routes as well.

This is a third-and-17 play with the offense challenging the secondary with a deep switched vertical route, a levels concept and a late running back leaking into the flat. Major yardage is needed, so the offense is hoping for a blown coverage or an advantageous matchup to exploit.

The strong-side cornerback and safety are both reading No. 2 to No. 1 on release. As they both run vertical stems, the cornerback and safety wait for the late switch. The No. 2 becomes the new No. 1 and vice versa. The safety covers the inside vertical while the cornerback covers the outside vertical. The strong apex — the nickel cornerback — opens up to carry the No. 2 receiver’s vertical due to the depth of coverage behind him. He continues to carry the route in trail technique.

On the weak side, condensed splits and down/distance have the weak cornerback aligned well off the line of scrimmage and zoning off deep. The weak No. 1 receiver gets treated similarly to the normal No. 2 rules, with weak apex — the WILL linebacker — gaining depth and forcing the receiver over the hump, widening his dig. As the receiver clears linebacker depth, the weak safety is responsible for man coverage and breaks on the dig route. The WILL linebacker then transitions and collides with the tight end before beginning to carry him vertically. The weak cornerback — with nothing vertical threatening him — rotates to replace the safety.

One wrinkle we haven’t yet discussed is the MIKE linebacker. Primarily just a shallow zone robber for crossers and digs, the MIKE can end up tasked with coverage in the flats on the running back in route distributions like this one. While he typically won’t have that primary responsibility in 2-read, the down and distance — forcing the weak corner into a deeper zone — leaves him with a late No. 3 coverage. As you can see, he does a good job staying in the center of the field, robbing the dig before breaking on the running back in the flat.

Coverage rules vs. 3x1 formations

Against 3x1 formations (three eligible receivers split out to one side with one on the other), 2-read operates in a box of players — four coverage defenders over three receivers. The rules are similar to that of a 2x2 formation, but Spagnuolo likes to push the “switch” inside by one defender and keep the strong cornerback in man or deep zone, per these coverage rules:

  • Strong cornerback: Man on No. 1 unless he releases under within linebacker depth, then zone to deep quarter.
  • Strong apex: Open stance on snap with eyes on the No. 3 receiver while keeping the No. 2 receiver in peripheral vision. If No. 3 takes an out step off the snap or runs an out route within linebacker depth, drive on the No. 3 receiver while colliding with the No. 2 receiver. If No. 3 runs a vertical route stem, man on the No. 2 receiver.
  • MIKE linebacker: Open stance and gain depth diagonally while reading the No. 3 receiver. If No. 3 runs underneath within linebacker depth, call “UNDER,” drive on the route and carry No. 3 to the weak apex. If No. 3 runs a vertical route stem, hold inside leverage and widen the route stem.
  • Strong safety: Read No. 3 to No. 2 receiver. If No. 3 is vertical, man on the No. 3 receiver. If No. 3 is underneath or out, zone over the top of No. 2.
  • Weak cornerback: Eyes on the No. 2 in the backfield. Man on No. 1 if No. 2 does not release into the flat.
  • Weak apex: Open stance and gain depth diagonally while reading the No. 1 receiver and keeping the No. 2 in peripheral vision. If No. 1 runs underneath within linebacker depth, call “UNDER,” drive on the route, and carry No. 1 to the MIKE linebacker. If No. 2 kicks into the flat, rob No. 1.
  • Weak safety: Zone over No. 1.

As the field tilts to one side, the route distributions from the strong No. 1 and No. 2 receivers become more predictable and less likely to involve a quick out or a bubble between the two. Those route distributions tend to shift inside, and Spagnuolo adjusts accordingly.

Another textbook implementation of 2-read to stop a bubble/dig route combination. The strong No. 1 runs a fade, and the strong cornerback matches it. The No. 3 takes an out step, and the strong apex identifies it. In order to give the safety time to get over the top of the strong No. 2’s route, the apex zones over the top of the No. 2 and gives an extra split-second for the safety to adjust. The safety picks up the No. 2, and the MIKE does a great job gaining depth to shrink the throwing window. All routes are covered, resulting in a sack.

On this play, the offense pushes two players into the flats, trying to force an open slant to get the ball out quickly against pressure. However, good technique on third down leaves this play short.

With both the No. 3 and the weak No. 2 receivers taking immediate out steps, the weak cornerback and strong apex have their coverage responsibilities quickly. Both continue to zone over the top of the receiver immediately in front of them (two receivers for the apex) and drive on the flats. The strong cornerback zones off deep and leaves the safety with verticals for No. 3 or No. 1, as they both won’t run a vertical. The MIKE and WILL linebackers widen and gain depth, taking away slant throwing lanes, and the result is a checkdown on third-and-9, which is stopped short of the sticks.


Moving forward

This is a very abridged version of the 2-read coverage schemes we could see this season. Down and distance, receiver splits and having to bracket stud receivers all can and will shift coverage responsibilities slightly.

However, the basics are largely the same. 2-read protects against quick outs that can wear a defense out and allow the ball to matriculate down the field and still covers vertical routes—primarily switches. It also helps protect linebackers from having to cover a lot of ground and end up carrying significantly better players in man coverage.

We’ll discuss 4-read coverage in the next part of the series — a similar coverage goal with a slight tweak. Until then, thanks for reading the Summer of Spags!