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Summer of Spags: introducing trap coverages

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The Summer of Spags continues with a common coverage that Steve Spagnuolo could use with his blitz packages.

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

Welcome back to the Summer of Spags!

Thus far this offseason, I’ve focused on the front seven for Steve Spagnuolo’s Kansas City Chiefs defense. We’ve talked fronts, blitz packages, and fake pressures to try to wreak havoc up front. Now we turn to the secondary, starting with some coverage calls that Spagnuolo could implement more often in 2020.

This is a common one — but one that builds from some of the pressure packages we’ve discussed thus far. Let’s get to it!

The concept: trap coverages

Trap coverages are not a new (or particularly uncommon) call at any level. The coverage preys on quick outs and curls — while still protecting the offense’s vertical routes.

The idea behind them are as simple as their name. The defense is trying to “trap” the quarterback into throwing to a route that a coverage defender can easily defend. By disguising the coverage as a more traditional zone or man defense, the quarterback can be made to think he’s got an open receiver underneath — when in fact, the coverage defender can easily break on the route.

In this example, the boundary corner, apex, and safety to the weak side of the field all work in tandem to defend the two receivers in front of them. The boundary corner uses a shuffle technique while still squeezing the wide receiver to the sideline. He keeps his eyes on the backfield while watching the route distribution of the second receiver.

The deep safety rotates to “top” the boundary vertical route, while the apex walls off the middle of the field against an in-breaking route. When the boundary cornerback sees the break from the inside receiver, he plants his foot and drives underneath — with his eyes still on the backfield — passing off the vertical route to the deep safety. The cornerback jumps the route in front of the receiver and intercepts the pass.

The quarterback thought he was seeing the boundary cornerback carry the number one receiver far enough vertically to exploit the apex defender underneath. Instead, the trap coverage resulted in a turnover — likely taking points off the board deep in the defense’s territory.

While it seems simple in theory, the quarterback needs to feel pressure so he’ll want to get the ball out quickly. Otherwise, he could take advantage of a “honey hole” in the coverage. That’s where some well-timed blitzes come into play.

Trap coverages work extremely well with heavy-blitzing defenses (like Spagnuolo’s) by having the cornerback ready to sit on the hot receiver. This is even more prevalent with slot and safety blitzes, where a quarterback will tend to attack the area of the field vacated by the blitzer. So with the quarterback’s internal clock sped up due to the pressure, he may not have the extra split-second required to fully read the secondary and see the cornerback sitting on the route — as we see on this play.

Spagnuolo spent time in Baltimore with Don Martindale and Dean Pees — the architects of the Baltimore Ravens’ dynamic defensive scheme, which use trap coverages as much as anyone in the league due to their complex blitz packages. By putting the quarterback in constant discomfort, defenses can force the opposition into more of their quick game.

As we see on this play, defensive coordinators can also play off of their trap tendencies as well. Showing frequent trap coverages can get the quarterback to hold the ball longer and let the complex pressure packages develop.

The Ravens show seven potential rushers at the line of scrimmage. After dropping two rushers to the strong side — and using a simulated pressure from the weak side to spring the blitzer — the Ravens trap the two routes to the field. The designed hot route is cut and trapped by the apex defender and the cornerback, while the vertical route is cut and topped by the cornerback and the safety. The quarterback has nowhere to go with the ball, so he turns to his third read — just in time to be sacked by the blitzing defensive back.

The time afforded by the trap coverage — and its frequency on the Ravens’ game tape — allows the simulated pressure to occupy the guard long enough to create a rushing lane for the defensive back. While the defensive work up front gets its deserved accolades, the excellent trap call (and its execution) gives the defense the time it needs to make the play.

How it fits the Chiefs

Basically, every coverage wrinkle fits Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. He’s not afraid to run a little bit of everything to keep the quarterback guessing — including several iterations of trap coverages.

But I think the Chiefs’ personnel affords them the opportunity to run more trap coverages in 2020. With several more dynamic players in the defensive front, the blitz packages could be more exotic. That alone might necessitate more two-read and trap coverages to take care of the quick game with which offenses could counter.

Rashad Fenton is a prime candidate to take over for Bashaud Breeland during his suspension. I have long said that Fenton’s best spot is on the boundary — and his shuffle technique is a large part of the reason why. He is at his best when his eyes are on the backfield — and he has the ability to plant his foot and drive on an underneath route. He has the ideal skill set for a trap boundary cornerback.

Breeland also possesses the technique and football IQ to play these coverages. He was frequently tasked with cone techniques and skate calls in 2019 because he has those same attributes. In split-safety roles, Juan Thornhill and Daniel Sorensen are capable of topping outside routes to help keep a lid on the defense. And well... Tyrann Mathieu is built to bait quarterbacks into mistakes.

If the Chiefs defense blitzes as much as their new personnel equips them to do, they could very well see offenses bring more of their quick game. If that happens, the Chiefs also have the personnel to play trap coverages — which will hopefully make those offenses pay.