Former Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride stopped by the Hail Varsity Radio show on Wednesday, as he does every Wednesday, to talk Xs and Os with host Chris Schmidt. Last week we brought you McBride’s thoughts on two-gap defense. This week he was talking Cover 2.
If you played any football at the youth or high school levels odds are you’re familiar with the Cover 2. It’s one of the mother sauces from which an unending array of coverages and schemes are formed. Bo Pelini uses it. McBride used it. Almost every coach has implemented it in some form or another.
In a Cover 2 defense, the two safeties are playing zone coverage and each is responsible for their half of the field. With deep help on both sides, this allows your underneath coverage, the cornerbacks and linebackers, to play aggressively in man or zone coverage. McBride says Pelini’s version of the Cover 2 differs slightly from the traditional set in one way.
“In a basic Cover 2 your two inside guys are playing pretty much on the hash marks or somewhere in the vicinity and they’re covering half the field,” McBride said. “In this Cover 2 that (Nebraska) plays, they’re probably playing them wider. That really shuts down your outside receivers because you’re playing under and over on those guys. You have to have that middle linebacker rolling, a guy that can run with somebody coming up the middle of the field.”
Will Compton might not be the fastest middle linebacker in the country, but he is experienced. Watch Nebraska highlights from last year and you won’t find any pass breakups but Compton almost always stays assignment sound. He’s where he needs to be. As fellow linebacker Sean Fisher said this week, this unit of three seniors has five years in the system and can play just about any coverage “in (their) sleep.”
The 2012 version of Nebraska has a ton of experience at safety as well with four seniors who have seen significant time at the back. That experience should allow Pelini plenty of freedom with his coverages. McBride was famous for his Cover 1 at Nebraska — one safety playing a deep middle zone — and given the strengths of Daimion Stafford combined with the Big Ten’s propensity to run the ball, that is something we could see frequently from this year’s Blackshirts.
“We went to Cover 2 in third down situations because our basic coverage looked like Cover 2, or we tried to make it look like Cover 2 all the time, so they didn’t know whether we were in a blitzing situation,” McBride said. “We were playing a lot of man-under and two-deep and we rolled our safeties so we had one in the hole and one deep.
“In the hole means you’re looking for crossing routes and backs out of the backfield and things like that. That would be maybe 12 to 15 yards deep.”
Enter Stafford. The senior safety improved as a pass defender as the season progressed last year, recording six of his 10 pass breakups in the final six games of the season, but his real strength is as a big hitter. Stafford finished third on the team with 80 tackles last year, the most for a Nebraska safety since Daniel Bullocks had 83 in 2005. He’s cut from similar cloth as former Nebraska safety Mike Brown, a plyaer McBride remembers well.
“The guy that’s rolling in the hole was usually your strong safety,” McBride said. “He was also your eighth man in the box and he was a big-time run support guy. Back when I was coaching, my last year, Mike Brown was the leading tackler on the team. The one thing you don’t want to have is your secondary being the leading tacklers on the team but the way we played our secondary, Mike was such a force man that he made a lot of tackles.”
Expect to see some similar things out of Stafford this year. Nebraska has always played a good amount of Cover 1 under Pelini, perhaps most famously in their 2010 dismantling of Missouri and Blaine Gabbert. In that game the Blackshirts used primarily dime coverages to harass future first-rounder Gabbert into 18-of-42 passing while recording six sacks and seven quarterback hurries.
It’s too early to predict a return to performances like that, but Nebraska has the experience up the middle of its defense to get pretty creative in 2012.
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