With each passing week the title of my ill-fated opus on the Madden 08 passing game becomes less and less relevant to our top-of-mind. My former man-crush, Rex Grossman, has moved from a punch line to an after thought. However, a half-season’s worth of forced throws and stubborn one-receiver reads still haunt my dreams, and still resemble many of our Madden passing games.
We’ve already taken a long and arduous look at the blitz and man coverage. Now, it’s time to sneak a peek at zone schemes, namely the Cover 2 and Cover 3. While these are not the sole zone looks that you will see in Madden 08, they will be the most common. Hopefully, these simple little observations will help you move your game from arcade-like to Brady-esque. Just don’t expect my insights on digital passing prowess to help you land Gisele Bundchen. That’s a whole other column altogether.
Pre Snap Reads: Blatant yet Ambiguous
Last week, I outlined some simple ways to anticipate man coverage before the snap. Here is a quick and simple recap: horizontal and slightly forward movement by safeties and linebackers alludes to a man coverage scheme. While the CPU will disguise coverages, a lack of this movement usually points to zone coverage. If you are really stumped, simple motion by an outside receiver (provided there is no automatic motion within the play called) will be a clear indication of whether or not the defense is in zone coverage. Lateral or no movement by the outside corner means zone; turning and running with the receiver across the formation means man. Got it? Good.
While these simple rules can help indicate zone versus man coverage, there is not much you can do to determine the specific zone coverage without a “Smart QB” weapon. To sooth the agony, here is a quick reference for the Cover 2 and Cover 3, your most frequent and formidable foes.
Cover 2: Quick Overview
The cover 2 is one of the most popular every-down schemes in the NFL today. It is a loose, bend-but-don’t-break coverage, used protect most areas of the field. The cover 2 sends the two safeties deep to split the deep zone of the defensive backfield. Corners have flat responsibilities while linebackers and nickel/dime backs protect the short middle of the field. While this scheme does have holes, its popularity in the NFL stems from defenders’ athleticism and defensive awareness compensating for any openings, while forcing ill-timed throws from a heavy pass rush by the front four.
Cover 2: Post-Snap Tell
Keep your eyes on the safeties. Upon the snap, they will drop back at 45 degree angles, perfectly bisecting the deep zone. If you are still unsure, quickly move your eyes up to the corners. If they are staying outside in the flats and not running with your receivers, I guarantee a cover 2. Take it to the bank.
Cover 2 Holes: Exploiting the NFL’s Most popular D
The Cover 2 can be very frustrating, especially if past seasons of Madden have coaxed you into a dependence on streak routes, hitches, or outs. With the bolstered AI in 08, these routes are easy pickings for the cover 2 defense.
There are two main weak points in the cover 2. The first is the sideline space between the corners in the flat, and the deep safeties. Deep outs, well-timed streaks/fades, and even post-corner routes can be deadly against the cover 2 look, as those routes acutely attack the empty space. Use some touch on your throws though. There is a definite sweet spot between a line-drive that can be picked off by the corner in the flat and a lazy lob that gives the safety time to come up and make a play for the ball.
The second weak point of the cover 2 lies in the space between the linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field (provided the defense is not in a Tampa 2 scheme, for more info on the Tampa 2, click here). Posts and deep in-routes can effectively target this area of the field. If you are playing an opponent with a tendency toward the cover 2, look for plays containing such routes on a regular basis. And again, use some touch on your throws.
One other easy way to thwart the cover 2 is to send multiple receivers deep. With only two safeties over the top, sending multiple receivers downfield will make them commit to one receiver or the other (the safeties will usually commit to the receiver who reaches their level first). The safety’s movement toward one receiver will create the space needed to effectively target the other. An outstanding combo to use is a outside streak/fade paired with a deep post by a slot receiver or tight end. The safety will rotate over the top to protect the initial deep threat outside, leaving the post man open. It’s not a guarantee, but this is probably the easiest and most effective way to beat the cover 2 on a regular basis.
Cover 3: Quick Overview
The cover 3 is a lesser-used scheme, at least in terms of its frequency throughout the game. It will normally rear its ugly head on 3rd and long, or simply in long-yardage situations. In a standard cover 3, the outside corners will drop to their respective deep-thirds of the defensive backfield, with the free safety dropping to the middle third. The strong safety will cheat up to cover the short middle of the field, accompanied by an adjacent inside linebacker. Outside linebackers or dime/nickel backs will slide over to cover the flats. The overall design of the cover 3 is to take away the deep ball. Overall, it is a tougher code to crack than the cover 2, and must be exploited quickly upon recognition.
Cover 3: Post-Snap Tell
Once again, check the safeties. The FS will drop back, while the SS will creep up (sometimes vice a versa, if the coverage is flipped). Look for an immediate separation of the safeties. After checking the safeties move your vision outside, the corners will retreat into a lightning-fast drop down field, leaving the flats momentarily vacant.
Cover 3 Holes: Think Fast
Your read needs to be lightning fast to penetrate the cover 3. If you wait too long, the field will be all but covered. There are three main weak spots, which are dependent on quick reads and even quicker throws.
The easiest (and normally least rewarding) area to attack the cover 3 is the shallow middle of the field, underneath the strong safety and inside linebacker, and inside of the linebackers/defensive backs in the flats. Drag routes, square-ins, and hitches in the middle if the field are normally open fairly quickly. These routes are also about your only wide-open option in the later developing stages of the play. A receiver settled in this underneath hole should be your check-down read on every play when facing the cover 3.
The other quick option is in the flats and short zones on the sidelines. There is a brief window on the outside when the corners vacate the area to drop to the deep thirds, prior to the adjustment by the linebackers or defensive backs to the flats. I recommend outward slants as the best option, delivered with a quick, hard release. If timed correctly, the ball will be in your receiver’s hands almost instantly, with plenty of room to maneuver in the open field.
The third option is a bit trickier, and relies heavily on where the coverage “rolls.” Typically, the strong safety and inside linebacker will cheat over toward the strong side of the formation, or to the wide side of the field after the snap. It's rare that you will see defenders in the cover 3 look where the short middle coverage is perfectly centered. This adjustment will leave a momentary vacancy in the middle of the field either to the left or right of center. Sending a TE or RB on a streak route will place them right in this hole on a three step drop (or less), allowing for a quick dart to net an easy 5-8 yard gain. The timing and read is very difficult, but spending some time in practice mode will help with the learning curve.
Pocket Presence: Stick and Move
While I have supplied some basic ways to identify and exploit the two most common types of zone coverage, once again, my methodology is not fool-proof. Hybrid coverages, zone blitzes, and overall AI recognition can close these holes in a hurry. Thus, you must be willing to adapt.
Without these quick reads, you will find that you are holding the ball longer than you would against man coverage. This leads to what those clever TV analysts call “coverage sacks.” Holding the ball is alright; however, buying a few extra seconds may be all the time you need to find a breakdown in the coverage. Stepping up, or outside the pocket is key. We all know that every QB can’t be Vince Young, but a little pocket mobility is a huge key toward beating the zone coverage when your quick reads are unavailable.
Want to see what I mean? Watch tape of Tony Romo (minus this past Monday’s offering). He’s one of the best in the league at making minor adjustments to buy time while waiting for T.O. to find that nice soft spot in the zone coverage. Madden mirrors reality more and more these days, so why not learn from the best? [What a smug homer! -Ed.]
Hopefully these little nuggets of knowledge will put an end to those sleepless nights spent rehashing that pick you threw on 3rd and goal from the 8. Lord knows, I’ve had my share of Maddensomnia over the years. Warm milk and sedatives don’t help.
Next week, I will finally end this overly verbose look at the obvious -- taking a gander at passing progressions, and their importance to the elevation of your game. Until then my fellow Maddenites, mind those quick reads, and I’ll see you next week...