As always, I want to stress that these observations are based on my own film study and conjecture.
Against a triple threat from the offense, the 2 Read concept is stretched to its limit. The offense has unbalanced itself and as a result the threatened side of the split defense can no longer maintain autonomy without help from the middle linebacker.
And this gets at the heart of why so many offense’s ask the question, “How will you handle three detached receivers?” If the offense can break down your defensive responsibilities through formation, then your defensive concept will not hold up in practice. Because 3 detached threats is a question that is asked so often these days, it has also become a pivotal diagnostic tool for the offense. Consequently, it’s intelligent and perhaps even essential that the defense have more that one way to answer this question. And we all know if there’s something Manny Diaz does well, it’s knock a repetitive question out of the park.
2 Read with Man to Man
One way to handle trips is to isolate one of the offensive threats and then apply the 2 Read principles to the remaining offensive players. The obvious choice is to have your best cover player, your corner, isolate the outside receiver in man to man coverage, then have your outside linebacker play like a 2 Read corner with the middle linebacker and safety on the two remaining receivers.
Philosophically this is a nice solution because it puts the biggest coverage burden on the most capable athlete and maintains a numbers advantage on the remaining players: preserving many of positive aspects of reading the offense. However it also hints at the need for plurality... if the offense knew that it could dictate a specific, isolated 1-on-1 matchup in the passing game by alignment, it would represent a significant advantage.
Another option would be to have the nickel back or outside linebacker lock on the #2 receiver and then have the safety and the corner read the #3 receiver.
Although this isn’t a technique I noticed on film from last season, I would anticipate with Demarco Cobbs and Kenny Vaccaro (as a nickel), it may be an adaptation we see this season against Trips.
The defense can also check into another concept against Trips. In particular, roll defenses and fire zone concepts can be useful here because initially they can be hard to distinguish from the 2-read and complement its strengths and weaknesses. The fire zone allows the defense to attack the reduced pass protection and the corner’s drop can be hard to distinguish from his role in the 2-Read (he’s playing over the top of #1).
Often times the offense uses Trips to try to create spacing from the linebackers so they can exploit the curl areas. That’s why the a cover 3 rolled coverage serves as a nice complement as well against this look: it protects the underneath coverage to the field and gets a lot of defenders breaking on the ball.
And, of course, the defense can just decide to man the 3 defenders, which can simplify the decision making but can also cause problems against bunch packages and pick routes.
Remember, a big part of the reason the offense is going to trips looks it to try to diagnose the defense and put them into predictable behaviors, then target and attack. By varying the response to three detached receivers (an alignment meant to stress defensive concepts and dictate match ups), the defense maintains the integrity of one of its core concepts and retakes the initiative by forcing the offense to make post snap reads.
What about Mike?
In the first article we alluded to the fact that the middle linebacker unites the split coverage concepts that make the 2 read go. The key for the middle linebacker in the 2 read structure is that he will always relate to the #3 receiver (which is usually the running back). Essentially the middle linebacker is responsible for any routes from the #3 receiver. If #3 stays in the protection, the middle linebacker is going to drop and cover the middle underneath zone against the pass and read the QB’s eyes.
Against any release from the back, he’s responsible for the route. This was a role that Keenan Robinson excelled at last year. Where offense’s were used to being able to create a mismatch in the flats with their running backs, Robinson was an eraser. If you’re looking for a place where Steve Edmond will be physically tested this year, this is probably it (although I’ve been impressed with his speed to the flats thus far). Oklahoma, in particular, is very adept at using their running backs to attack in the passing game and since they run a very similar style of coverage concepts, they know where the stress points are.
If the offense aligns in Trips, we saw how the defense will man the outside defender and then shift the rest of the responsibilities inside (pictured earlier). That means that the middle linebacker now has to play the role as the wall defender, trying to take away inside stems from the routes.
2 Read Against the Run
At the end of the day, the core of the 2 Read defense comes down to applying common sense defensive principles as the offensive formation expands. We’ve seen how the 2 Read adapts to passing threats to keep itself from losing leverage deep. But what should not be overlooked is how the 2 Read’s approach also adapts to the run to ensure that the force player has good leverage and that the deep defenders aren’t in run conflict.
In fact, one might even argue that it’s this component of the 2 Read that makes it the most desirable base defense from a 2 high shell (and a major reason you might employ it over Quarters). So versus 0 or 1 detached wide receiver, the corner will be the force player. Versus 2 detached threats, the linebacker/nickel becomes the force player against the run. This keeps the offense from creating outside running opportunities simply by widening the force player through alignment (as they could against cover 2) and keeps players who have to stay over the top of passing threats (the safety and the corner) away from conflicting responsibilities that will cause hesitation (as they might in Quarters). However the 2 Read is not a cure all, like all defenses the 2 Read can be attacked.
The linebackers have both run and pass responsibilities and that means they are susceptible to play action (better them than the safeties). Additionally, the offense has easy pickings in the flat if they so choose, since the corners are maintaining deep leverage.
And perhaps most important is to remember: the 2 read is ultimately still a 2 deep safety concept (even if it is often a disguise). By simple accounting that means that a running threat at QB necessitates the defense have an extra defender to account for him or choose to play undermanned against the run. Baylor’s offense was so difficult to defend last year because they could capitalize on multiple deep threats (forcing the offense to play from a 2 deep shell) but then also forced you to account for the QB as a running threat with the read game. That meant that at least one of your deep defenders was in conflict and represented easy pickings for the offense if they could correctly identify him. By maximizing the spacing on the field they made their targets easier to id and gave their athletes more space to work. Oklahoma State was sort of the same thing in reverse. They spread you wide knowing that their wide outs demanded extra help from the safeties, then used option routes and inside running to attack the middle of the field. If you’re paying attention to defense in college football, it’s one of the core problems that defenses are trying to address: How to balance the need to have 2 deep support to take away the vertical passing game with the need to keep from playing undermanned against the run.
Why the 2 Read?
As you’ve probably gathered from reading through this description the 2-Read is a very comprehensive concept that makes it very difficult for the offense to exploit the deep pass. We’ve seen how it draws on the strengths of Cover 2 and Quarters while unifying them conceptually and mitigating some of their weaknesses. And because of its adaptability and emphasis through practice repetition, the 2 Read serves as a stable call in game situations.
Most importantly, however, is the role of the 2-Read as a disguise for the other complementing defensive concepts from the same alignment. As we caught a glimpse of with the response to Trips, the defense now has the ability to align based on 2 Read rules and then actually play a variety of other defenses. In particular Fire Zones, Soft Man, and Roll coverages all transition well from this alignment. Remember, the primary determination for most offensive decisions comes from getting a read on box numbers for the defense. Diaz can present the defense as a 2 high safety alignment and transition into a 1 high defense in a number of different ways and that means that the offense doesn’t have a static read on box numbers. And that’s ultimately what Diaz wants: to play a majority of 1 high defense where he can get a numbers advantage in the box, but to disguise it and complement it so that he doesn’t give up the big plays.
An additional reason that the 2-Read is a good foundation piece, there’s a lot of carry over in the teaching of the roles in 2 Read and some of the other core ideas in this defense. For instance, the corner learning to read the triangle in the 2 read makes them a better outside leverage man defender. Or the linebacker learning to wall the seam in 2 read overlaps a lot with their responsibilities as a Hot 2 defender in a Fire Zone.
Of all the research I did this offseason, it was this insight into Manny Diaz’s ability to squeeze everything out the roles that he teaches that has impressed me the most. As often as possible he is getting his players to do the same things over and over and trying to keep them out of conflict, all the while making the offense feel like they are facing a different defense play after play. This allows him to run a dizzying number of defensive looks that play off of one another, but not mentally overwhelm his own players, they are just playing a small subset of roles that are rearranged. In short, he is constantly leveraging his own creativity to pragmatically empower his players: a goal often talked about in coaching but rarely accomplished. So in looking closely at defensive concepts like the 2-Read and seeing how they fit into the architecture of the defense, I hope we can further appreciate what Manny Diaz brings to this team.
As always, questions and comments are encouraged. Hope you enjoy!