One thing that’s been established so far this off-season for the Vikings is that they will have an entirely new slate of starting cornerbacks. They also have new defensive back coaches.
Nobody can say for sure right now who the new three cornerbacks will be, but going solely by who’s on the roster now, the starters would likely be Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, and Kris Boyd. In all likelihood the Vikings will spend at least one draft pick on a cornerback, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they drafted a CB each day of the draft.
“You can never have enough corners.”
In addition to new personnel on the back end, the Vikings will also have a new defensive backs coach in Daronte Jones, and a new assistant DB coach in Roy Anderson. Jones has a history of coaching defensive backs for teams that used a lot of Cover-3 zone. Beyond that, defensive assistant Dom Capers came from Jacksonville last season, which also used a lot of Cover-3 zone under defensive coordinator Todd Wash. Capers himself used primarily zone coverages, including a lot of Cover-3.
Zimmer himself ran a lot of zone coverages last season - more than in previous seasons - perhaps because he became less confident in his cornerbacks playing man. According to PFF, the Vikings ran some form of zone coverage 77% of the time last season - much higher than previous years. Cover-2 zone was the most popular zone coverage (21% of the time) followed by Cover-4 (18%), Cover-3 (12%), and Cover-6 (10%).
But with Zimmer wanting to make some changes on defense, and having added coaches that come from a Cover-3 background, and it often being paired with a 4-3 Under front which I covered in my last piece, let’s take a closer look at Cover-3 and how that might fit with the Vikings personnel on defense.
In basic Cover-3 zone coverage, the two outside cornerbacks and the free safety each defend a deep third of the field. Underneath those deep thirds, two linebackers, a strong safety, and either a third linebacker or a nickel cornerback defend four zones: two outside shallow flat/curl zones, and two middle hook zones.
The idea behind this coverage is to better defend against the deep routes, while also providing solid underneath coverage against shorter intermediate routes like hooks or slants or outside flat routes. At the same time, it’s effective against the run, as it provides eight men in the box initially to defend the run.
It’s relatively simple, but also versatile, with several variations tailored to particular needs and situations. Here is a more detailed primer on Cover-3, along with some of the variations.
This type of coverage can also be disguised pre-snap in a few ways, so the quarterback isn’t able to read the coverage initially. It can be disguised as Cover-1 (man) coverage, with only the single high safety deep and the corners appearing to play man coverage on the outside, or also Cover-2 with two safeties playing deep.
Like all coverages, there are ‘Cover-3 beaters’ in terms of route combinations - typically flooding a zone - and forcing defensive backs to make choices and be disciplined in how they either hand off a receiver or cover them, or routes that can take advantage of the gaps or seams in the coverage zones.
For example, in the Vikings-Packers game in the illustration above, the two outside receivers both ran post routes to the seams in the deep three zones. If both the outside cornerbacks pass the receiver to the middle safety, it creates a two-on-one situation which can be exploited for a big gain. In this case, Mike Hughes passed his receiver on to Harrison Smith in the middle deep zone, while Trae Waynes did what is known as ‘pattern matching’ - covering his receiver on any deep vertical route - which he did. The receiver Hughes passed on to Smith actually did a post- corner route, hoping Hughes would stick to his zone and not look back, creating an open space behind him.
Other options are basically 10-15 yard out or comeback routes, which put the receiver in between the shallow flat zone and the deeper third zone defender, and can work depending on the positioning of the flat defender.
But if the defensive backs communicate well and maintain good positioning, it’s a difficult scheme to have much success against. The scheme design, when well executed, makes it difficult for defensive backs to get beat deep, as they’re already deep to begin with, and the underneath zone defenders clog the throwing lanes, making some of the shorter-to-intermediate throws more difficult. Other than that, good tackling by the shallow flat defenders can limit any gains on any dump-off/wheel routes/bubble screens, and the middle hook zone defenders can cover the various crossing routes over the middle.
How It Fits Vikings Personnel
Believe it or not, the Vikings were one of the best defenses in coverage in the league last year, according to PFF. They had the third best coverage grade (behind the 49ers and Patriots), largely because of players like Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, and Eric Kendricks, who all had elite or near-elite grades in coverage. The Vikings were also helped by being the best tackling team in the NFL last year (and 1st or 2nd the past 3 years), which helps limit yards after the catch.
Fortunately for the Vikings, those three defenders will be back again this season, and in Cover-3, will cover 3 of the 7 zones, just as they did this past season.
It wouldn’t be surprising if, this coming season, the Vikings had those three covering the middle zones in a Cover-3 scheme, basically taking that part of the field away, or at least making it more difficult - and risky - to throw to that part of the field.
That leaves the four outside zones to Anthony Barr, Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, and/or most likely some new draft picks.
Barr has not been great in coverage, but leaving him with a shallow flat zone to cover is perhaps a simpler assignment for him, as opposed to man coverage or even one of the middle zones. The other shallow flat zone would be defended by either another linebacker like Eric Wilson in base defense, or a nickel cornerback. Perhaps Mike Hughes, or perhaps a new draft pick. Once again, this is not the most difficult assignment, but demands good tackling as much as good coverage and positioning.
That leaves the two deeper zones, which could be manned by Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, and/or a new draft pick. Possibly even Kris Boyd, depending on his development. Ideally, these outside cornerbacks would be able to play some press-man on the outside on occasion, or at least execute a press-bail technique, where they bump the receiver initially off the snap to disrupt the route, and then sink back into their zone. But either way, dropping back into those deep zones and being able to be looking back for the ball makes it easier for them to defend - and more difficult for a QB to target them. They still have to cover and remain disciplined in their assignments, but this is an easier task than man coverage.
From what I’ve seen from both Hughes and Hill, they seem to have good skill-sets for this type of zone coverage. Both can play press, but in zone they both are good about looking back at the quarterback and having good short area burst to make a break on the ball/receiver once the ball is in the air.
Bottom line, this scheme doesn’t demand the most in physical skill-sets compared to man coverage, and is fairly easy to learn and run. You don’t have to be Deion Sanders to be a good Cover-3 cornerback. The best corners in this type of scheme are saavy in terms of seeing and understanding routes and route combinations, communicating well, and having the short area burst to make a play on the ball/receiver.
The modern prototype for a Cover-3 cornerback is Richard Sherman. Sherman ran a 4.56” 40 coming out and hasn’t gotten any faster since. He also did not have the swivel hips desired in a cornerback when it comes to mirroring a receiver or changing directions. But he could play press, had good route awareness, and tackled well. When he was younger he had a good burst on the ball too - partly from his good awareness and football IQ. At age 31, he had one of his best years last season.
Good Fits Among CB Draft Prospects
The top first-round worthy cornerbacks are that way because they have the measureables and are scheme diverse, meaning they can play zone or man. So, Jeffrey Okudah, C.J. Henderson, Kristian Fulton, and Jeff Gladney all work well in a Cover-3 scheme.
Beyond the top ranked CBs, Cameron Dantzler, Trevon Diggs, and Damon Arnette are both good in this scheme - Arnette, like Okudah, is from Ohio State which plays a lot of Cover-3.
As a slot corner, Amik Robertson would be a good fit for this scheme. He’s not very big - only 5’8” - which is why he’d be a slot-only CB, but he does best defending shallow zones and is also good in run defense.
The Vikings have met with all of these CBs except Okudah, as he’s pretty much guaranteed to go top 10, if not #3 overall.
Do you think the Vikings will play more Cover-3 this season?
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