Seahawks Cover 2 Fire Zones: Explaining the Alton Robinson Play

The infamous Alton Robinson coverage was a major talking point of the Seahawks' preseason road trip to Las Vegas. Matty F. Brown explains what actually happened, delving into the Seahawks' cover 2 fire zones.
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The first Seahawks Twitter meltdown of the season has occurred and there's only been one preseason game played. At a first glance of the TV copy, the guilty play in question did look absurd: Alton Robinson, drafted out of Syracuse as a defensive end by the Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, was in downfield coverage with a Raiders receiver Zay Jones. What was Seattle doing?

Jones, taken by the Bills in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft before being traded to the Raiders in 2019 for a 2021 fifth-round pick, ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash time at the combine in his draft year. This wasn’t Robinson covering a slot receiver. No, the 23-year old was instead pictured sprinting to the outermost receiver and desperately running downfield with the route. That Jones caught the football for a 21-yard completion came as little surprise. Las Vegas gained territory deep in Seattle's redzone on the 2nd and 7 pass.

The number of skeptics of defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr remains high; the doubts ever-present after Seattle started the 2020 season so poorly and ended it versus some weak opponents. Jones’ reception versus Robinson was new material for reservations and criticism. What kind of maniac would put a defensive end in one-on-one coverage with a wide receiver?!

Good news! After reviewing the play and studying the tape, I can confirm Norton has not lost his mind.

Firstly, Robinson was not aligned as a defensive end. Instead he was playing the SAM linebacker role in the defense, a spot Seattle has been trying him at all offseason. You may find this bizarre, but remember that the SAM LB spot is typically more of a Bruce Irvin-type than a K.J. Wright. Wright-at-SAM in 2020 was an anomaly forced by circumstance.

The Seahawks desire the ability to rush at strongside linebacker and play down at the line of scrimmage, setting a firm edge. This is especially true in their new era of running bear-style fronts as a big proportion of their base/run-still-possible defense. The SAM will drop more on his side than the LEO, yet the large majority of coverage requirements for the strongside linebacker are simple.

For more thorough explanations of what is expected of the SAM in coverage, check out my video on Darrell Taylor:

This article details the style of player the Seahawks are looking for at SAM.

This article includes quotes from Ken Norton Jr and Pete Carroll on the plan for SAM and LEO.

Robinson’s coverage during the play in question was admittedly more complex than the norm at SAM. However, it was not a complete one-on-one versus a receiver. Additionally, Seattle did not intend for Robinson’s coverage to be as difficult as it ended up playing out. Pre- and post-snap events occurred that increased the toughness.

Let’s deal with the design the Seahawks ran. This was a 2-deep, 4-under fire zone. The pressure sends five rushers at the quarterback and four of them from one side. The four players in underneath coverage are “hot” players, matching up with certain receivers. The two deep players are responsible for deep halve zones on the field, although these get more aggressive given it’s a pressure.

Typically in cover 2, the two deep halve defenders would be the strong safety and the free safety. The outside underneath defenders would be the two cornerbacks.

field stick cover 2

However, in this fire zone the strong safety is the fifth rusher. The beauty of this pressure is the disguise. The quarterback sees the deep safety aligned in the middle of the field and thinks he is getting middle field closed coverage. 

In the passer’s mind, this is only confirmed by the strong safety blitzing, because he would be the second defender required to play in the deep halve. You’ll notice Ugo Amadi at free safety was trying to hold himself in the middle of field to enhance the cover 3 feel. 

The outside corner playing off with outside leverage looks like a zone midpoint, zebra 1/3 cover 3 defender. Additional deception arrives pre-snap, in that Seattle usually aligns its SAM into the boundary when running cover 3 from bear fronts like this.

With the QB thinking middle field closed, cover 3 fire zone (3-deep, 3-under); what Seattle does instead is rotate the free safety to one halve of the field and have the cornerback away from the pressure spin into a deep ½.

The Seahawks get into an unexpected, disguised middle of field open look while sending pressure. One scenario is the quarterback tries to beat the concept by throwing into the pressure with a quick attempt to the flat. This would then be intercepted by the corner lurking there. Another potential outcome is that the passer is paused by the trickery and this moment of hesitation is all that is required for the pressure to get home.

At the top of the quarterback's drop, the coverage looks like Cover 3

At the top of the quarterback's drop, the coverage looks like Cover 3

The underneath defenders in “ranger” 2-deep, 4-under Seattle pressures have certain rules too. Looking at non-pressure cover 2, there are five underneath defenders. By sending five men after the QB, the defense loses an underneath player and must adjust to having just four underneath coverage guys.

Seattle has their two interior players play “wall 2,” “carry” technique, looking to carry the No. 2 receiver vertically with inside leverage to wall the middle of the field and compensate for the high hole, middle run thru defender being removed. They protect the open middle of the field and carry a vertical No. 2 to the deep ½ player behind them.

#2 disguise

The cornerback to the pressure side plays an off cloud technique, looking to disrupt an outside release and play high-to-low in his outside underneath space.

And now we get to Robinson. When the Raiders first aligned in a 12 personnel 3x1 nub formation, Robinson was likely a weak hot to 2 defender in pass coverage. This is a simple assignment versus this look, dropping to an underneath area with the No. 2 receiver offset away, thus mainly looking for work with crossing routes.

Weak Hot 2 Coverage

Weak Hot 2 Coverage

However, once Las Vegas shifted Jones across its formation into a solo/ace look, Seattle would have checked its coverage into a “ranger” concept with Robinson as the “super buzz” defender and the cornerback to his side in a “ranger ½."

"Ranger" 2 Deep; 4 Under: Fire Zone

"Ranger" 2 Deep; 4 Under: Fire Zone

The super buzz looks to buzz to the number No. 1 receiver, like an extreme version of a cover 2 corner. Just as a buzz outside zone defender in cover 3 must take a wheel from the No. 2 receiver up and through their zone, a super buzz defender must do the same with the No. 1 receiver. To the short side of the field, this isn't too strenuous. 

The idea is to aid the ranger ½ corner, who must be aware of two things. 

One: there are multiple vertical threats to his side. Two: there is less help in the high hole/middle of field, where a defender is walling and carrying No. 2 towards the cornerback. The super buzz defender’s body presence buys the corner valuable time and leverage to process everything in his ranger ½.

Vertical Threats and Witherspoon Vision

Vertical Threats and Witherspoon Vision

Seattle should have executed the coverage better. Jordyn Brooks as the wall No. 2, carry defender overplayed his reroute, forcing him to recover. This further caught the attention of Ahkello Witherspoon in the ranger ½, meaning that Witherspoon was not in a position, depth-wise, to help Robinson. 

Witherspoon also seemed to think that Jones was merely running an out route into the flats. You can sense this from the corner’s reaction to Peterman gearing up; he feels like the throw to the seam is the only vertical threat. Ultimately, this impacted his width. This is exactly the kind of non-base defensive concept that a newbie is likely to make a mistake on.

Robinson did well running downfield with the ‘up’ part of Jones’ route. 

“It's not as unfamiliar as a lot of people might think, it's just them, you know, actually throwing it to him that time,” Robinson said of the play after the game. “That was a little different.”

Peterman did make the perfect read to the perfect throw to the perfect concept-beating route, targeting the opposite side to the trap-element of Seattle’s pressure coverage.

Robinson was not without fault. He added self-critique of his super buzz, saying: ”Just gotta beat the man to the spot.” 

He could have widened quicker with Jones’ out-n-up route to first flatten and delay the vertical phase of the route, then limit the available space for the ball. Regardless, three key elements remain true: Robinson should have had more help over the top; the Raiders dialed up a viscous play-call for the pressure; and Peterman executed sublimely.

"Not too often,” is how regularly Robinson said he would be asked to execute this coverage. “But there is different calls where I would have to do that, mainly pressures.” 

Again: it is rare for the SAM LB to receive this assignment.

"Ranger" 2 Deep; 4 Under: Fire Zone

"Ranger" 2 Deep; 4 Under: Fire Zone

Dropping an edge player on one side of the formation to then overload the other side is a tactic that every defense in football employs for sound reason. Seattle, by having the SAM down at the line of scrimmage, and therefore five men down in total, is able to dictate the offense’s pass protection scheme. Either the offense will play big-on-big, man pass pro. Or, like in the Robinson example, they will full-slide.

Armed with this knowledge, the Seahawks are able to get their additional rusher one-on-one with the running back. When rushing five in the NFL, this is the scenario that you are trying to achieve and it is overly optimistic to expect better.

This pressure achieved the above! You can see how the blitzing Ryan Neal gets onto the running back. Maybe Jamal Adams would have beat the ‘back sooner. Regardless, Neal still got rid of him and was ready to sack Peterman. The issue was the ball coming out so fast to the vulnerable spot.

Did you enjoy the Seahawks opening the Raiders game with a sack? I know I did. Peterman was brought down on the exact same pressure concept that Seattle ran during the Robinson-Jones play. The only difference pre-snap was Las Vegas jet-motioning into a nub 3x1 formation (similar to what it first aligned in on the Robinson play).

The Seahawks ran palms/2 read coverage to the pressure side and the cover 2 concept placed the SAM linebacker on the play, Darrell Taylor, in the easier weak hot to No. 2 assignment that Robinson would have received without the Raiders’ pre-snap shift.

"Palms" 2 Deep; 4 Under: Fire Zone. Strong CB and FS Are on a String, mirroring the release of #2. CB Jumps #2 Out Within 5 Yards, FS Covers #1 if #2 Out Within 5 Yards, LB Walls #2 And Pushes With Fast #3

"Palms" 2 Deep; 4 Under: Fire Zone. Strong CB and FS Are on a String, mirroring the release of #2. CB Jumps #2 Out Within 5 Yards, FS Covers #1 if #2 Out Within 5 Yards, LB Walls #2 And Pushes With Fast #3

Finally, the major purpose of the preseason is ultra relevant. Seattle, like any other NFL team, wants to challenge its players and evaluate what they can and can’t do. This informs who makes the final roster and who does not. The preseason is for evaluation purposes. An offensive example of this is the Seahawks’ pass-heavy play-calling in the first half, a conscious approach according to Pete Carroll. 

The Seahawks learned a lot about their talent versus the Raiders.