Two of the over-arching themes of the past year of NFL football will meet in Super Bowl LVII.
And the clash between the two may very well decide who wins Sunday night.
On the one hand, you have perhaps the biggest schematic theme of the 2022 NFL season: The continued reliance on two-deep coverages that we have seen throughout the league. With offenses becoming more explosive — and efficient — in the passing game defenses have turned to more two-deep coverages (Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6, or Quarter-Quarter-Half) to slow these down.
On the other hand, you have the game’s evolved, methodical dragon.
We can start on the defensive side of the ball.
The defensive evolution
A study from earlier in the season by NFL Operations found that defenses were indeed leaning into two-deep zone coverages with greater frequency. “NFL Teams are employing coverages with different frequency in 2022, including putting less emphasis on man schemes. Rates of Cover-1 man have dropped to 19.8% from a four-year average of 26.5%. Schemes with multiple deep safeties have jumped, including Cover-2 zone (up to 13.8% usage in 2022 from a four-year average of 11.2%) and Quarters (up to 14.7% usage in 2022 from a four-year average of 11.4%).”
In December, Josh Hermsmeyer of 538.com found something similar. “So far in 2022, the rate of two-high safety coverage deployed on first and second down is 34.2 percent — up 9.1 percentage points from 2016.1 Meanwhile, single-high coverages have fallen out of fashion slightly, dropping from 56.2 percent on early downs in 2016 to 52.7 percent this year.”
That leads us to Jonathan Gannon and the Philadelphia Eagles. While the Eagles do not rely exclusively on these coverages — according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions they faced 186 passing attempts this year in Cover 2/4/6, 12th-most in the NFL — they are very efficient when they run them. The Eagles allowed just three touchdown passes, and snared eight interceptions when using those coverages this year. Opposing passers posted an NFL Passer Rating of just 71.1 on those attempts, the fifth-lowest in the NFL this season. Philadelphia’s defense allowed a Yards per Attempt of 6.9 this year when using those coverages, seventh-best among NFL defenses.
In terms of Expected Points Added, the Eagles allowed an EPA/Dropback of just -0.17 this year when quarterbacks threw against those coverages, fourth-best in the NFL according to Sports Info Solutions.
Why are the Eagles so successful when using these coverages? A lot of it has to do with their personnel, starting up front. As we have discussed throughout this week, Philadelphia is also very efficient at pressuring the passer with just four rushers. That gives Gannon the ability to call these coverage schemes knowing the odds are in his favor that Haason Reddick and company will still put the opposing quarterback under duress.
Then there is how these coverages test the QB. With a numbers advantage in the secondary, the defense can constrict throwing lanes and force the quarterback to make tougher throws. By playing zone coverages, they can keep eyes on the QB, and react quickly when the ball comes out.
This interception from Avonte Maddox of Kirk Cousins is a prime example:
The Eagles drop into two-deep zone coverage on this play, and Cousins tries to squeeze in an out route over Maddox, and in front of cornerback Darius Slay. Maddox is the curl-flat defender on this play and initially sticks on the route in the flat. But with his eyes on the QB, Maddox can read and react. He plays this combination perfectly, peeling off the shallow route and getting underneath the out route when the ball comes out, putting him in position for the interception.
The Eagles were in Cover 4, or Quarters, on an interception of Daniel Jones during the Divisional Round. This interception is another example of the benefit of playing zone and offers a glimpse at how a defensive coordinator can bait a quarterback into doing exactly what the coordinator wants. On this play, Gannon has defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson aligned over the tight end, where you typically see a linebacker. At the snap, he blitzes.
You might often hear the phrase “replace the blitz with the ball.” What this means is that as a quarterback, if the defense is going to blitz a player, that usually opens up a void on the field, and you throw to that void after the snap to beat the blitz. Here, with Gardner-Johnson, that is exactly where Jones looks, as he tries to connect with Darius Slay on a quick spot route.
The problem? James Bradberry, who has his eyes on Jones and knows exactly what the QB is going to do:
Jones looks to Slayton on the spot route, trying to replace Gardner-Johnson’s blitz with the ball. Bradberry jumps the route, creating the turnover.
For more on this play, and football in general, I cannot recommend this Twitter account enough:
This INT seems simple enough, but it happened because the CB, Bradberry, was in 1/4 Technique with vision to the QB that allowed him to read the drop, gauge his shoulders & platform, and understand exactly what was coming. The QB & WR will look to the void of a rusher most often. pic.twitter.com/sSBDmp48Rt— Honest NFL (@TheHonestNFL) January 25, 2023
One more example comes from Week 8, and the Eagles’ win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. With the Steelers facing a 3rd and 7 in Philadelphia territory, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett tries to connect with tight end Pat Freiermuth on a post route, splitting the safeties in a Cover 2 coverage.
The problem? He has to get the throw over linebacker T.J. Edwards:
Edwards gets just enough on this throw, deflecting it past Freiermuth, and into the waiting arms of Gardner-Johnson.
Again, one of the tests these coverages put in front of the quarterback is the need to make a perfect throw.
This leads us to the other part of this story, the evolved Patrick Mahomes.
The evolved Patrick Mahomes
One of the biggest storylines entering the 2022 season was the Chiefs’ offense, and how they would adapt with Tyreek Hill now in South Beach playing for the Miami Dolphins. The undercurrent to this story, however, is how Mahomes and the Chiefs would handle some of these coverages we just discussed.
After all, flashing back to the AFC Championship Game from a season ago, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo leaned into two-high coverages, and drop-eight concepts, to try and limit the damage from Mahomes. It forced the quarterback to be more patient, and ultimately, it helped the Bengals advance to Super Bowl LVI.
But as we discussed during the playoffs, Mahomes continued to evolve as a passer this season, and the Chiefs continued to evolve as an offense.
During the 2018 season, Mahomes’ first full-time year as a starting quarterback, he was among the league leaders in Intended Air Yards, averaging 9.2 IAY per attempt according to Next Gen Stats. That number was 8.6 the following season, and 8.5 during the 2020 campaign.
Last year, that number dipped even more, dropping to 7.3. That was the seventh-lowest among qualified passers a season ago. This year, Mahomes averaged 7.5 IAY per attempt, placing him right in the middle of the pack.
This season, when faced with some of these coverages, Mahomes showed a willingness to be patient and to punish defenses underneath. Plays like this snap against the Los Angeles Rams:
The Rams drop into Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half) on this play, and the Chiefs dial up a rub concept for the running back. Travis Kelce creates some traffic, which prevents the curl-falt defender from getting outside. That rub leaves running back Ronald Jones wide open on a quick swing route, and rather than pressing the issue downfield, Mahomes comes right to the back for a big gain.
Taking the quick flat route on a Smash concept is another way Mahomes has quickly punished these coverages. On this play against the San Francisco 49ers, the Chiefs run a pair of half-field passing concepts. On the right side, Kansas City has a Spot concept, with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster running a corner route, fellow wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling running the spot route, and running back Jerick McKinnon running a wheel route out of the backfield.
Instead of pressing the issue to that side, Mahomes comes to his left, where the Chiefs run a Flat-7 Smash concept. Rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore runs the corner route, while Kelce releases to the flat.
Watch how quickly Mahomes decides to just take the flat route:
Here is almost the same design, against that same coverage scheme, in Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills:
Here is one more example, from the Chiefs’ Week 9 game against the Tennessee Titans. With the Chiefs facing a 1st and 10 deep in their own territory, they run a simple spot/swing combination to the right side, with Smith-Schuster on the spot route, and McKinnon on the swing route out of the backfield.
The Titans drop into Cover 2 on this play, and again, watch how quickly Mahomes just takes the spot route to Smith-Schuster, instead of trying to split the safeties with the backside post route from Mecole Hardman:
By getting the ball out quickly, Mahomes gives Smith-Schuster a chance to create after the catch, almost before the defense can even react.
Two of the biggest thematic elements to this NFL season — the reliance on two-deep coverages, and the evolution of Patrick Mahomes — will square off in Super Bowl LVII.
Perhaps a fitting end to an incredible 2022 NFL season.