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The return of Cover 2 and the challenge for the Cowboys

The NFL is a cyclical league, and the wheel has come back around.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
They have to get the ball to the weapons.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys are riding a three-game winning streak and need just one more win to lock up the NFC East. They are tied for the second-best record in the entire NFL. Despite all that, the offense is struggling to move the ball and score points. That win streak has come against teams playing backup quarterbacks and is generally seen as a testament to a surging and opportunistic defense. Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore are struggling to find the magic that led to true explosiveness in the first half of the season. The search for answers began after the injury to Prescott in the win over the New England Patriots and how things just fell off after that.

A theory has emerged, and it is one that is affecting many more teams than the Cowboys. It is a return to zone defenses, specifically Cover 2 defenses, a once prevalent scheme that fell out of favor, but is back and wreaking havoc. Here is how one of the best analysts of the Cowboys puts it:

So what is Cover 2? For a very good primer, here’s a link to an article from last year at our sister site Big Blue View. They are the SB Nation outlet covering the New York Giants, who employed this scheme to frustrate the Cowboys last Sunday. It’s worth your time to read it, but here’s a short version.

Cover 2 relies on the four linemen up front to get pressure on the quarterback while the other seven all are in zone coverage and attempting to keep everything in front of them. Even if the offense does not keep a running back in for extra protection, that means that seven defenders are available to handle five targets for the pass. In turn, they can double the two best receivers and, if the defenders are good, still keep the others from getting big yards.

This helps explain why there has been a big drop off in deep passes by Dallas. There are still issues they must address, such as the spate of dropped passes and bad routes by the receivers. Still, against a Cover 2, there are going to be plays where all that is really available to the quarterback are dump offs and short throws. It also can be why so many screens are being called, since Cover 2 can get the defenders deeper and open up the opportunity to make some yards with those completions behind the line. Unfortunately defenses are aware of this and, if they have some good players shallow, can break up those screens. That has been happening with depressing regularity for the Cowboys.

It is difficult to beat Cover 2, but it can be done. The coverage is vulnerable in the deep middle and down the sidelines if the quarterback and receivers recognize the coverage and are on the same page. That has been an issue for Dallas. Additionally, those are lower percentage throws than the shallow crossers and other throws in the ten yards closest to the line. Cover 2 tends to take those away, unless they are quick hitters. Those have been rare for the Cowboys of late, and when they have been attempted, those drops have often doomed things.

Now with the playoffs looming, it is imperative for the coaching staff to address the issues. First, Moore has to call better plays. Then the staff must get Prescott and the receivers to clean up the mistakes. Those are specific things that can be improved. That is reason to hope for the team. It is also something that is yet to be seen.

It is also why the running game has to get back on track. That can force teams out of dropping into pass coverage and make play-action more effective. There is some good news from the Giants game as the return of Connor Williams to left guard had a very positive effect against New York. Dallas had 125 yard rushing, a big improvement over the past few games. Ezekiel Elliott scored on a 13 yard burst through a hole created behind Williams, and Tony Pollard averaged 6.2 yards a carry in his return to action.

None of this has anything to do with Prescott’s calf. He may not be the main problem with the offense at all, as Sturm also noted.

This is indeed a league-wide trend. Do not overlook that Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just got shut out by a New Orleans Saints team that the Cowboys beat three weeks ago by ten points.

While many point to relatively weak competition for Dallas during the win streak, it cannot be forgotten that the Buccaneers, Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, and Tennessee Titans all suffered defeat in games played this week. The argument that the Cowboys cannot compete in the playoffs seems specious. They still have things that really need to be fixed. Those solutions are not at all out of their grasp. With the race for the top seeds in the NFC still wide open, they need to concentrate on winning their own games while working on their problems. If they do so, things could be very good the rest of the way.