BY Doug Farrar 06:09PM 12/21/2010

Play of the Day: Misreading coverage

“You think you know, but you don’t … know…”

Atlanta's Michael Jenkins gets past Seattle cornerback Kennard Cox for a second-quarter touchdown (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)

Jim Mora the elder once famously told a room full of sports reporters the following truth about what the game film revealed: “You guys really don’t know when it’s good or bad when it comes right down to it. I’m promising you right now that you don’t know if it’s good or bad. You don’t know what we’re trying to do. You don’t look at the films. You don’t know what happened.

“You think you know, but you … don’t … know. And you … never … will.”

As dismissive as Mora sounded that day, he had a point. It is almost impossible to understand what a team is doing, whether good or bad, on the field unless you’re talking to the coaches and they’re walking you through the truth on any given play. That blown block you’re killing the left tackle for on Twitter might be the result of a tight end blowing his assignment and failing to chip inside before he releases into a route. And that running back who keeps driving right into the scrum, much to your aggravation, may be doing so because his blockers couldn’t bust wet Kleenex.

Similarly, and perhaps most frequently, people will get the wrong idea about defensive coverage responsibilities and assign credit or blame to the wrong person. It’s hard enough to know which coverage you’re seeing at first sight, but there are enough books out there that will tell you how to tell the difference between Cover-1 and Cover-3. The real problem is being able to identify what really happened in a coverage scheme that takes up 25-30 total vertical yards when a.) you don’t know what the coaches want in the coverage; and b.) the television shot won’t even let you see what the safeties and deep corners are doing.

If it’s frustrating that you can’t discern such things, you’re not alone, and that’s not just a fan-centric issue. I discovered this while talking to Hugh Millen, the former NFL quarterback who now analyzes the Seahawks for KCPQ (television) and KJR (radio). The day after the Seahawks-Falcons game, he brought up to a group of reporters just how unhappy he was with the assessment of broadcaster Tim Ryan on the FOX telecast during one particular play. It was the touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Michael Jenkins late in the first half (the highlight is here), and Ryan immediately took off on safety Kam Chancellor.

“Watch Michael Jenkins just go right through those two defenders,” Ryan said after the play. “I don’t know what Kam Chancellor’s doing – he’s got one thing he’s got to do, the rookie safety. Play your coverage! He bit up into no-man’s land!”

It’s an easy (if incorrect) assessment to make. Based on the formation (Fig. 1), it looks like Chancellor (31) comes up when he shouldn’t, leaving cornerback Kennard Cox (39) as the only defender on Jenkins. Though the pre-snap rotation in which defensive back Jordan Babineaux (27) rolled back and Chancellor moved up should have been a tip that the coverage was changing, Chancellor does look like the odd man out to the uneducated eye.

On Monday, I asked Millen to go through the play with me (I had the highly recommended NFL Game Rewind on my laptop in the Seahawks media room) and tell me what he saw. “It’s trips receivers to the left, back to the right,” he said. “I see a five-man rush, and when I see Jordan Babineaux backpedal to the deep middle, I know that Kam Chancellor can’t have safety help over the top – there just aren’t enough bodies. That tells me that Chancellor’s got to be an underneath curl/flat defender. Babineaux has deep middle, and that tells me that Kennard Cox has got to have deep responsibility.

“The only reason I made it a point to comment on the post-game show was that on the game telecast, Tim Ryan was ripping Kam Chancellor – just burying him. I looked at it a couple times, and I said, ‘That’s not how I see it.’ I think Tim Ryan misdiagnosed that coverage. I’m not interested in ripping on Kennard Cox, but I think it’s fair to absolve Kam Chancellor if he was doing his job – and he was. Babineaux was in deep middle, and (Chancellor) was in deep thirds. They’re ripping on Chancellor, when he’s got press/bail deep third-zone responsibility. So, that’s why I made the point.”

Millen confirmed the misdiagnosis very quickly during Pete Carroll’s press conference.

Millen: On the telecast, Tim Ryan said that Chancellor was a half-safety over the top…

Carroll: No, that’s not right. It was three-deep. He was hanging deep because of the down-and-distance situation, taking away the post (pattern) they like to run. So, that wasn’t right.

Boom. As simple as that.

Just to be clear about this, Tim Ryan is no Matt Millen – this isn’t a clueless hack in the booth. Ryan is one of the more intelligent ex-players currently opining on gameday. Even so, it just goes to show that it’s as true for the pros as it is for the fans. Unless you know what’s going on with the playbook on any given play, especially when it comes to coverages …

“You think you know, but you … don’t … know. And you … never … will.”


  • ed sullivan

    Any response from Tim Ryan? Or is that too much of a logical followup to the story?

  • Frank

    Have to admit that watching at Qwest, I thought it was breakdown from Chancellor as well. Thanks for correcting this.

  • Bruce McDermott

    Matt Millen was a clueless hack as a talent and character evaluator–or the most unlucky GM in the history of the NFL.

    But he wasn’t a clueless player. Good linebacker.

  • Tom O’Rourke


    This is very good, and the kind of thing that will keep people like me coming back. I want to know how complex things are…and difficult for the backs. This really helped me get a new perspective. Thanks,

  • JCullen

    Doug, great write up. I know that Pete Carroll joins Pat Kirwan and Tim Ryan once a week (or more) on their NFL Radio show. I wonder if he will address that bad commentary with them, as by now he’s been clued into it at least one time, probably more. Its good to know that Chancellor was mentally into his assignment. It gives me hope that he can become a quality NFL safety. If Jenkins had turned his route outside, Chancellor would have swallowed him. I wonder at what point safeties would be wise to recognize the corner is beat deep and that assignment aside, defend the ball. Cox was beat early in that deep route. Based on the leverage that Jenkins had, the liklihood of him breaking the route to the sideline was minimal, as he would have been run into by Cox.

    Does a veteran safety, i.e. Milloy, make a different move?

    • Doug Farrar

      Thanks for the comments. JCullen, it varies based on the coverage concept, but if Milloy or any other safety has curl/flat assignment, his first read is most likely the flat (breaking wide to sideline if the receiver goes there), then curl (up the seam defense, watching for hook/comeback; this is the second read because it’s deeper), and then deep third as a last resort. Through Cox is playing underneath, Chancellor may still have more of a rote 1-2-3 read and would be less able/permitted to adjust his own read based on coverage. In a case like that, Milloy may indeed read and react to something else. I don’t know how much freelancing he’s allowed to do, but I’d assume it’s a fairly decent amount.

  • Jeff

    Just heard about this site on KJR from Doug Farrar on with puckett. Good stuff. Some very good writers assembled. Great for someone like me who is living away from Seattle again but will always be a Seattle sports fan.

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