Mike Zimmer has been dealing with a cornerback problem for the entirety of the 2020 season. From questionable performances from Holton Hill and Mike Hughes in September to the unstable reliance on rookies to the litany of injuries that plague the unit today, Zimmer hasn’t been able to field two starting-quality corners all year. Luckily for him, he still has access to elite safeties. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are as disruptive as they come, and Cover 2 is the perfect coverage to take advantage of that.
In Cover 2, deep safeties have a crucial role. If a safety abandons his zone, there won’t be anyone to pick up the slack. On the other hand, cornerbacks in Cover 2 have a flat assignment. If they fail, they may concede a manageable gain, but that damage can be mitigated. That makes Cover 2 the perfect shell for the Vikings, with corners who need protection and safeties who can answer the call.
Arif Hasan charted this after Week 5 and found that the Vikings have doubled their Cover 2 usage compared to 2019. When properly executed, that has mostly gone well. Against the Dallas Cowboys, however, they relied almost just as much on Cover 1. Cover 1 asks cornerbacks to play man-to-man with no protection.
I charted the coverages used in this game by their shell and found the Vikings used a single safety or no deep safety on more plays than not. Sometimes Cover 3 can look like Cover 1 with a Zimmer defense, since he asks his cornerbacks to play man technique in Cover 3 zones. Regardless, they employed several single-high looks that put the cornerbacks on an island.
Kris Boyd and Chris Jones were holding their own in easy Cover 2 assignments, possibly leading Zimmer to trust them with a bigger role. In this example, the Vikings call Cover 1 in 3rd and 2. That’s a defensible place to deploy a single-high look, since it allows Harrison Smith to get into the box and play run support, but it comes at a heavy cost on the outside.
Zimmer also used Cover 1 in neutral situations, like this 2nd and 6. Again, this puts very little pressure on the Cowboys. They have a slant called, and Boyd, promising as he is, is entirely outmatched against Amari Cooper.
By asking his corners to keep up with the likes of Cooper and Lamb, Zimmer put structural pressure on a piece that couldn’t handle it. To his credit, he moved away from this at halftime, only calling Cover 1 twice in the second half.
Still, issues elsewhere on defense mitigated the effects of this. There may come a time where Gladney, Dantzler, Jones and Boyd will be ready for a bigger role. But as we learned against Dallas, we aren’t there yet.