The term cover three defense has become synonymous with Indianapolis Colts' Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley in recent seasons. In a league that is dominated by the Vic Fangio quarters scheme, Bradley remained as an ancient relic of the early 2010's style of defense.
Bradley may be known as the cover three guy around the NFL, but he always had two-high coverage calls in his back pocket. BD Williams of Silver and Black Pride wrote a fantastic piece on Bradley years ago detailing these mixed coverages that Bradley liked/likes to deploy. The "issue" is that he relied on his tried and true cover three defense more than just about every other coordinator in the NFL.
The Colts hit their low point of the season back in week eight against the New Orleans Saints, and that seems to have changed how Bradley approached this defensive personnel (at least for the time being). Going into that game against the Saints, the Colts' defense allowed the second most explosive plays in the NFL.
The Saints' game didn't help that number whatsoever either, as a struggling New Orleans' offense exploded for 12.2 yards per pass attempt on an average depth of target of 11.9 yards down the field. Saints' quarterbacks also went 3-6 for 144 yards and a touchdown on pass attempts traveling over 20 yards down the field.
Something needed to change for this Colts' team if they were going to survive following that beatdown, and the answer for Bradley came in the form of following the modern NFL trend. Bradley's scheme was labeled as one of the more predictable ones in the NFL heading into the Panthers' game in week nine, but he ended up flipping the script in that outing.
The typical cover three Colts' defense began to shift more into a quarters-style scheme the last two weeks, and the results have been fantastic. Opposing quarterbacks in these last two match-ups have combined for a yards per attempt of just 5.57 yards, and the average depth of target for those offenses was kept below 5.0 in both games.
The natural pushback here is that the Colts were facing two anemic offenses in the Panthers and the Patriots, but that's exactly what the Saints were heading into week eight as well. Anytime a defense can hold NFL teams to an average of fewer than 10 points per game over a two week stretch is impressive, regardless of who they are facing.
With the Colts' recent recovery on defense with this new coverage scheme, I wanted to jump into a few of the defensive calls to show that the Colts' have been far from the same old cover three scheme since that week eight Saints' game.
Quarters Coverage (Box Check)
The Colts' defense has essentially lived in quarters the past two weeks. I went back and charted every defensive snap over that span and have the team playing quarters on nearly 65% of their defensive snaps. I only charted a 25% usage of Bradley's pride and joy cover three over that same span (the other 10% was blitzes or hail mary defense).
This coverage call against the New England Patriots last week shows just how far the Colts have come with their scheme. This is a typical match quarters call with two high safeties splitting the field. With the Patriots' offense in a bunched set, the Colts call what is referred to as a box check.
In a box check quarters call, the defense is essentially splitting the field in half to create an advantage. On the side of the field with the bunched receivers, the defense is using four defenders to box the different releases off of the line.
In this particular play, the nickel corner (Kenny Moore II) is responsible for the flat. He is matching the route of any player that breaks out of the bunch to the flat. The safety over the top is matching anything vertical while the outside corner and the MIKE linebacker are squeezing any in breaking routes.
Those four players box the bunch up perfectly, leaving Mac Jones nowhere to go for the sack:
Cover Two (with a little twist)
Cover two zone is one of the more common defensive calls in the NFL, as it is a typical call featuring five underneath zone defenders and two safeties over the top. Spot drop zones are essentially dead nowadays, so defenses have found ways to mix man principles into basic zone calls like cover two over the years.
The call below is very Nick Saban by design, as Saban loves to attack 3x1/3x2 offensive sets by leaving the backside corner on an island. Gus Bradley has shown the ability to do this in his cover three scheme as well, but here he leaves Darrell Baker Jr in MEG (man everywhere) coverage on that backside. This isn't a 3x1 set necessarily, but the Colts are treating that wide alignment receiver as such.
With that player taken care of, that just leaves the other six coverage players to match the remaining four pass catchers. Jaylon Jones is in an aggressive palms coverage, so he effectively covers up the RB flat route and the hook on the play. The rest of the defense stays tight in their zones as well, forcing the sack on the play:
Cover 7 Clamp
The Colts' defense was getting gashed by the big passing play all season long heading into these past two match-ups. That changed against the Panthers and the Patriots however, as the team allowed opposing QBs to go just 1-4 for 48 yards and two interceptions on passes traveling over 20 yards the last two weeks.
The reason for this change in explosives allows comes with the increased urgency to squeeze those vertical routes. This next coverage call is also very Nick Saban in nature, as cover 7 is the trademark of the legendary coach.
This coverage alert is called clamp, as the boundary corner to the weakside is alerting to the vertical receiver in the slot. Notice at the top of the screen how the outside corner and the over top safety pinch that vertical route, effectively erasing it as an option.
The players to the strong side of the play run a box coverage with the MIKE and the nickel squeezing the option route over the middle of the field. The APEX defender (Shaquille Leonard) is pulled away from his flat zone match, but luckily the pressure forced Bryce Young to miss his target on the play:
Quarter-Quarter-Half (Cover 6)
Cover 6 could fall under either the quarters tree or the cover three tree depending on who you ask, but it is a call that essentially combines the best of both cover two and quarters. It is a hybrid call to find that perfect middle ground.
The Colts aren't doing anything particularly special on this call, but the defensive players all get to their proper positioning with eyes on the quarterback in the backfield. Bryce Young is lucky that this ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage, as both Jaylon Jones and E.J Speed had excellent breaks on this ball to the hook zone:
The Bottom Line
The Indianapolis Colts are officially a new style of defense... well, maybe. It still remains to be seen if this was simply Gus Bradley attempting to compensate for the injuries at the cornerback position to try and eliminate big plays or if this would be part of the typical defensive gameplan going forward.
All I can truly say on the subject is that these coverage calls are all things that Bradley has had in his back pocket for a while, but he has really leaned into them in the past two weeks. The remarkable aspect is that it has worked quite a bit for a defense that was reeling prior to the change.
The biggest questions are whether this scheme change will remain once JuJu Brents returns to the lineup and if so, whether this change remains against better NFL offenses. We will have to see, but I've personally been a big fan of what I've seen from Gus Bradley over the past two weeks.
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