During a discussion about Browns 2014 1st Round Pick Justin Gilbert in Denny Dice's Facebook Group (Dungeon of Dawgville) Mark Barnes offers the following:
Is Justin Gilbert as bad as the Browns defensive coaching staff believes? Why does he play well on special teams if he is a poor player?
He's only played man since High School and cover 2 zone is completely foreign to him. Because if his speed and ability to change direction in backpedal, Gilbert has always been used in man defense.
I honestly don't know of another team in the NFL that uses cover 2 zone like Jim O'Neil does. Cover 2 man or cover 1 man. I've complained about this before in other articles, how O'Neil uses a bizarre hybrid spill and fill defensive front, problem is, he uses it in conjunction with a Cover 2 Zone secondary, and they do not work together. Cover 2 Zone essentially divides field in half. Your corners are more responsible for the flat and out routes and your safeties take the deep routes. Problem is that gives zero run support and if the LBs are filling the spill or the defensive line, the middle of the field is wide open. Cover two zone is popular in high schools because it's simple, but worthless in really good scheming offenses. Gilbert came out of the Big 12 and the Spread offense craze of that conference. If you haven't paid attention the Big 12 puts up ridiculous passing numbers, and the play primarily press man defense all the time.
By dividing the field in half, you require two safeties to cover a lot of acreage. This opens the door to vulnerabilities that a smart offensive scheme will exploit. For example, if you put two receivers on either side of the deep zone, you can really stretch that safety, and one of the two will likely be wide open. Sound familiar, the Browns are constantly getting burned like this, and their run defense from this formation is abysmal.
Also, there are natural pockets of weakness at the edges of each zone. If you're facing an accurate quarterback, and smart receivers, you'll be in trouble in those "soft" spots of the scheme. Linebackers cannot be expected to fill gaps in the run protection and support the the pass in the gaping hole left over the middle after they bight on the play action. The safeties have to be able to come down and lend middle support, but then your cover 2 zone is shot to hell and you're going to get gashed deep, as happens weekly. If you want to run the old Tampa 2 variation which has it's application, you better have the players to support the scheme. The defensive linemen in this scheme have to be quick and agile enough to create pressure on the quarterback without the aid of a blitz from either the linebackers or the secondary, with the defensive tackle in the nose position having above-average tackling skills to help stop runs. Browns don't have that either. The Browns are best suited for Cover 2 Man and nickel and dime, disguising the blitzes from the edge.
In order to play the cover 2 zone effectively, you need very athletic players at the defensive back and linebacker positions. They need to by physical and smart, able to read the quarterback and adjust to multiple threats in their assigned zone of coverage. You have to have physical corners that can jam up the release of the wide receivers, and you also need linebackers that can run and cover. In the NFL, the cover 2 zone can be a disaster and rarely effective. When have you ever seen the Browns corner jam ANYBODY at the line. They normally play 5 to 7 yards off of them and allow that cushion throughout. That's why Roethlisberger carves them up constantly.
Bottom line is O'Neil is clueless and is asking his team to do things that the roster isn't equipped for. The corners need to press the receivers, allow the outside linebackers to be responsible for the flats, if the coverage allows, roll that strong safety down in support, and get pressure on the QB. Quit all this spill and fill BS and please develop some gap integrity in the box. Start with firing O'Neil first off. Get a defensive identity and build to it. Play to your athletes strengths for god's sake.