- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The Bears' Lovie Smith saved his head-coaching job with the hires of offensive coaches Mike Martz and Mike Tice, but can the successful signing of defensive end Julius Peppers save the Cover 2 defense as we know it?
Peppers was a dominating force in 2010 in Smith's Cover 2 -- against the run and rushing the passer -- but the trend in football is moving away from the pure Cover 2 and the 4-3 scheme. The Houston Texans hired Wade Phillips to switch to the 3-4, becoming the 16th team to do so. Only a shortage of suitable 3-4 personnel is preventing more teams from making the switch.
The Bears finished ninth on defense, giving up 314.3 yards per game, and the defense accomplished its mission, causing 33 turnovers. But the feeling around the NFL is that the Cover 2 is becoming somewhat of a dinosaur. Quarterbacks are figuring out how to beat it, especially if the four defensive linemen can't consistently pressure the pocket.
A perfectly timed seam route to the tight end is a big hole in the Cover 2. Slant routes out of three-step drops are another problem. Plus, the continued escalation of slot receivers and pass-catching tight ends are tough challenges for the pure Cover 2.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris found a great response in the past year and a half by turning the pure Tony Dungy Cover 2 into a Cover 2 base with a heavy sprinkling of 3-4 plays to create different looks. Morris calls it Cover 2.5.
Peppers proved the Cover 2 can work as long as the personnel can dominate, but if not, defensive coaches better run for cover.
From the inbox
Q: Like so many other Packers fans out there, I used to be not too fond of GM Ted Thompson because of the Brett Favre saga a few years back. I now realize I was an idiot and Favre needed to go. I'm wondering why there is no talk about Thompson winning exec of the year. Just look at what he's accomplished this year with finding no names off the street and his great drafts over the last few years. Thoughts?
Brad in Chicago
A: The Executive of the Year Award is given for work done in a particular year. There is no award for what a general manager does over a period of years. Maybe I should correct myself. The award for a general manager who does a good job over a period of years is the Lombardi Trophy. Thompson covered himself for the eventual retirement of Favre by drafting Aaron Rodgers. He drafted good talent on offense and defense. He never let the team get too old. His reward is watching his team improve each year with a great quarterback.
Q: What are the chances that Mario Williams will fit and be happy in a 3-4 defense? He seems like the perfect 4-3 defensive end. The Texans must have considered the danger of diminishing the impact of their best defensive player.
James in Washington, D.C.
A: On the surface, you'd say, "No way." But new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can make it work. He's already gone on record and said he will keep Williams as a defensive end and not make him a linebacker. He noted how well Bruce Smith did as a 3-4 defensive end. Phillips runs a very unique 3-4 because it incorporates a lot of one-gap principles that allow a defensive end such as Williams to function. If Williams buys into it, it will work. If not, they might have to trade him.
Q: What if a player like Andrew Luck graduates from Stanford, and decides he doesn't necessarily want to play for whomever happens to have the No. 1 pick in 2012? Would he be forced to enter the draft, or is there any scenario where he would be able to let the draft pass, and go to a tryout for the team of his choice?
Neel in Chicago
A: The only thing a draftable player can do to avoid going to a certain team is have his agent or family threaten to not sign and scare that team into not drafting him. If that doesn't work, though, the only thing the player can do is sit. The team would control his rights until the next draft. If the player gets to that next year, he goes into the draft again.
Q: What do you believe the chances are that Michael Vick falls into his old bad habits both on and off the field? Vick is due a huge payday after this season. After being humbled by legal and subsequent financial problems for the last three-plus years, do you believe he will stay on track when the big paychecks start rolling in again and the controversy surrounding him continues to subside?
Glenn in Rhode Island.
A: I'd put my faith in Vick as a person and player. He lost almost everything because of his actions off the field. He's smart enough to not lose it again. Despite his success this year, he knows if he makes further mistakes, he will lose everything again.
Q: I am currently embarrassed Dolphins fan. The handling of the head coaching situation was messy and classless. However, with Tony Sparano sticking around for the 2011 season it's obvious offensive coordinator Dan Henning will be out. My question is what will be done at QB? Is there any shot that Chad Henne is the starter next year? If he isn't, which is more likely: They draft a QB or bring in a veteran?
Mike in Toms River, N.J.
A: That's the unknown at the moment. If they keep the conservative game plan they used in 2010, I can't see many outside quarterbacks coming in and doing much. Plus, owner Stephen Ross vowed the Dolphins will have an aggressive offense, so you figure they need to hire a high-priced offensive coordinator. I'd stick with Henne and bring in an Alex Smith or a veteran quarterback to compete against him and make it an open competition.
Q: Now that coaching changes are among us, I am curious why some former successful coaches aren't mentioned -- the likes of Steve Mariucci, Dennis Green, Jim Fassel, Jim Mora Jr., Brian Billick, Herman Edwards and even Marty Schottenheimer. Do these former coaches just have unreasonable demands for total control, or have they just been out of coaching too long?
Gina in Point Pleasant, W.Va.
A: Most of those names should have been hired for years, but owners like trying to find assistants who are seen as diamonds in the rough. Too often, though, those franchises get roughed up trying to experiment with young coaches who have no head-coaching experience. Only Bill Cowher is asking for a big contract and clout in the front office. I think the league is missing out on a bunch of proven winners.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
In a pass-happy NFL, a successful Cover 2 defense is becoming tougher to sustain, writes John Clayton in his latest mailbag.