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Film Room: How The Steelers Beat Banjo Coverage

Todd Haley

With the NFL playoffs around the corner the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking for revenge against the Miami Dolphins for their week 6 loss in Miami. With the Steelers bevy of offensive weapons look for offensive coordinator Todd Haley to spread out the Dolphins defense. Let’s look at Banjo coverage, a defense used against bunch formations, and how the Steelers’ offense will look to attack it when they see it on Sunday.

Banjo defense is a hybrid defensive look involving man and zone coverages used specifically when offenses decide to bunch their receivers. It is supposed to keep defensive backs from colliding or being “rubbed” when receivers run routes that provide natural picks. The concept is simple, and if recognized, offenses can exploit it with precise route running.

A simple break down of “banjo” coverage reveals that the corner is defending the receiver lined up on the line of scrimmage in man coverage. The second corner on the bunch side of the field is responsible for the outermost receiver, or the receiver that runs the route closest to the sideline.

In contrast, the strong safety is accountable for the receiver running the inner-most route. This allows defenses to clear up some of the confusion that bunch formations can create. Another major strength of this defensive look is that it frees up the linebackers. They are free to implement some combination of blitzing, zone coverage and man coverage which can cause some confusion when the quarterback is going through his progressions.

But every defense has a weakness, let’s look at how the Steelers can beat Banjo coverage.

When defenses use “banjo” coverage against offensive formations that don’t involve stacked receivers they are basically running man coverage with one corner responsible for the receiver running the inner-most route and another corner accountable for the receiver running the outer route.

A great example of a “banjo” call came on Antonio Brown’s touchdown reception against the Baltimore Ravens. He lined up outside and as he ran a slant he was passed off to Ravens’ corner Jerraud Powers seamlessly. Powers had inside responsibility on the banjo call, but Brown’s ability to make the catch and to break the slew of Ravens tackles ended up being the difference in the game.

A lot of defenses audible into banjo coverage when they see an offense lined up in a “bunch” formation. Haley tries to cause some confusion by motioning into bunch formations to limit the opposing defense’s time to adapt. But the real key to beating banjo cover 1 is the lead receiver, or the receiver on the line of scrimmage. If they run a deep route along the sideline they will occupy the corner covering them in man coverage, plus the defender responsible for the outer-most receiver, giving the offense the numbers advantage.

A perfect example is Eli Rogers’ corner-post route on this play against the Bengals’ defense:  Even though Ben Roethlisberger opted to hit Ladarius Green on the opposite side of the field for an easy six-yard gain, it’s evident that Rogers’ route left a lot of open space for the other receivers to operate in.

Todd Haley recognized the Bengals were using banjo coverage and decided to attack it on the very next play. He motioned Xavier Grimble across the formation into a three-receiver bunch. Roethlisberger snapped the ball quickly, not allowing the Bengals much time to change their defense or their responsibilities. The film shows the Bengals corners trying to get on the same page as the ball is snapped.

This time Green is running the deep route; a lot of space opens behind him as he proceeds to run a deep corner. He takes the defender responsible for him and the corner playing the outside zone out of the play, just as it’s drawn up. Grimble helps in pass-protection then runs a highly uncontested five-yard crossing route. The outer-most receiver, Antonio Brown, runs a slant out and in occupying the space created by Green’s deep route.

The only defender in position to contest the catch is Bengals’ veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby who was in zone coverage on the play but simply didn’t have the speed or agility to stay with Brown. The result was Roethlisberger hitting Brown in stride for a 13-yard gain and a first down.

Recognition of advanced defenses and how to exploit them can separate Super Bowl contenders from the average playoff team. Look for the Steelers offense to continue to roll if the coaching staff can recognize the defensive schemes the Dolphins are attempting to implement. If the Dolphins roll out any form of the “banjo” defense look for the Steelers to try to take advantage and attack downfield.

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