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Conversations With the Coach: Coverages

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The Coach is back with another X’s and O’s discussion that addresses a coverages in the secondary. With Tulsa Quarterback G.J. Kinne inbound to South Bend this weekend we thought that this would be a good week to tackle this topic.

Enjoy the post, and don’t hesitate to jump into the comments to ask a question or otherwise join in the conversation. The Coach will be checking back with us over the course of the next couple of days to continue the discussion. If you enjoy this post you might also enjoy some of the other discussions we have had with him over the last few weeks. With that I will stop rambling and turn it over to The Coach. Enjoy.

The Coach

Whiskey has asked me to do a post on secondary coverages this week, so here it is. We’ll have a basic look at coverages 1-5. This discussion will be the most basic and elementary yet. Each team runs each of these coverages a little differently and with a variety of options that can make each coverage unique to the school running it. The fact of the matter is that, on TV, you usually can’t see the secondary because the camera is focused on the offense and the defensive front.

If I tried to discuss these coverages beyond their very basic elements, the discussion would get very complicated very fast and no one would understand it. I have to confess that I never coached the secondary. I was a DC for many years and I focused on the defensive front 7, and personally coached defensive tackles and middle linebackers. I am not familiar with all the specific reads, techniques and nuances of secondary play but, as a DC, I had to have a general knowledge of how our secondary worked. I always deferred to my secondary coach for the specifics. All of that said, let’s proceed.

Cover 1

Cover 1 is man coverage. Even a coverage this simple can be played in a variety of ways depending on the opposition’s offensive tendencies and specific offensive formations on any play. These offensive variances can make Cover 1 become very complicated depending on the situation. In Cover 1, the corner backs have the outside receivers on each end of the offensive formation. The safeties have the second receiver(s) from the outside in (the inside guy in a twins set or slot receiver). In a 3-4, outside linebackers will rush, or drop into the flat to play shallow zone coverage. Inside linebackers, if not involved in a blitz, will drop back into shallow zone coverage.

Against a 2 receiver set (which you rarely see nowadays): Corners take the two receivers, safeties will help inside but are geared to play the run vs. two receivers.

Against a 3 receiver set: Corner back has outside receiver on two-receiver side. Strong safety has inside receiver on the two receiver side. Corner back has lone receiver on the single receiver side. Free safety is free to help in several ways: 1. If one of the three receivers is a tight end, he may align himself on that side to become force contain man vs. the sweep or other "edge plays". 2. He may cheat to the two receiver side to help on that side. 3. He can key a potential fourth receiver who may be coming out of the backfield.

Against a 4 receiver set: The FS must take the fourth receiver here. The offense can line up with four quick receivers or line up with three receivers and put a back in motion out of the backfield to become the fourth quick receiver. Anytime motion is involved, secondary personnel have to respond by moving around and decisions have to be made about who is going to cover who. Secondaries are more likely to make mistakes vs. motion and leave people uncovered.

Playing straight man coverage vs. four wide receivers is very scary for a defense because there are no secondary defenders in the middle of the field. In this situation, if a running back breaks the line of scrimmage, there is no one in good position in the secondary to stop him, so 5 yards into the play, there is no one between him and the goal line. The 54 yard run by Navy’s FB on their first possession of the game comes to mind here.

Against a 5 receiver set: Corners have two outside receivers. Safeties have the two receivers inside them. An Outside Linebacker must take the 5 the receiver.

Man Free - Man Free is a version of Cover 1. This is a popular coverage in college football today. It is run like regular Cover 1, except that the Free Safety is relieved of any man coverage responsibility and is free to roam the field and run to the football, whether it is passed or run. So, if a situation arises where a fourth receiver needs to be covered man-to-man, that coverage must be provided by a linebacker, usually an outside linebacker.

If the DC knows that the offense will frequently put a 4th receiver into the mix vs. Man Free Coverage, then the DC may want to take out one of his OLBs and replace him with a 5th defensive back (usually a back-up safety). This 5th defensive back is known as a Nickel Back and this twist on Man Free Coverage is known as a Nickel Package or Nickel Coverage. If an offense frequently lines up with 5 quick receivers vs. Man Free Coverage, the DC may elect to take out a second LB and replace him with yet another additional defensive back. This second additional defensive back is known as a Dime Back and this twist on Man Free Coverage is known as a Dime Package or Dime Coverage.

One last quick note about Man Free. In this coverage, the FS usually lines up in the middle of the field. The FS reads uncovered linemen for pass or run. If the uncovered linemen run block, then he reads the flow of the ball and runs to it to provide run support. If the uncovered linemen pass block, then he back peddles reading the Quarterback’s head and shoulders and breaks on the ball when it is thrown.

Cover 1 and Man Free seem like they should be very simple coverages, but when determining how they will be played vs. the myriad of offensive formations that are thrown at them these days, they can become very complicated to apply. Motion complicates the matter even further. All this confusion and complicated preparation and execution can be simplified by playing some type of zone coverage. Let’s look at those:

Cover 2

Cover 2 is a 5 under, 2 deep zone coverage - Cover 2 is also a very popular coverage in College football today. In this coverage, the two Cornerbacks and all linebackers who are not blizting or rushing the passer play zone coverage underneath to about 15 yards deep. The two corners cover the flats to about 15 yards deep. In a 3-4 defense, generally the weak side OLB will rush the passer and the strong side OLB will drop into a hook zone 15 yards deep. The ILBs drop into hook zones as well. All these underneath defenders cover zones and pick up receivers man-to-man as they run through their zones.

In Cover 2, the safeties each play one half of the field. Since they are lined up roughly on the hash marks, they have the deep middle of the field covered pretty well. However, on deep routes up the sidelines, they have to also cover the deep outside area beyond the 15 yard limit of the Cornerbacks’ coverage zones. These areas, deep along the sidelines beyond the Cornerbacks’ zone limits are known as "the seams". Vs. Cover 2 coverage, you will see offenses continually attack these seams because Cover 2 is vulnerable in these areas.

Cover 3

Cover 3 is a 3 deep zone coverage - In this coverage, the two safeties and the weak side corner play deep zone coverage, each taking one third of the field. The strong side corner covers the flat up to 15 yards deep on his side of the field and the weak side OLB covers the flat on his side. The two ILBs drop into hook zones.

*** This would be a good place to attempt to explain "strong side" vs "weak side". It can mean different things to different teams vs. different opponents in different situations. So, strongside-weakside is not a constant. It is decided by the coaching staff, sometimes weekly, and applied appropriately to the game plan each week. Generally, vs. a multi-receiver set, the strong side is the side of the formation where the most receivers are. If there an equal number of receivers on each side of the formation, and one of the receivers is a tight end, usually the tight end side is the strong side. If formation is balanced, then the wide side of the field can become the strong side.

Cover 4

Cover 4 is a four deep zone coverage - This is a deep zone prevent coverage. In this coverage, both corners and safeties are each covering one quarter of the field in a deep zone. This is a prevent zone coverage. They have to keep themselves between all receivers and the goal line. Underneath coverage is minimal in this coverage. Since this is a prevent coverage, the defense will likely relinquish underneath coverage. Both OLBs will likely rush the passer in this defense and ILBs will drop into hook zones. Since the defense is giving up underneath zones in this coverage, one or both ILBs may blitz to create an all out rush of the passer.

Cover 5

Cover 5 is a 5 under man, two deep zone coverage. This coverage is very similar to Cover 2 except that the 5 underneath cover guys are playing man. It is a good coverage, since the two safeties are each still playing a deep half of the field. However, since man coverage is being played underneath, the underneath coverage can get involved. Who are the 5 underneath cover guys going to be and who will they cover? As I already stated, this situation can be complicated by the formations and number of receivers that offenses line up with. Motion complicates the matter further.

Obviously, the two corners will man-up on the two outside receivers. The strong side OLB will probably take the third receiver, while the weak side OLB rushes. If the offense introduces a 4th receiver into the mix, then the defense has to have predetermined whether he will be covered by the weakside OLB or an ILB. The matter is complicated further if the offense lines up with 5 quick receivers. Which linebackers should man-up on receivers, which should defend the run (even vs. an empty backfield, the QB is a run threat vs. no linebackers) and which will rush the passer (if any). All these possibilities must be worked on and predetermined during the week of practice leading up to the game.

This is a good place to end this discussion. The coverages that I have listed above are about all the coverages that are played in college football today. Man Free and Cover 2 are probably the two most frequently utilized coverages by today’s college teams. Of course, all these coverages must be coordinated with the front 7 defenders and what they may be doing on any given play. After this discussion, I am sure that readers can see what hybrid athletes linebackers are, having to play such varied roles vs. pass and run. I think readers can see that secondary coverage is complicated and offenses can make it complicated beyond our understanding with multiple formations and motion.

Today’s secondaries have to play all these coverages accurately and leave no receivers uncovered and still catch up to the likes of Denard Robinson, Ricky Dobbs and Taylor Martinez. This is a daunting task if all the cover guys play their responsibilities flawlessly as today’s offenses will find ways to exploit any secondary coverage. The fact is, the players on the field on Saturdays are still just kids and they will make mistakes and when they are made in the secondary, the result is usually six points for the other guys.

I hope everyone could understand this. There is a whole lot that I didn’t cover. I’ll check back and answer questions until Saturday Morning.