Adapting Quarters – Red Zone & Goal Line Coverages

As the field gets compressed, all you need is Quarters.

Much like formation into the boundary (FIB), the Red Zone and goal line can be a tricky place for defensive coordinators. As the field is reduced for the offense, the likelihood of deep throws or play-actions is limited. In a FIB set, the offense puts a majority of their players into the boundary. By doing so, the offense is trying to get the defense to overcompensate for the speed, or strength, into the boundary. If the defense overcompensates, the offense can now take advantage of the space (or match-ups) to the field. The Red Zone/goal line area is no different. Offense change once they enter the +20, changing as they get closer to the goal line. Whether it is cluster/bunch sets or bringing WRs closer to the box, modern offenses have numerous ways to challenge a defense (and don’t forget going big with extra linemen).

Most modern offenses are looking for space to get their best athletes in one-on-one situations. Inside the defense’s +20 (Red Zone) is no different. As the field is reduced many offenses tighten the splits of their receivers (Bunch/Stack sets) or try and get their best man in one-on-one coverage versus a corner (Fade/Comeback). If the defense plays man coverage the offense will use rub/pick routes and cluster/bunch sets to combat this. If the defense is using zone, the offense will most likely create high-low concepts to try and bait a defender, only to throw the ball over or under his alignment depending on the play.

The objective of any defense is to force low percentage throws or throws into tight windows. This is where Quarters comes to play a pivotal role in defending modern offenses, especially in the Red Zone. Outside of powering the ball over the goal line, modern spread offenses try to reduce their splits to force the defense to play sound pass distribution and communicate. When the formation is reduced, it is important for the defensive personnel to understand where everyone is aligned and how the multiple rub/pick routes are to be distributed. Even the slightest misstep in the Red Zone can open a gaping window for the QB to throw into (If looking for a resource on Stack/Bunch formations click HERE).

The main objective of Quarters coverage is to force the most difficult throw for the QB. Whether basing out of 4-Read (Sky/Quarters) or 2-Read (Cloud), a defense must understand how the reduction in field space changes the coverage and distributions. Red Zone and FIB situations should be treated with respect and different than a normal situation. The defense must adjust to both scenarios without overcompensating and leaving leaky spots on the field. Overcommit to the pass, and offense will run it down the defense’s throat. Overload the box, and the defense becomes susceptible to play-action and Run-Pas Options (RPOs). The key to a great Red Zone defense is to understand what the offense is trying to accomplish, who they are trying to get the ball to, and how they react inside the +20 and inside the +10.

Breaking Down the Red Zone

Breaking the Red Zone into two parts, the Red Zone and goal line, can help a defensive coordinator better understand what an offense is trying to do. Once an offense crosses the +20 threshold many coordinators will change their approach (don’t forget the score of the game too). Most OCs will admit, they want to make sure they score in the Red Zone, and many will remove low percentage “shots” out of the call sheet. This is important for a DC to understand. As the field is reduced, so is the possibility the offense will try and take a shot down the field. Many times, OCs will get predictable or conservative the closer they get to the end zone.

As the offense approaches the +15 yard line, the defense needs to begin to tighten splits and be aware of the OC’s favorite Red Zone plays. Even though the fade route is a low percentage throw, the advent of the back-shoulder fade has allowed an OC and QB to have an escape route in case the CB defends the WR’s route or the CB aligns off the WR. As the ball crosses the +10 yard line, the offense has little space to throw the ball downfield. The secondary should tighten its alignments. This tightening of the alignments allows the linebackers to creep closer to the box in support of the run.

When facing an opponent, it is important for the defensive staff to break down the Red Zone into two parts: +20 – +11 and +10 – Goal Line. By doing this simple breakdown, the defensive staff can better determine when and where fade routes, cluster sets, and in particular “Red Zone” plays are likely to come. Does the OC take a shot right when he gets into the +20 yard line (four down territory), or does he get conservative? This is a crucial question because it shows what the OC is thinking.

The breakdown also shines a light on how aggressive the offense is. One major knock on the spread offense is inside the Red Zone it has a tendency to become stale because it cannot run the ball. Some offenses will go “big” inside a certain area of the field while others will stay in their base 10 personnel look and attempt to spread the defense out. All these tendencies are important to understand when facing an opponent, spread or otherwise. Running a Quarters scheme can give the defense an advantage because it does not have to change that much in order to adjust to any offense it might face.

Why Quarters in the Red Zone?

Quarters coverage is designed to be an “every down” coverage. Running a split-field concept can create even more adaptiveness and multiple looks. The manipulation is only limited by the DC’s creativity. In the Red Zone, or any reduced field situation (FIB), Quarters can alleviate a lot of issues because there does not need to be any special checks and the defense does not waste a man in the deep zone in the middle of the field (MOF).

By utilizing a two-high scheme, the defense can compress the offensive formation and essentially play a pseudo-man coverage. This alignment, whether Sky or Cloud, allows the LBs to align closer to the box. The alignment of the LBs adds value to the run support and combats high percentage throws like hitches or slants because the LBs are located in those windows. Remember, the basis of Quarters is to throw low percentage throws.

It is said about every year, that the Red Zone fade is one of the most overrated routes in football. The Ringer even wrote an article about this topic in 2016 highlighting several “better” options including pick routes, zone floods (high-lows), and sprint outs (usually high-lows). Unless a defense is just “outmanned” at the CB position, it might be in a defense’s best interest to let a 15-16-17-year-old QB try and beat it throwing a very low percentage throw. This is where Quarters helps – by forcing low percentage throws to the outside.

Match Coverages

Basic Quarters, or Sky, is essentially man coverage. Saban refers to it as MOD coverage or “man-on-demand.” The secondary player aligned on top of the WR is responsible for any route that WR runs unless it is an under route (5 yards or less & RIGHT NOW!). Where Sky coverage adapts is in the way it reacts to rub and pick routes. If the WRs align close to the box (tight) or together (stack), the DBs will alert each other and check to Cloud (2-Read) because of split rules created within the design. Most times, OCs put WRs close together to create high-low concepts, pick a defender, or switch the WRs post-snap. Below is a diagram of Sky in near the goal line:

01 Sky [GL]

Cloud coverage is designed to stop rub, pick routes, and nows (quick screens). By utilizing a trap CB, the defense can hold their positions longer and react to the offensive routes. This helps in the Red Zone and goal line because DBs are less likely to run into each other (pick). One key in utilizing match coverages in the Red Zone is to put the DBs on different levels. For instance, if basing out of Sky coverage, the CBs should press the #1 WRs once they get into the +15 yard line. This reduces the number of routes the offense can run and forces the low percentage throw, the fade route. Pressing near the goal line, especially “soft” press, can be safer because there is less room for the offense to work. Here is a look at Cloud near the end zone:

02 Cloud [GL]

In the video below, the ability to defend Flood concepts from Cloud is shown. The CB is the intermediate zone defender in Cloud, while the safety is the “topper” of the coverage. The OLB in the goal line is aligned closer to the box and, like in base Cloud, is also the flat defender. The offense aligns with a 20p Twin Open formation. The offense will run a Post/Out/Flat concept. The CB traps the out by the slot and the OLB absorbs the flat route by the H-back. The safety “tops” the coverage by taking the post coming into the end zone. Had this been Sky coverage, the OLB would have functioned the same, but the safety and CB might have picked each other. If a defense knows it will get pick routes, Cloud is the answer.

As stated earlier, Quarters coverage adapts as the ball gets closer to the end zone. This is where coaching comes in. The defenders must understand that everything must tighten down when the ball crosses the +20. The CBs will play tighter along with the safeties. This is where the adaptiveness of the Quarters scheme comes to play. Sky essentially becomes a robber coverage near the goalline. The OLBs tighten down to the box to help support the run and the safeties tighten down over the slot, holding their inside leverage.

All DBs must be “carried” into the end zone. “Catch” coverage, or collision and carry, must be utilized near the goal line. The offense only has to cross the threshold of the end zone and it is six points. Either Sky or Cloud is great as a base when defending the Red Zone, but it is important to understand the offense’s tendencies and use the one that best fits a defense’s personnel and combats the OC’s scheme.

Issues with Sky

One glaring issue with running Sky in the Red Zone is the out route by the slot. The safety is all alone from inside leverage. Many times, the fade/out route combo will be ran against teams that base out of “zero” or Sky because there is no help from the CB and the safety must be right. If a defense has safeties that can cover, Sky is the answer.

In the first clip, the safety is “late” to the out route. It is completed for a four-yard gain. That’s not a bad play if you consider the offense just threw the ball on the 10-yard line. That being said, this will be the “go-to” if a defense bases in Sky coverage. A DC must be able to check to Cloud from the sideline.

In the second clip, the offense comes right back to the HBO concept. The key is the safety’s steps. The safety is “carried” into the end zone and sits right on the goal line. This enables him to break on the out route in close proximity. In the earlier clip, the safety “stepped-off” and broke on the ball from depth. In this clip, the safety “squats” on the goal line. If the WR were to have run a vertical route into the end zone, the safety would have collision-ed the route and carried him into across the goal line. Unlike the previous clip, the ball is incomplete. Many underestimate the difficulty in throwing a five-yard out (force low percentage throws!). See below:

As the field is reduced, the footwork and coverages have to adapt. Even in Cloud coverage, the safeties must step-off at a slower pace. Backpedaling should be discouraged in the Red Zone because the DBs must be able to drive on balls thrown underneath and protect the end zone (similar to a “Sticks” coverage). As stated earlier, the DBs must be “carried” into the end zone utilizing a “catch” or collision-and-carry technique. Here is an explanation of “step-off”:

Other Red Zone Coverages

As a base, living in Sky and Cloud can help a defense cut the verbiage, align correctly, and adapt to any formation or route combination an offense might throw at it. That being said, there are several coverages a defense needs to carry as checks near the goal line to defend against specific route combinations (Double In Corner) or if the defense blitzes (Clue). Carrying a few Red Zone checks can be the difference form giving up six and getting the stop a defense needs. Red Zone efficiency is a stat that is on every DC’s mind, and one that if good signifies a winning season.

Knife Coverage (Trips Check)

04 Knife [GL]

One particularly popular route combination near the goal line is the “Double-In/Corner” route combination from a Trips formation. This route is designed to be eye candy for the underneath defenders. The WR running the corner route is supposed to outrun the safety to the corner of the end zone, like an inverted fade. Knife Coverage assists the defense against teams that utilize Trips and rub/pick routes form this formation. Knife essentially takes away the most likely throws. From left to right, the CB aligns outside leverage on the #1 WR and is playing the fade. He will not chase any route that goes inside. The OLB to the Trips side will align outside shade of the #2 WR and will cut to #1 if the #2 WR runs inside. The Mike will read #3 to #2 listening for an “In” or “Under” call from the OLB. If #2 comes inside, the Mike will work to the near hip of #2 and collision the route.

In the Double-In/Corner scheme, the #1 WR will run a square in to give time for the route to develop. The OLB to the Trips side will need to work to the near hip of #1 once the #2 WR has gone underneath, eliminating both under routes (which are eye-candy anyway). The real value in this scheme is the “cone” action on the corner route. The term “cone” signifies that the CB will play underneath and the safety will “top” the corner route. This coverage doubles the most important route, the corner. Take a look:

05 Knife vs Dbl In Cnr [GL]

To the backside of the Trips formation, the boundary safety (DS) “robs” the curl zone and the Will relates/matches #2 weak. In this case, the RB. The CB, like his front side partner, aligns outside leverage and plays for the fade. The DS will clean up any slant, post, or dig. The DS can also poach any over route coming from the front side, especially if the #1 WR runs a fade. If a team attempts to climb one of the under routes (like #2 coming in versus the Mike), the DS can be there to poach the MOF (his eyes should be reading the QB anyway).

Clue Coverage (Blitz)

One issue in Red Zone coverage is found when a defense blitzes. If just sending one LB, Quarters can easily adapt by running an inverted Sky (Under) or modified Cloud (Over). If a DC wants to take the OLBs out of WR coverage altogether, he can call Clue Coverage. Clue essentially eliminates the LBs form covering any WR. This can be useful versus heavy run teams in the Red Zone. The issue with Sky, as stated earlier, is in the way it defends out, pick, and rub routes. Cloud is preferred in these situations, but what is the OLB is gone or concentrated on the box? Clue is the answer.

03 Clue [GL]

Clue is Cloud without the curl support. The safeties will take any route that comes inside, while the CB will trap any out route. If both WRs run verticals, each DB will lock on like man. Where Sky puts the DBs on different levels to limit exposure to pick routes, Clue sets the DBs at the same level. Both DBs are reading #2. Any out step by #2 will result in the CB triggering to the slot. This particular coverage is useful when a defense is blitzing or a DC wants the LBs to be extremely aggressive. In terms of the RBs leaking out the backfield, much like Red Zone Cloud, the OLBs will have to absorb any flat route (“Peel” to the RB). Here’s a video of Clue versus a now screen:


The Red Zone and goal line should be treated as a special situation and game planned accordingly. One way to ensure that a defense is always aligned correctly is to base out of Quarters or two-high scheme. As the field is reduced the advantages of utilizing a MOF safety become lessened by spacing. There just isn’t any in the Red Zone.

Quarters gives a defensive coach the ability to be flexible even when blitzing. Much like in the field, a DC must have several options for defending routes. The use of these options relies on the tendencies shown by the offense. One thing that is a non-negotiable in the Red Zone is that all players must be carried into the end zone. There is no spot dropping or bailing when the ball is close to the end zone. This point is why Quarters has an advantage as a base scheme. As the yardage shrinks the defense stays relatively the same – match or man coverage.


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