How Do You Play Your Cover Down?

Where a defense aligns its overhang directly reflects how it ultimately plays defense.

One overlooked aspect of defensive structure and scheme is the creation of overhangs and cover downs. Don Brown in most of his clinic talks speaks on the importance of creating overhangs to protect the edges of any defense. An overhang refers to the force player outside the box. This can be an outside linebacker, safety, or a cutting corner. The manipulation of these overhangs can create opportunities for defenses to challenge offenses at the edge of the box.

Structurally there are three “lanes” a defense must defend outside the box. It is important to establish what player has what lane at all times. This is a foundational concept that tends to be overlooked. The three lanes are: outside, alley, and crease. When defending the spread, or any offense, it is important for coaches to establish who has what lane. This is along the same lines as establishing who has the dive, QB, and pitch when defending an option team. Below is an illustration of the three “lanes” a defense must protect:

00.1 Fit Breakdown

One way for teams to manipulate these lanes is by how they utilize their cover down to the most receiver side. A cover down refers to the proximity the overhang aligns near the slot (or an inside WR). The further away from the WR the less a players cover down.

This effects the secondary, primarily the safeties, and how they fit the run and distribute the pass. When defending spread offenses there tends to be three main ways defenses cover down: Apex, Full Cover down, and the Outside Bracket. Each one has its own positives and negatives. What is more important is understanding how each cover down effects the structure of the defense from run fits to pass distributions. 

Apex

02 Apex - Run

The apex cover down is probably the most used structure when discussing Quarters teams. Many defensive coaches see the need to have their linebackers as close to the box as possible. For this reason, many align the field overhang (most likely the Sam LB) in an apex alignment. “Apex” refers to the OLBs initial alignment – halfway between the end man on the line (EMOL) and the slot receiver (#2). Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi made the Press Quarters defense famous.

Before Alabama’s match-up with Michigan State in the 2015 Cotton Bowl, Nick Saban was asked about the unique way Narduzzi and Dantonio structure their defense. In his quote, he discusses the fact that Michigan State aligns their overhangs near the box. By creating quick triggers for the LBs, the defense can suffocate a run game. This is what Saban had to say about Michigan State’s defense:

One of the things that they do is they try to play linebackers half in and half out of the box a lot and like to play Quarters coverage and get the safeties down in the box…

– Nick Saban

The apex alignment of the field overhang allows him to be a quick force near the box and squeeze the box for a cutback when the play is away. This gives the defense a seven-man box even though the defense is in a two-high shell. In the prior illustration, the corner will take the outside run lane, while the safety and apex overhang will split the slot – Sam taking the crease and the safety taking the alley. Run fits to the two removed side are no different than in the box. Each “gap” needs to be filled with a defender. An apex technique allows the overhang to be quicker to the run (see below). The overhang (apex) will fit the crease and be an outside force to the box while the safety will run the alley from depth.

Where the apex technique has negatives is in pass distribution. By allowing the overhang to be quick to the box, the defense is putting the secondary in essentially man coverage. Later in the AL.com 2015 Cotton Bowl press conference article seen above, Saban noted that in order to be successful against Michigan St. a team needs to be able to take advantage of the perimeter passing game, RPO or otherwise.

We need to be able to make those kinds of blocks [on the perimiter] … because when a guy cheats in the box, you need to throw the ball out there so that he has to get out there and he can’t cheat in the box…

– Nick Saban

Most Quarters teams that base out of the Narduzzi/Dantonio system will press the CBs and play the safeties at 10 yards. Since the CBs are pressed they are taking all of #1 (unless he goes underneath on a cruise/shallow route – a slant is not an “under” route, it has a vertical stem). The safeties key the slot and react to his route. If the slot runs an out or bubble, the safety will work to his near hip knowing that the OLB to his side will be late support. The field overhang will cut to #2 versus a pass. The pass responsibilities are shown below:

01 Apex - Pass

As stated earlier the soft spot in the apex cover down pass distribution is the low and outside zone. To combat this problem some teams choose to base out of a 2-Read scheme (Palms – I call it Cloud) to detract teams from throwing outside. Saban clearly states in his 2015 presser that in order to beat a suffocating run defense established by an apex Quarters team is to hit them outside (which is still a lower percentage throw). Below is a video example of Kansas State hitting a quick out by the slot versus an apex cover down.

Full Cover Down

04 Full - Run

Where the apex cover down is dominant in 4-3 schemes, the full cover down overhang technique is the bread-and-butter of the 4-2-5. As shown in the image above, the full cover down of the overhang allows him to fit where needed. Versus heavy run formations the field overhang can creep near the box and fit the crease lane. If going up against RPO or pass heavy offenses, the overhang acts as a wall builder carrying the vertical of the slot or widening with an out route. The utilization of the full cover down is mainly to inhibit the use of field RPOs.

Most teams that base out of a 4-2-5, and a full cover down, will try to manipulate the front structure to enable the Nickel Sam to cover down to the field. One way to do this is versus a simple 10 personnel 2×2 formation is to always make a Field Call. By aligning the front to the field, regardless of the where the back is located, ensures that the field overhang can gain a full cover down to the slot WR. Many offensive coordinators will look elsewhere for RPOs if the defense is constantly ensuring they have a full cover down to the field. It’s not called the spread for nothing, they are looking for space.

The defensive ends in a full cover down scheme work in tandem with their relating LB. To the field, the DE will box everything because his LB is full covered down and he most likely has a 3-technique. Boxing creates a wall to the outside creating a cutback while allowing the ILBs (box LBs) to fit the run cleanly. If the DE has a Nose to its side, the DE will spill, but most likely has an inside LB that will gap exchange as the DE works to close the “B” gap.

Below, the field overhang works outside the slot to create a wall. for the alley running safety and chasing ILBs (though the DE does make a great play). The blitzing Mike acts as the new 3 tech. allowing the field DE to step down the line, stay square, and react to the flat and fast motion of the ball carrier. Going back to the initial image, the CB takes the outside lane, the full cover down overhang fits the alley, and the safety sinks into the crease.

One advantage of utilizing a full cover down is in pass distribution. Unlike the apex technique, the full cover down allows the field overhang to be an active member in the passing game by rerouting the slot (no free verticals!). This helps the field safety in a Quarters scheme distribute the pass and takes him out of what is essentially man coverage with an apex cover down. The image underneath details the pass distributions of a typical full cover down Quarters scheme. The full cover down also allows defenses to change their coverage schemes without giving it away.

In an apex defense, a DC pretty much has to run Cover 3 or Quarters because the overhang is so close to the box. In a full cover down, the DC can manipulate the coverage will holding a static alignment, making the OC guess what is coming. This can be beneficial because, even in Cloud/Palms, the overhang can “hang” in the curl and react to the mesh or QB throwing the ball. His static alignment keeps him in the seam and forces the QB to either throw to a trapping CB or over top the overhang in the seam.

03 Full - Pass

The full cover down also allows the safety to slow play any route underneath. As stated earlier, this inhibits RPO teams and forces them back into the box. Quarters and 2-Read (Cloud/Palms) can be utilized in the pass depending on how aggressive a defense wants to be towards the run. In a typical Quarters defense, the CB will either play press or off man utilizing the aforementioned MOD coverage. The safety in Sky (Quarters) will sit in the “post hole” or intermediate zone. The image above uses the word “top” to describe where the field safety will fit versus a vertical by the slot.

The full cover down helps the overhang get hands on the slot in the attempt to make him “run-the-hump” or a wider path. This helps distribution versus Air Raid teams that like to run “over” (Y-Cross) or shallow routes with the slot. As modern offenses have evolved, the most dangerous WRs are being moved inside. By utilizing a full cover down, the defense has bracketed the most dangerous receiver. An adjustment by the offense may be to run more out routes, but the defense can always counteract that by running Cloud/Palms (2-Read). In the clip below, the strongside overhang (bottom) walls off a dig, basically eliminating the route completely allowing the safety to cone the post with the CB.

The full cover down, simply put, helps teams defend Air Raid offenses because it makes the offense work harder for over routes by widening the path of the slot while also inhibiting RPOs. The full cover down walls the soft spot in most two-high schemes, the middle of the field (MOF). As more modern offenses begin to mesh the Air Raid with 20 personnel formations, the full cover down to the field creates plus matchups in the pass while deterring quick outside throws.

Most 4-2-5 schemes utilize the backside safety as the weak overhang (or an extra run fitter outside). The combination of run/pass support to the field, elimination of RPOs, and eliminating free vertical releases by the slot has made this cover down a favorite for defenses defending Spread heavy schedules. The flexibility of the technique also allows a defensive coach to manipulate who has what run lane depending on the offense or formation. Versus run-heavy teams or formations, the full cover down can act similar to an apex cover down, then reversing his action when its 3rd and long or against a pass-heavy formation. The only key is the safety, who must fit off the LB (fit support). Here is an image of a typical 4-2-5 playbook. Notice, the safety says fit support – correct the overhang.

4-2-5 Base

Outside Bracket

06 Bracket - Run

Bud Foster, who has been running his version of the 4-2-5 for a long time at Virginia Tech, ran the outside bracket cover down against Oklahoma State for several reasons. First, moving the overhang to the outside of the slot allowed him to cut #1 (curl) while also eliminating the RPO. Second, it put the field safety in a better position to wall off routes to the middle of the field (the soft spot if Quarters coverages and a favorite target area for Air Raid teams). The CB aligned deep much like in Saban’s 3×1 Cover 7 check Stubbie (Special “Loose”). The CB is in MOD coverage and will take any vertical by the #1 (and releasing under routes – below the LB). The outside bracket enables the overhang and CB to “cone” (high-low) any curl or post by the #1 WR.

05 Bracket - Pass

Coaches like an outside bracket because it cleans up the fits for the players. In an apex bracket, the overhang is quick to fit the run exposing the defense to out routes and RPOs by putting the safety on an island (one-on-one open field tackle). In the full cover down technique, the defense is slow playing the fit of the overhang. Versus a run, he will hang in the curl until he knows the ball is handed off or works to set the edge versus outside flow. The RPO is eliminated by proximity in a full cover down defense, but the force from the overhang might be late. This fluidity of fit is where the full cover down has issues because the safety cannot follow the overhang, instead, he has to fit opposite or “correct” the overhang (fit support). The outside bracket overhang, as shown above, clearly marks where each defender will fit.

One issue with the outside bracket is the crease fit is now put on the safety and not the LB (who is usually closer to the box). The defense when utilizing an outside bracket must make sure the defensive end to the field is the force player and boxing everything moving outside. Versus passing heavy formations, the utilization of the outside bracket helps the defense clamp down on the slot while eliminating conflict (RPOs). When used against run-oriented formations the outside bracket does not give the defense a quick force player near the box in case the DE doesn’t do his job.

The outside bracket is usually paired with some form of “robber” coverage where the safety is robbing the inside curl area and taking any over route (see Air Raid 101). The bracket on the slot allows the defense to inhibit out routes and RPOs while protecting the vertical. Below, Saban uses the outside bracket against Texas A&M’s Air Raid offense. The outside bracket is a great alignment versus teams that use jet-motion because the overhang is already in a “push” position. This allows the ILBs to stay at home where they can fit the box without dealing with the “eye-candy” of quick or push motions.

Unlike its sister technique in the full cover down, it is hard for the overhang to get hands on the slot before cutting underneath #1 versus over routes or verticals. One advantage of the scheme is the ability to get a curl robber to protect the MOF while still being able to trap out routes, but the safety is still vulnerable to speed in his face (seam) which Oklahoma State hit several times versus this coverage. Essentially the safety is still in man-to-man on the slot, much like an apex cover down.

Conclusion

The ability to carry different cover downs (and the pedagogy behind them) is crucial to defending multiple offenses. Most teams will utilize each one at some point in the season or even a game. Looking at it schematically, the cover down reflects the defensive structure. A 4-3 team is more likely to apex the field overhang because he will be a larger body and more of a run fitter. The 4-2-5 tribe will utilize a full cover down and use the flexibility of the scheme to align the overhang tighter or wider from the box depending on the offense it faces. Finally, the outside bracket is mostly used as an adjustment to 3×1 or on passing downs against teams that attack the soft areas of Quarters (MOF and outside). The bottom line is that a defense, regardless of structure cannot live in one thing. Instead, a modern defense must be flexible enough to adjust to what it is seeing.

If you are looking for more ways to structure your defense (and HOW to do it), make sure to check out MatchQuarters’ book, Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football.

Here are some other structural resources by MQ:

 

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