Defending 20 Pers. With Read Coverage

Use a field “robber” scheme to defend 20 pers. pass schemes.

Defending the run versus 20 personnel is hard enough. Factor in offenses using this set to RPO the defense, it can be difficult for a defensive coordinator to decide how to attack it. Using multiple coverages, fronts, and stunts/pressures can keep an offense on its heels, but there has to be a plan. If a DC moves the Sam closer to the box and plays quarters behind, the offense can take advantage of the lack of cover down and throw out routes or stops all day. These routes play off of the leverage of the safety, which in quarters happens to be deep and inside. Spinning to the two receiver side leaves the offense vulnerable to the backside RPO or weakside run (lack of plus-one). A weak spin is sound and keeps the defense even, but still gives up the flat and backside choice route. 20 personnel is one of the hardest formations to defend because the offense has added an extra player to the box and can create a new gap on either side of the formation.

Staying Two-High

Playing Four-Press (Sky) to 20 pers. can be a great deterrent to offenses that utilize RPOs in their scheme. The pressing corners eliminate much of the route tree and force low percentage throws outside (ex. – Fades). The Down Safety to the boundary acts as a catch-all and plus-one versus the weakside run. In Sky, the boundary safety can “rob” the underneath of #1’s route and will drive on any slant. To the field, the Sam can cover down to the slot, essentially deterring bubble routes while the Cover (field) Safety fits off the Sam. The issue in Quarters versus 20 pers. is the outside flat to the field. If the Sam is aggressive to a run look (like he is in the Narduzzi/Dantonio scheme), the offense can take advantage of the Sky safety basically being in man coverage on the slot and the corner being run off by #1. Even versus an out route the Sam, who aligns inside (apex in Narduzzi’s Pitt defense – quick box force), can be frozen by a run read and late on the pass. See below:


In many 4-3 (apex cover down) schemes, the Sam linebacker is taught to gain a run read while relating off the slot WR. The problem with this technique is the Sam is late on out routes. If the Sam is over aggressive, the offense can take advantage of his vacated area. Late in the second quarter of the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl, Northwestern started to take advantage of Pitt’s aggressive Sam versus 20 and 11 pers and Narduzzi’s Press Quarters scheme. Northwestern turned to a Smash concept (stop/corner) to take advantage of an aggressive Sam and the inside leverage of the safety, but Narduzzi had checked to his Read Coverage or a field robber that disguises as Press Quarters. The Field Safety shifted to the outside of the slot as the QB gave his indicator. The outside leverage helped the safety defend the Corner route by the slot. The QB had to place the ball high and away leading to an incomplete pass.

On third down, Northwestern ran a Divide scheme (three verticals dividing the field into thirds) and took advantage of a blown coverage by the safety (Trap 2 Zone Blitz – roll strong & the safety didn’t “top” the fade), getting the Wildcats inside the Pitt 30 yard line.

Assuming Pitt would stay in their traditional quarters look, Northwestern turned to a zone RPO out of Trey to attack the crashing Sam and isolated safety. The QB read the Sam working into the box and flipped the ball out to the slot on a stop route. The safety missed the one-on-one tackle and the WR worked deeper into the Red Zone before being tackled. Northwestern would score on the next play, taking advantage of a missed assignment by the DE to the boundary and scoring on the bounce of a zone play. 14-3 Wildcats.

After Pitt scored quickly to bring the game to within four, Northwestern quickly turned back to attacking Pitt out of 11 pers. Trey. When the Wildcats lined up in 10 pers. 2×2 and motioned the H-back into the formation Narduzzi called a timeout. Out of the timeout, the Wildcats went back to the formation, but Narduzzi had changed the coverage to a Read Coverage. Assuming Narduzzi knew that Northwestern felt Pitt had made adjustments to the Trey set and was now switching to a new look, he called a quick timeout after seeing Northwestern align in 20 pers. Out of the timeout, Narduzzi switched to Read Coverage to combat Northwestern’s new set to take advantage of the soft spot to the outside in Pitt’s Quarters coverage. This small sequence highlights the constant cat-and-mouse game that is football and a great change-up coverage to split field quarters versus 20 pers.

Read Coverage


Read Coverage allows the Sam to work back to the box while alleviating the pressure of the field safety to make a play on an out route. In the diagram above, the CS works to outside leverage of the slot while the Sam works closer to the box. The DS to the boundary works to the middle of the formation eyeing the vertical of #2. Just like in its 3×1 counterpart Solo, the boundary safety is reading the departure of the slot. If vertical, the CS will funnel the WR to the DS working the deep third. If #2 runs an out or underneath route, the DS can square up and read the QB. Against the run, the DS will work back to the boundary or run the alley to the field. The Sam takes the flat if #3 releases. This allows the Mike to essentially play all of the run because he now has no pass responsibility (and he can add in versus dropback — 6 man rush). In the diagram above, the Mike is shown “clamping” the H with the Sam. If a team is prone to arc the H-back, or utilize a pop pass, this technique can be used as a base.

Play Breakdown

Play #1 – End of 2nd Quarter: Northwestern comes out of the timeout and goes back to the same formation out of 20 pers (Twin Open with the backs stacked to the two WR side). As the Wildcats settle into their formation, the CS works to the outside of the slot. Northwestern checks with the sideline and changes the play to a clear/sail. Read Coverage is designed to counteract this play. Northwestern, knowing it will get man-to-man changes the play to take advantage. In this case, the OC felt his man was better than the safety. As the play develops, the CS stays outside alignment and collision and carries the sail route, knocking the WR off his path and disrupting the passes timing.

Play #2 – Start of 3rd Quarter: After being beaten again on an RPO to start the second half, Pitt adjusts back to Read Coverage and covers a Divide route nicely, only being beaten to the boundary on a comeback route. Northwestern uses the same shift as in the 2nd Quarter. Looking at the front side distribution, the CB takes all of #1 while the CS aligns outside. The DS reads the QBs drop and quickly gets his eyes to #2. Both safeties vice the slot working into the middle of the field.

In both instances, the Read coverage did what it was designed to do on the front side. As a quick change up to teams that are hitting the soft spot versus quarters coverage. Read allows the defense to semi-spin without being out-leveraged to the boundary and adds a player close to the box. The coverage meshes well with a press quarters look and can be an easy adjustment if a defense already runs Solo Coverage.

Pass Distribution

Here are the top passing routes out of 20 pers. versus a Read Coverage:



Arc Bubble


Double Curl/Flat


Sprint Out (Flood)



Read Coverage is a good change up to teams that attack a defense out of 20 pers. with outside routes to the field. If you are not comfortable isolating your boundary CB, then staying two-high and running a Cloud coverage might better suit your needs. This article is meant to show a simple adjustment that can be of use to teams that need support to the field. Read can give the DC a free player to field in the Sam and double the slot going vertical, or challenging an offense that utilizes out routes to the field. The Mike is can become more aggressive against the run because the Sam has taken his pass responsibility to the field.


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10 thoughts on “Defending 20 Pers. With Read Coverage”

  1. How do you handle bubble and go to the 2 detached side? If the safety attacks the bubble inside/out, who is responsible for the #1 who is fake stalking and then going vertical? In our pattern read coverage, the safety to the 2 detached side will “run the hoop” on bubble to play the “and go” and we will leverage inside with our outside LB.

    1. The CB will always work to set the edge, while the Saf runs to the near hip of the slot. The Sam is the plus-1. The fits will be similar to Cov. 3, except the Saf is already outside leverage and has the angle on the bubble. The CB should play the “and-go” because he is the deep player.

  2. Yes. Sam has to take all of #3. The b/s [Read] safety can help too. Back to the 1st question, if the H motioned, he would become #2 wk and the Will would take him (Sam would now eye the RB).

    1. Shift the front, or stay the same if vs traditional run teams. Motion by the H really doesn’t change the box, the RB predicates the read for the QB. Unless the RB moves keep it the same.

      1. if # 3 went vertical you would still have the Sam carry him vertical from across the field?

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