Learning How to Spin – Adapting Saban’s Rip/Liz

Applying Saban’s Match 3 Principles to Split-Field Quarters Defenses.

Everyone can agree, Nick Saban knows defense. In fact, according to BCfToys.com, which rates college defenses on their efficiency and is “adjusted for the strength of opponent offenses faced,” has never placed Alabama outside of their top 10 in the past five years (low being #7 in 2014 – the only time they were out of the top five). In the past three years, Alabama has been either #1 or #2 in defensive efficiency. One of Saban’s bread-n-butter schemes is his Rip/Liz or Match Cover 3. This single-high coverage is crucial to his run defense and is adjusted to defend the offensive counter move in the four verticals.

Many defensive coaches are familiar with Saban’s Cover 7 schemes that he uses to defend spread teams from a two-shell, but his Rip/Liz tends to be the “go-to” coverage during base downs. Even Clemson has become a heavy user of the Rip/Liz concept, using the scheme to dominate ACC opponents (and also being in the BCfToys’ top 10 in defensive efficiency the last 4 years). Needless to say, the Rip/Liz concept is an important scheme that every coach should familiarize themselves with, even Quarters coaches. What makes the coverage scheme unique is its structure and how Saban decides to spin the secondary (and protect the seams). It’s something defensive coordinators who base out of Quarters coverage understand – Never roll strong.

Saban’s Rip/Liz

One of the unique ways Saban protects his defense is in the way he inserts the extra box player. Cover 3 and any single-high coverage is designed to maximize the box players. By spinning, the defense has created overhangs and cover downs to the slot players. These overhangs enable the box players to eliminate their conflicts. In a typical Quarters defense, at least one linebacker will be in “conflict.” This conflict player is typically where spread offenses attempt to attack the defense with RPOs. In the illustration of a typical Quarters defense below, the Will LB is the conflict player. He must fill the open “B” gap while covering down to the slot. Saban and teams that base out of Rip/Liz reduce the conflict for the Will by spinning the safety to his side over top the slot (DS).


In Rip/Liz, the weakside safety is usually the spinning safety. By spinning weak, Saban is ensuring that his front side pass distribution is intact. Versus a basic 2×2 set this allows the ILB closest to the RB to vacate the box if the RB flares because the backside safety can fold into the box vs a QB run and in the pass the Will can handle the middle hole. Where the weak spin helps is against single WR sets (3×1/2×1). Many teams will choose to spin to the Trips side or the passing strength, but this can be dangerous because the defense loses an overhang to the boundary (and exposes the backside CB to a one-on-one matchup).

Don Brown, University of Michigan Defensive Coordinator, in the Lone Star Clinic this year (2018) explained that a defense must have overhangs on either side of the box. This structural concept is the foundation of Rip/Liz. In the diagram below, the defense is shown spinning to the strong side. The strong spin vacates the overhang to the boundary and against a team like Clemson that runs Arc Reads with the QB, the defense will be a man short to the single WR side.


Saban ensures that he always has an overhang on the weak side. For Quarters coaches, this is no different than Gary Patterson’s base rules for his 4-2-5 structure. 2-Read (or Cloud) to the field and Quarters to the boundary. The image below demonstrates how a typical 4-2-5 Quarters team utilizes Rip/Liz principles without spinning the field safety to the middle of the field (MOF). TCU takes it a step further by structuring the front to contain the backfield, reducing the conflict of the ILBs. The safety to the boundary will carry #2 vertical with late support from the Will LB (Sky Coverage). This coverage is similar to Rip/Liz in the since the “dropping” or “Curl” safety is to the weak side. The deep half safety to the field can read the QB’s vision and even work to the MOF depending on the routes given front side (which would look similar to Rip/Liz). Saban will “Slide” his backside safety into the box versus 3×1 formations to allow the Mike to cover down to the #3 WR, which is another example of a two-shell scheme working like Rip/Liz.

.05 TCU 4-2-5

In the image above, the front side can play Sky (Quarters) or Cloud (2-Read). If playing Quarters to the front side, the defense will function, as stated earlier, very similar to the Saban’s Rip/Liz. The front side CB will “top” the route of #1 playing MOD coverage, or Man on Demand (release unders). The Safety to the front side when utilizing Quarters will carry the vertical of #2. This is a departure from Saban’s Rip/Liz. Saban allows the safety to the front side to sink into the middle of the field (MOF). Another difference in Rip/Liz is the cover down of the Sam to the field. In Rip/Liz he will align outside of the slot and funnel the #2 WR, if vertical, to the MOF where he has support.

When studying Saban’s Cover 7 coverage (2-High scheme) you will notice that his Nickel is aligned outside the slot. This translates smoothly from Saban’s base in Rip/Liz. The biggest difference form Saban’s Rip/Liz to Quarters coverage is in the play of the Nickel – he is going to carry the vertical of the #2 WR whereas, in Quarters, the Ni is playing underneath or holding the curl/flat. As stated, this is a departure from Quarters where the Ni Sam would play underneath any vertical of #2 and cut to #1 as soon as he runs a stop or come back. Below is Alabama aligned in Rip/Liz versus Clemson in the 2016 National Championship. Both overhangs are aligned outside.

Rip-Liz v 2x2

Saban even utilizes the scheme versus Empty. Against teams that run their QB, the use of a Match 3 concept establishes a “spy” in the middle of the formation. This “spy” can be used to insert versus the run (Q Draw), or cut to a passing lane (illustrated below). In the video below, the weak side safety spins down on top of #2 while the field safety spins to the MOF. The Will LB stays in his “B” gap and eyes the QB. This film clip highlights how the “Spy” LB was able to read the QB and flash into the passing lane, creating a pass break up, leading to a “pick-6.”

Most coaches that defend the spread on a regular basis will shy away from running a Match Cover 3 scheme versus Empty. That being said, running a two-high scheme versus a five-wide set leaves the defense vulnerable to low crossers in the middle and QB runs. If an offense utilizes Empty but doesn’t run five or four verticals, the defense can easily run Rip/Liz to Empty. Another positive of using Rip/Liz against Empty sets is defending another Spread favorite in the “Snag” route. Here is a look at how Rip/Liz matches up versus Empty:

03 r-l 3x2

Once Rip/Liz has been installed, it is easy to create tags to give the offense different looks, or for the defense to react differently post-snap. One example is the Seattle Seahawks “Poach” adjustment in their Match 3 scheme versus a 3×1 set. The tag “Poach” tells the weak safety to sit high and read the #3 WR (“Poach” is also used in Saban’s defense to tag Solo Coverage in his Cover 7 playbook). This allows the defense to look like they are in a two-high look, but are really “spinning” weak. By doing this, the LBs are able to react to the RB and the “spinning” safety (who would have #2 weak vertical anyway versus a 2×2) can take the #3 WR if he comes vertical or bends to the weak side (new #2 weak).

Adapting the Rip/Liz Playbook

The first diagram shown below is a basic look at the Rip/Liz concept versus a 2×2 set. The defense establishes a six-man box and adds two overhangs to the secure the outside. This is a typical look at what most teams that play single-high do versus a 2×2 spread set. Where Saban is a little different is in the way he plays his overhangs. If #2 goes vertical, they have to carry the route. This enables the CBs to work on top of #1. If the offense is hurting the defense with stops or comebacks, Saban can run his 3 Buzz Mable coverage that cuts the field Ni underneath #1 (and also rolls the coverage strong). If Saban wants to keep the same weak spin look while staying two-high, he can call “Skate.” Both enable the field Ni to cut underneath #1.

01 r-l 2x2

Spinning to single-high creates a six-man box, but it’s not always the six players a coach might think. One unique thing about the Rip/Liz concept is that Saban doesn’t mind inserting a safety into the box, even if it technically is in the “A” gap. This allows the safety to the weak side to play in a robber position to the boundary (alert backside post/slant) and allows the Sam (strongside ILB) to work to #3 (think of the ever prevalent 3×1 RPO – Spot/Snag Draw).

02 r-l 3x1

Slide Check & the “Sink” Technique

This weak side spin adjustment to 3×1 formations reduces the conflict of the front side ILB ($) and creates a six-man presence within the actual box. Another plus with the slide check can be seen versus teams like Clemson that use Behind and Flare motions to push LBs out of the box. Quarters teams do this by utilizing a Sink Check.

In a Sink Check, the backside safety “sinks” into the box replacing the Will’s fit (or “M” in the illustration above). This can be a great change up to teams that utilize “push” motions or the Spot Draw RPO. The difference between Saban’s Rip/Liz and a Quarters scheme is the front side coverage. Saban will spin his field safety to the MOF while a Quarters team will keep him inside #3 utilizing Special or Stress.

01 Spot Draw

The Sink technique allows the backside safety to stay high and give the illusion the defense is in a two-high coverage. At the snap of the ball, the safety will lead with his inside foot and step down into the box. The eyes of the safety are on the mesh. If run, the safety will insert, even against play action. The pace of the safety is not fast, hence the name of the technique – “Sink.” Below is an example of the boundary safety “sinking” into the box.

Where single-high teams get into trouble is in alignment. If the safety is already spun down, the illusion of coverage is gone and the inverted overhang will be much quicker reacting to the run. This creates space in the MOF. Versus single-high teams, and teams that spin weak, the backside choice route is utilized to take advantage of the vacating high safety (Baylor made a living on this under Briles). One way to combat this space is to utilize the “Sink” technique. Here is how Rip/Liz fits up versus 20p as illustrated in the video above:

04 r-l 2x1

Sinking the backside safety into the box keeps a six-man look while allowing the frontside ILB to vacate and “push” to the #3 WR. As stated earlier, Clemson and teams that are similar offensively use Flare and Behind motions to get the defense to vacate gaps in the box or out-leverage them to the field. Saban combats this by using a Slide Check versus 3×1 or “push” motion teams.

The safety to the boundary sinks into the box and pushes the ILBs towards the field. This sliding of the structure keeps seven men near the box while allowing the frontside ILB the ability to cover down to #3 if need be. In the first clip, the $ was able to vacate the box without Alabama losing box integrity. The outside alignment of Ni works to the benefit of Alabama. The only issue in all of these schemes is if the backside WR runs a vertical route. If the MOF safety can’t get there in time against a post route, the CB can be exposed and versus a fade route, the CB is on his own. Here is a look at how the sinking safety reacts versus a pass.

Below are playbook diagrams of the Sink Technique. The key to the technique is to be slow to trigger. Where in Sky (Quarters) the safety is stepping off backward for three steps, the sink complements this by stepping forward for three steps then triggering on the safeties read. By going slow the safety has ensured the protection of the “post-hole” where many offenses attack versus sinking safeties. If the safety reads the mesh/QB he should be able to see the QB in play-action quickly get his eyes to the single-WR. The coverage is scheme is nothing more than an aggressive Sky. The safety is still defending the intermediate zone (or under the post – “post-hole”).

Sink Tech

Below is a look at the Sink Technique versus a 20 pers. Split Zone run to the weak side:

Sink Tech 2

Rip/Liz Principles in Quarters

One way Quarters teams can use Saban’s Match 3 principles is in the way they utilize the boundary safety. The key principle in Saban’s defense is to create overhangs on either side of the box. Quarters DCs can do this by implementing the “sink” technique on early run downs by giving a “Sink” call. As shown above, this would tell the safety to work down towards the box once the ball has been snapped. Much like true Quarters against a single WR, the safety will read the box, but the difference will be instead of “stepping-off,” the safety will be sinking into the box. Either way, the safety will protect the intermediate zone from quick slants or post routes.

Another way a Quarters team can function using Rip/Liz principles is by inverting the boundary safety. This technique functions just like Sky except the safety is near or on the line of scrimmage (LOS). Much like Rip/Liz, the safety will cut underneath #1 to the boundary and will insert outside-in on any run. His presence near the box allows the defense to have a plus-one in the run game (and many offensive run schemes won’t even consider him as a box player).

02 Drop

The main difference in function between Rip/Liz and Quarters is the split-field concepts. Even with the boundary safety inverted, the field safety will still hold the vertical of #2. The cover down is different as well. Most 4-2-5/4-3 hybrid teams will either apex or align the Ni on the inside-eye of the slot. Saban puts his Ni outside the slot and uses him to squeeze the slot into the MOF where the field safety is dropping.

Finally, teams can produce a quick force player to the boundary is with a trapping corner. Coaches familiar with Tampa 2 understand the use and function of “cutting” a corner. By using a sight read from the CB, the defense can insert an unexpected defensive player as the force player near the box. Saban and Venables utilize this cut technique in both their two-high schemes and Don Brown bases out of this to any two removed WRs (Vanilla). Here is an example of Saban cutting the boundary CB against Clemson (a team that likes to run the QB):

The frontside coverage can stay Cloud, trap, or even Quarters. One way to make this function similar to Saban’s Rip/Liz is to teach the CS to act as a pseudo-MOF player by fast bailing and reading the QB and call Cloud instead of cutting both CBs. The frontside CB will carry any vertical of #1 if the slot (#2) goes vertical. Thus functioning very similarly to Saban’s Match 3 concepts. Below are the playbook diagrams for Cut (both CBs are utilizing sight reads):

Cut Tech

The diagram below illustrates the use of a trapping CB. Technically the CB is not in the box fit and the offensive line will not account for him in the fit. This leaves him free to make a play in the backfield.

Cut Tech 2


Saban protects his single-high scheme from verticals by making the seam players carry the verticals of the receivers they are responsible for. The Rip/Liz scheme functions much like a typical split-field Quarters scheme. One of the big differences is on the front side of the coverage. In Saban’s Rip/Liz, the overhang is responsible for carrying the vertical of his man and is usually aligned outside. This forces the slot to bend towards his help in a centerfield safety (CF). In Quarters, the safety would stay frontside and “top” the vertical of the #2 WR. This would allow the Ni to work from the traditional curl to flat (C/F) and be a quicker force to the box. With Saban spinning, there are six in the box and the DEs will assume the force role. Defense is all about creating overhands and cover downs. Saban has found a way to create multiple options from a Match 3 scheme (that functions much like a Quarters defense).

Another way Saban protects his Match 3 scheme from deficiencies is by spinning weak. As illustrated earlier in the article, spinning weak ensures that the defense has a plus-one to the backside. This extra defender is not considered in the box and can be a huge advantage in the run game. In Saban’s Rip/Liz scheme, this safety functions much like an aggressive Sky safety, fitting into the box if needed. The Sink technique can be utilized in a Quarters scheme when a DC wants to be aggressive to the run on the backside. The technique ensures that the safety is not too quick to the box. Regardless of your base scheme, it is important to review what the top teams at any level are doing and try to adapt them to your scheme. Utilizing a split-field Quarters scheme gives you an adaptability that allows for you to do this in numerous ways.


Other Rip/Liz Resources:

Cripes! (Brophy) – Nick Saban: Cover 3 Adaptation (Rip/Liz) To The Spread

Ted NguyenHow to understand Nick Saban’s pattern match cover-3 defense.


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20 thoughts on “Learning How to Spin – Adapting Saban’s Rip/Liz”

    1. Step-hinge to #2 reading his near hip. If it is x1, then you are reading mesh. Any OUT cut you take & any run action you continue working towards the box as the FORCE player.

  1. In Saban’s rip liz with the seam players outside #2 and carrying verts, how does the ILB play a swing route out of the back. I know it says they push but by push do you mean play man on him? My thoughts were maybe the seam player bango’s with the ILB?

    1. ILBs have to push with the RB. The only way they switch is if #2 works inside. Even then, any vertical stem pas 5 yds will be hard for the overhang to come off of. Otherwise, the O could just sent #2 vert and the push the RB. The slot would be wide open since the MOF safety has to play both hashes.

      1. In Rip/Liz yes. The overhangs are taking the very, so the ILBs have “3 thru.”

    1. Cloud is a match concept, so the CB isn’t cutting & the safety isn’t working to midpoint. Trap is w/ the CB cutting.

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