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. Continue reading “Adapting Quarters – Red Zone & Goal Line Coverages”

Running Dime as Your Base – A Lesson From the Big 12

Welcome to the Big 12 where Dime has now become your base.

The Big 12 has always been on the outer limits of what coaches are willing to do on offense and a graveyard for “guru” defensive coordinators (just ask Diaz and Strong). Defenses in the Big 12 play more snaps than the average Power 5 defense. Tempo and the Air Raid reign supreme in a league that prides itself on scoring points. The knock on the league has always been the defenses in the conference. To many outsiders, the Big 12 is offense first, and it is, but if you are looking to defend the spread, there is no other place to look – they live with it every day.

If looking at defensive stats alone, the Big 12 is on the outside looking in, but there is something to be learned here. Starting in 2016, teams in the Big 12, primarily Oklahoma St. (2016) and Iowa St. (2017), began using a modified Dime (3-down) and Nickle (4-down) package to combat the Air Raid heavy teams in the league. I discussed in January’s article about how teams are becoming more fluid in their fronts; switching from 4-down to 3-down without losing scheme.

The Dime package utilized by Iowa St. in 2017 was no different. Versus a run-heavy Oklahoma team, the Cyclones relied on a modified 4-down defense to defeat the Sooners in Norman. There ability to switch from a 4-down to a 3-down without subbing made the scheme a perfect fit for the multiple Sooners. With a TE like Mark Andrews and an H-back like Dimitri Flowers, the Sooners could give multiple looks without subbing. This fact alone is why the Big 12 is so innovative on defense. Hybrid players are a premium in the league. In Iowa St.’s season finale versus a high-powered spread attack in Memphis, Iowa St. utilized the 3-down version of their hybrid Dime to defeat Memphis 21-20.

The Dime/Nickel hybrid defense has become Iowa St.’s base defense and is fluid between the different front structures. When the Cyclones go 4-down, it is no different than if they are blitzing a linebacker from their Dime package. The coverages are similar too. Here is a look at the two base defenses:

Oklahoma St. Nickel (4-Down)

02 Cy Ni Base

Cyclone Dime (3-Down)

06 Cy Di Base Continue reading “Running Dime as Your Base – A Lesson From the Big 12”

Cautious Aggression

Defensive schemes to combat spread offenses.

Introducing MQ’s first full-length book, Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football.

.98 Cover Pic

Buy it on immediately on CreateSpaceAmazon, and Kindle. Click the provider below and order your copy today (Links open in new window).

| CreateSpace | Amazon | Kindle |

Description: As the spread becomes more of the norm in all regions of this country it is important for coaches everywhere to have a resource for defending the modern spread offense. Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football is that resource for coaches. The schemes described in this book are tried and true methods for defending some of the best offenses this country has ever seen.

Starting with “The Why” and ending with “The How.” Cautious Aggression gives coaches a defensive philosophy they can trust. Using diagrams and concise explanations, the book lays out a formula for success for coaches to utilize in their own schemes. Below are the chapters:

  1. Argument for Two-High
  2. Defending the Modern Spread Offense
  3. Defending Run/Pass Options
  4. Systematic Creativity of a Quarters Defense
  5. The Art of Match Quarters
  6. All About the Cover Down
  7. Designing a Modern Defense
  8. Setting the Strength
  9. Defending Formations into the Boundary
  10. Defending Motions

Coaching at the lower levels of football bring its own issues to the table that many Division I football teams do not face. Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football is written for all coaches. The experiences Coach Alexander gained while coaching for Baylor Football combined with his experiences at the high school level has given him a unique perspective on defensive football. Many of the concepts and theories in this book have been adjusted to fit the needs of high school and small college coaches around the country. Come learn “The Art of X.”


Thank you to all that support the site, this book would not be possible without you.

-Cody Alexander

Defending 3×1 Formations – Solo Coverage

Kick the coverage with out the spin.

The biggest issue facing defenses when defending 3×1 formations is the run/pass conflict of the Mike. No other player in a 3×1 formation has more on their plate than the leader of most defenses. In modern football, the age of a “plugger” at Mike is over. Each LB must be able to cover underneath routes and understand how their run fits relate to their pass drops. Defenses can no longer afford to drop their LBs to “zones” or landmarks. Each player is a link in a chain. As the spread becomes a permanent fixture in most regions’ football cultures, defenses are turning to match schemes to help alleviate the issues seen in traditional defenses.

Traditionally, teams have spun to the three-receiver side to allow the Mike to stay in the box, switching his responsibility of relating to the #3 receiver to “plugging” the middle of the formation. Eliminating this run/pass conflict helped defenses against the “spread-to-run” offenses but it opened them up to high percentage throws that could easily become fatals (TDs) when those offenses ran play -action. In the diagram below, an Over Cover 3 scheme is shown:

.99 C3

Right away, the main issue with Cover 3 or “kick” coverage to Trips is the backside corner is in man-to-man coverage with the single WR. Offenses traditionally have left their best receiver at the “X” because of this defensive scheme. The best offensive receiver on the field is lined up across from a player with little to no help. This can spell disaster for defenses. As the spread as evolved, offenses have developed reads for the third level. If a defense spins to a 3×1 formation (“kick”) the offense can easily check to a backside choice route depending on the leverage of the corner. For most, this is a post route ran right off the back of the kicking safety. This is a high percentage throw that can spell disaster for defenses.  Continue reading “Defending 3×1 Formations – Solo Coverage”

Defending Empty and Quads Open

When teams empty the backfield know how to line up.

Teams run empty backfields to isolate WRs and open the middle of the field. With more teams opting for athletic QBs, empty sets have become a way to expand the QB running game. Defensive coordinators that want to keep a six-man box are forced to run “Zero” coverage behind the front with help only coming by late support underneath from the inside linebackers (better to just send a six-man pressure and force an errant throw), or spin to single-high. Either way, “Zero” or single-high coverage, the defense is putting its defenders in one-on-one situations. Split field defense can adjust to any empty set, but it puts the ILBs in conflict. Following base Trips rules and running an Under Front versus Empty, the Will LB is responsible for the “A” gap yet has to cover down to the weak slot. This conflict can be used against the defense and is a primary example of why Empty sets are so hard to defend.

The sister formation to Empty is Quads. This set stresses the defense even more and forces the backside safety to become a box player. The Quads set shifts the defense to the four WR side. This shift puts the DS into primary fit support in the “A” gap and completely takes the Mike LB out of the fit (another reason teams like Quads). By taking a box LB out of his fit, the offense has now forced the defense into an uncomfortable situation. Spread teams also like Quads when they have a stud WR. By alignment alone, Quads forces a one-on-one situation to the single WR side. The DS still can help the backside CB, but with any run action by the QB, or a pulling Guard, the DS must honor his fit and work into the box. This allows a brief window in the middle of the field (high percentage throw). Whether 3×2 or 4×1, the offense can put immense pressure on defenses by eliminating the RB from the backfield. All is not lost, 4-2-5/4-3 split field defenses have several ways they can combat empty backfield formations without blitzing or dropping eight.  Continue reading “Defending Empty and Quads Open”

Defending Trips – Special Coverage

If the offense won’t throw to #1, lock him up and reduce the field.

When defending a team that runs Trips it is important for the defense to have multiple coverage options. Depending on how an offense chooses to attack a defense the selection of the right coverage can be crucial. Being able to switch from base coverage to base coverage allows the defense to keep the offense on its toes. If a defense only runs one base coverage against Trips, offenses will quickly find a way to exploit it. This fact alone should encourage a defensive staff to carry multiple coverages into a game and be able to use them when the opportunity arises.

Many times offenses use the #1 receiver as a decoy or chooses to run him off to create a void so the #2 or #3 WR can run an out route into space. One way to counteract the nonuse of #1 and outs by #2 or #3 is to run Special Coverage. Unlike Stress where the Sam is blind to what the #3 WR is doing, Special eliminates the #1 completely and reduces the field. The Sam takes on the responsibility of a Two-Read CB. His eyes are squarely on #2 and will carry the vertical of #2 if the offense runs vertical routes. Like Stress, the key player is the Sam linebacker and his ability to run with a vertical route. Eliminating #1 puts the Sam on an island with #2. As stated earlier, having options in coverage is important to defending the spread. A defense must be able to adapt to any situations and adjust to any formation/scheme thrown at it.  Continue reading “Defending Trips – Special Coverage”

Defending Trips – Stress Coverage

Most HS QB’s can’t throw the 15 yard Comeback. So make’em.

Defense is reactionary by nature. The offense knows the play and the defense must be structured enough to counteract and defend. Outside of forcing the offense’s hand through pressure, a defense must play on the law of averages and use the tendencies of the offense against them. For most high school offense the #1 wide receiver in a Trips set rarely gets the ball, and when he does it usually comes by way of an underneath route or a sprint out by the offense. Few high school QB’s can make the 25-yard comeback throw from the opposite hash. The few that can make the throw must execute the long throw which can tend to hang in the air long enough for a good corner to react to it. Plus, most high school offenses won’t run a four vertical play and attack the #1 WR to the Trips side. Usually, it is the #2 on a bender or the “X” WR to the boundary (especially if the defense is “kicking” to the three WR side). Using the law of averages can give the defense an advantage and protect itself from the backside fade and a “solo-ed” CB.

Defending Trips is about sectioning off the formation and forcing a weak armed QB to make a long throw. Some defensive coaches turn to Special coverage against Trips because the #1 WR rarely gets the ball. In Special, the CB will lock on the #1 WR and the defense runs a Two Read scheme by bracketing the #2 and #3 WRs. This allows the Sam to move to outside leverage of the #2 and drive on any out routes. The #3 WR bracketed by the Mike underneath and the field safety (Cover Safety – CS). There are several issues when Special is the base defense against Trips. One, the coverages is susceptible against crossing routes by the #1 and #2 WRs. Since the CB is locked on the #1 WR he must follow him everywhere he goes (MEG coverage). Offenses can easily use rub and pick routes to wall off the CB and knock off the Sam. Another issue with Special is the vertical of #2. Since the Sam is outside leveraged, and the CS is holding the inside of the #3 WR, it is easy for the offense to use a four vert scheme to attack the coverage. Most teams will run the #3 WR on an “over” route to the opposite hash allowing the #2 WR to bend into the middle of the field (MOF) creating a window and a relatively easy throw for any QB. By alignment, the Sam is beat to the inside and must work outside-in to get hands on the WR. Special is great when teams are running out routes with #2 and #3 and is a coverage all two-high defenses need in their repertoire. If teams are attacking vertically, Stress is best.  Continue reading “Defending Trips – Stress Coverage”

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:

02-sky-vs-sz-pap

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.

Continue reading “Defending 20 Pers. With Read Coverage”

Defending 20 Personnel – Over vs Under

How to attack 2o pers. using the offense’s tendencies.

There is a reason so many spread teams are using 2o personnel as a base formation. Slot-T teams like Auburn use jet motion and pulling guards to out leverage the defense, even using RPOs to find wide open receivers downfield. Florida St. uses a split-backfield to 01-pop-setsattack the defense with speed to the edge. Teams like Baylor and Ole Miss use 20 pers. formations to use RPO style attacks, Baylor with the third level vertical option routes and Ole Miss with Arc-Read RPOs. There are multiple ways to attack a defense from 20 pers. just using the backfields alone. Each set can create a different read for the QB (all this without using unbalanced and motion). The diagram to the left depicts some of the more popular backfields an offense likes to run out of 20 pers (this doesn’t even include Pistol or “I” sets). When breaking down a 20 pers. offense, each backfield creates a new formation. If an offense uses each one of the above backfield sets in their offense, it forces the defense to look at the formational data with a more critical eye.

For a defensive coach, 20 pers. causes problems not only in the backfield but with the three receivers. There is a tendency by some DC’s to spin against 20 pers. The thought process behind spinning is the offense has added another blocker, and potentially another gap, so to counteract tspin-to-hhat, a DC will spin. The diagram to the right depicts a defense that has spun to the H-back. This allows the Sam to work back to the box. Though the defense has created a plus-one to the field, they have left themselves exposed to the boundary. All an offense has to do is run a simple Arc-Read to the boundary and the offense has a numbers advantage. If a defense is going to spin against 20 pers., it is in the defense’s best interest to spin weak. Leveraging the boundary allows the pass distribution to the field stay intact, and a defense can play a hybrid quarters scheme to the boundary. The issue with spinning to the boundary is the third-level RPO read off the dropping safety. Teams that run a backside choice with the single receiver will see the dropping safety and run a post/slant right behind him. The best plan of action versus a 20 pers. offense is to stay in a two-high scheme and use the safeties as extra box players. The question now is, what about the front? Continue reading “Defending 20 Personnel – Over vs Under”

Lining Up to Ace

What to do with those two extra gaps.

.01 ACE-TREY HEADER.png

Lining up to an Ace set can be one of the most difficult formations for any defensive coordinator. The two extra gaps created by the TE’s force the defense to account for them in the run fits. If the offense decides to line both receivers up on the same side (Trey), it creates a three-receiver formation, with the added pressure of an extra gap to the strong side. Away from the Trey side, there is a “nub” TE (TE with no WR) and another gap created that the defense has to account for and subsequently defend (versus a traditional 11 personnel set, the defense can easily address the newly created gap). The concern in 11 personnel shifts to how a defense addresses the cover down to the two-speed side.

When offenses run Ace Trey, the defense has to account for two extra gaps as well as the cover down on the two-speed side. If the offense runs its sets from the pistol, they literally have two strong points of attack. The Ace grouping of formations is very similar to the Diamond in the fact the offense can max protect and run with extra blockers from an even set, essentially gaining a two-way-go and the ability to  attack the side the offense feels it has the most advantage. Unlike the Diamond formation (inverted Bone), where the extra gaps can be created by the backfield post-snap, the Ace formations establish the gaps before the snap of the ball. This immediate addressing of the gaps forces the defense to show its cards. Continue reading “Lining Up to Ace”

Leveraging the Boundary

Using the boundary CB and Safety to confuse RPO and check-with-me teams.

Basing out of a defense that has split field coverage has its advantages when it comes to 2×1 and 3×1 sets. Many spread offenses split the field themselves, only reading one side of the formation. This allows defenses to take advantage of the one read RPO systems that many spread teams utilize. No matter what the defense throws at a split field match quarters team, it can align in the correct coverage. Another way to protect the defense is to formation the defensive play calls.

The single receiver and slot receivers are the main targets for RPO spread teams. They use the leverage of the secondary against the defense, reading dropping safeties and the depth of the corner. The single WR side usually sees the quick hitch or slant off of play action. Teams like Baylor use the leverage to RPO vertical choice routes. A defense can confuse the QB by playing with the leverage of the secondary pre-snap. This may seem like single-high to the untrained eye, but with a split field coverage scheme, a defensive coordinator can change the leverage to the boundary (single receiver side) and still run the base quarters scheme.

Continue reading “Leveraging the Boundary”

How to Package Your Blitz Calls

Offenses are packaging their plays, why can’t the defense?

Packaged plays are all the rage right now in the world of offensive football. The emergence of the RPO has created a disparity between the offense and defense. As offenses find ways to package their plays and react off the alignment of the defense, it is putting tremendous pressure on defensive coordinators to call the correct pressure at the right time.

Spread teams are constantly looking to create matchup problems with formation into the boundary (FTB), wide splits, and tempo, the defensive schema must begin to change in concerns to playcalling if the defense is going to keep up, especially in regards to how defenses line up and attack formations. Defensive coaches who call plays/pressures by field/boundary or strong/weak need to adjust their theories.

Calling plays to a direction is no different than guessing and is short-sighted because no-huddle teams can run several different formations, and get into different personnel sets without subbing. In reality, by calling a “strong side” blitz a defense could be running it right into the exact thing it doesn’t want to, an extra blocker or puts their coverage into a critical situation. When offenses play with a tight end, or H-back, they can run a Spread set one play (10p), TE set the next (11p), and switch to a two-back power formation to finish it off (20p); all this while the offense tempos and the defense must adjust on the fly.

Defenses that don’t adjust their playcalling to formations have a tendency to call blanket coverages and blitzes. This can work for a while, but once an offense realizes the defense isn’t necessarily adjusting it can take advantage of the “country” coverages or un-formationed pressures. In the case of the diagram below, TCU had to defend an 11 personnel, 10 pers., and finally a 21 pers. set back-to-back-to-back with tempo. If a DC is not formationing his calls, he could get into something that is fatal or even worse not call anything and ends up predictable (static).

3plays

If a defense doesn’t package its blitzes, or formations its calls, then it is at a huge disadvantage. Guessing against tempo and RPO teams is deadly. On paper, the best way to approach calling blitzes is to allow the offense to get set and then call the blitz. That sounds great, but against tempo teams, it is impossible to wait. How does a defense call blitzes that react to the offensive formation? Simple, package the blitzes that come from the same blitz or movement tree.

Offenses combine different plays all the time. By combining several plays into one call, the offense can quickly react off the “box” numbers, defensive alignment, and/or coverage scheme. Essentially they can run a different play every time the ball is snapped without subbing (or even changing formation). One of the best examples of packaged plays by an offense was seen in the 2013 BBVA Compas Bowl in 2013. Ole Miss stays in the same formation, yet runs four different plays.

Combine this scheme with changing the formation and the defense can get off kilter fast if not structured right. Defenses can package calls or pressures too. One way is by packaging blitzes from the same tree and keeping the base defensive structure and rules. See the example below. The diagram illustrates the same blitz, “America“, but run to fit what the offense gives it. Like a defensive RPO. In this case, the blitz reacts off of the formation (2×2 and 3×1).

99-same

Continue reading “How to Package Your Blitz Calls”