Three Coverages Every Quarters Team Needs in Its Toolbox

Go beyond static Quarters and be aggressive in your coverage schemes.

Split-field Quarters is one of the most adaptive and flexible defenses a modern defensive coordinator can base out of. It molds and flexes to fit whatever an offense can throw at it. Offenses can only throw so many different numbers on either side of the center; up to four eligible receivers at the most, and Quarters can adapt to all of them. At the fundamental level, Quarters is based off a numbers system. The corners always relate to #1, the safeties and outside linebackers #2 (bracket), and the Mike always relates to #3. If a player can count to three he can play Quarters.

Utilizing split-field coverages takes the Quarters scheme one step further, creating even more adaptiveness and flexibility. Being able to tag a base defense with small coverage manipulations can transform a static Quarters look into a robber, invert (Sky), or trap coverage. Pressure doesn’t always have to be the answer either. The defensive coordinator doesn’t have to outsmart his coaching counterpart on the other side of the ball, just the young QB trying to run the offense.

Many coordinators want to focus on pressures as a way to combat offensive schemes. Don Brown, the Defensive Coordinator for the University of Michigan puts the words “Solve your problems with aggression,” in his install playbooks. Pressures are a great way to force the issue with offenses, but sometimes a defense needs to sit back and run its base. When sending five or more, a defense loses a man in coverage and can get overexposed or become deficient in a certain zone if the blitz coverage is not structured correctly. On early downs, many top DCs like to sit in their base defense. Being static can have its own set of issues too, but adding coverage tags to change leverage points and run fits can be just as “aggressive” as a pressure and force the QB to beat the defense and not the OC.

Aggression can mean a multitude of different things when it comes to defense. The obvious answer is to blitz, but defenses can manipulate the secondary to be aggressive in their pass distributions and against certain receiving threats. Every offense has counters built into their scheme to take advantage of a defense vacating zones or spinning to single-high. Not every problem can be fixed through blitzing. Sometimes you have to play your base. Below are three ways a split-field Quarters team can tweak their coverage while staying sound and aggressive in nature. You know, Cautious Aggression

1) Read Coverage

Playing Four-Press (Sky) to 20 personnel can be a great deterrent to offenses that utilize RPOs in their scheme. The pressing corners eliminate much of the route tree for the outside WRs and force the offense into low percentage throws outside (Fades). In a typical split-field Quarters coverage, the boundary safety acts as a catch-all and plus-one versus the weak side run (alley). In Sky, the safety can “rob” the underneath of #1’s route (“post hole”) and will drive on any slant. To the field, the Sam can cover down to the slot (full cover down), essentially deterring bubbles routes while the field safety fits off the Sam.

The main issue in Quarters versus 20 pers. is the outside flat to the field. If the Sam is aggressive on run action (play-action or actual run), the offense can take advantage of the deep aligning safety and the corner being run off by #1. Even versus an out route the Sam, who aligns inside, can be frozen by a run read and late on the pass. See below:


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, below, the CS works to a slight outside leverage of the slot while the Sam works closer to the box. Many times teams will bracket the slot by placing the Sam outside of the #2 WR. This tips the offense off about the scheme a defense is trying to do. By allowing the Sam to creep near the box, the defense has given the illusion of a soft flat and pressure from the field overhang. This can give Spread QBs the illusion of pressure and bait them into throwing the RPO screen, right to a robbing safety. This scheme in particular meshes well with a press Quarters alignment.


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 who is working to the middle deep third. If #2 runs an out or underneath route, the DS can square up and read the QB. Here is a clip of Read Coverage’s pass distribution in action:

Against the run, the DS will work back to the boundary or run the alley to the field (much like Solo). 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 drop back five-man rush). In the diagram below, the Mike is shown “clamping” the H-back with the Sam. If a team is prone to arc the H-back or utilizes a pop pass, this technique can be used as a base when teaching Read.

Read v H-Pop

Below is a demonstration of Read versus a base 20 pers. Spread play, the Fade/Out:


Read coverage, or rolling strong in general, isn’t always the safest option though. Make sure you understand how an offense might attack you. Check out this thread on how Virginia Tech attacked Florida State’s Read Coverage during their matchup:

** For more on Read Coverage click HERE. **

2) Steal Coverage

One offense that has grown along with the proliferation of the Spread is the Air Raid offense. The key to any Air Raid offense is the use of a “triangle” and simple high-low reads. The offense has been used to rewrite many record books and its concepts are present in almost all modern spread offenses. The main way Air Raid teams attack a defense is the soft middle of the field left by vertically pushing routes with the outside wide receivers.

This vertical push forces the safeties in a two-high Quarters scheme to climb with the outside WRs. The zone dropping linebackers are left to defend WRs coming from opposite ends or behind their field of vision (and usually better athletes). These simple crossing routes are deadly to a defense that cannot get support from the backside safety or use simple spot dropping to combat the pass. One way a defense can counteract the Air Raids propensity to attack the soft middle vacated by the boundary safety is to run “Steal” coverage.

Unlike “Read” Coverage that takes advantage of the offense attacking the front side triangle, “Steal” coverage uses the boundary safety as a “robber” for the crossing routes. Many Air Raid offenses will use a fade route to clear the zone opposite the crossing route. This puts the safety in conflict and forces his vision away from the incoming route. If utilizing a 2-Read scheme, the safety will work to “top” the fade leaving a void in the middle of the field if the front side safety is beat to the inside.

Much like its sister coverage Solo that defends 3×1 formations, Steal uses the boundary safety as a “spy” on a front side WR. The main objective of the boundary safety in Steal is to read the crossing route and hold his ground in the window vacated by the Will LB (who pushes with the vacating RB). On the surface, Steal looks very similar Read coverage. The major difference is in the front side pass distribution. The CS will work much like a safety in a Tampa 2 scheme, working to the midpoint of #1 and #2, but staying in the “post hole” like he would in Sky coverage. Both CBs play the scheme as though they are in Sky coverage (MOD – Man On Demand). The backside safety (DS) will sit in the “post hole” and read the front side slot for any over route coming into the MOF. The coverage gives the illusion that the MOF is wide open, baiting the QB to throw to the MOF where there is a safety spying on his eyes. The diagram below demonstrates Steal Coverage versus the ever popular “Y-Over” route combination:


** For more on Steal Coverage click HERE. **

3) Boundary Trap

Cover 2 (Tampa) defensive coaches will be familiar with the term of “cutting the CBs.” In traditional Cover 2 (Tampa), the CBs will “cut” to the slot if it appears there will be an out route or “pop” pass. Some defenses will even give a “trap” call to get the CB to work inside the #1 WR and key the slot. The safety will stack him and work as though he is a Cover 3 CB (splitting the “unit” and staying deep”). The issue with “trapping” the two WR side is the exposure of the defense to deep inside cuts (especially versus play-action — No pole runner).

Instead, a DC can utilize the “trap” technique to the single WR side and gain an extra man near the box. The fact that a defense is willing to trap the single WR side allows the defense to then blitz that player. This cat-and-mouse game can confuse a QB and frustrate an OC who is trying to call the “perfect play.” Below is an example of Trap:

In the image below, if the offense were to run an Arc Read (“H” comes across to seal the Will while the QB reads the DE) or even a Counter, there is no one responsible for the secondary player lurking near to the box. If an offense reads the leverage of the boundary secondary to flip a pass out to “X” on a hitch, the Trap alignment can muddy the read, or even give the illusion that the WR is open. If this is the case, the CB can either jump and bat the ball down or “cut” to #1 and pick it off. All the while, the DS is sitting on top in case of a completion. Here is a diagram showing run fits versus a weak side Counter:

06 Trap vs CTR (w)

The use of trap coverages can help a defense disguise its calls and muddy reads for RPO teams. Trapping or cutting isn’t only for the CBs. The safeties can get involved by using tags like “Invert” or “Sink” to get the safety to drop near the box on the snap of the ball. These “trap” techniques and tags work because they don’t change the overall structure of the defense. In Sky, the safeties sit in the “post hole” or the intermediate zone. Dropping the safety near the box only changes his alignment and not his responsibility in the pass (CB still has the top in Sky). Changing run fits and giving the illusion of blitzing from the secondary puts an unblocked man near the box and also changes the run fits, keeping the offense confused. Take another look at an example of trap coverage to the boundary. If the QB would have kept the ball (pull) the trapping CB would have been there to collect.

For more on Trap coverages click on these links:

Also, Don Brown has some unique was to play with the secondary vs 11 pers., Y-off,  or 20 pers. formations: How Don Brown (DC – Michigan) Defends 11/20p 2-Back


© 2019 | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

Go deeper than just X’s and O’s. Have a philosophy. MQ’s books are available on Amazon and Kindle:

Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football

Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense

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Author: MatchQuarters


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