"They got them safeties down low in quarters and we thought we could get over the top of them and Richard ran a great route and Drew made a great throw at the right time." — Jimbo Fisher, talking about the 50-yard TD from Weatherford to Goodman in the second half against UAB.
Obviously, it's encouraging to hear our offensive coordinator talking about exploiting a matchup the defense is showing, but few fans actually know how "quarters coverage" (also known as "Cover-4") functions and why we were able to slip over the top for a crucial big play. This article will explain the basics of quarters coverage and how FSU was able to beat it.
Quarters coverage essentially assigns four players (generally two safeties and two corners in a base defense) to four deep zones, each accounting for a quarter of the width of the field. The corners will have the outside zones, the safeties the inside. There are several benefits to this defense: 1) there is little to no rotation needed since no one player has to cover a particularly large area, 2) there are fewer deep "seams" between zones, and 3) it is typically a productive defense against the run since the safeties (who are responsible for much smaller zones) can play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Even though most defenses try to disguise or mask their coverages in the pre-snap, quarters is fairly easy to identify. Presuming a base defense (some things change with nickel or dime coverages, which we'll cover in a second), an undisguised quarters coverage will have all four defensive backs playing at about the same depth in the defensive backfield at the snap. Typically this is going to be about 7 or 8 yards, meaning both safeties are closer to the line of scrimmage than in a cover-2 (if both safeties are responsible for deep halves, they're typically at 12 yards or even deeper) or a single-safety defense (in which one safety is closer to the LOS). This is one of the biggest reasons many teams often play quarters—both safeties are close to the LOS and can be used in "primary" run support responsibility, meaning either one can have responsibility for a gap in run support (take note of this; it will be important later).
Often defenses will attempt to disguise a quarters look by making it look more like a Cover-2 in pre-snap with both safeties a little deeper and the corners closer to the LOS (either in a press look or within 5 yards). However, immediately after the snap, the corners will "bail" (turn to cover their deep zones) rather than play "hard" to take away the flat (as they would in standard Cover-2) or play tight to the WR with inside leverage (as they would in man-to-man). The safeties will also not immediately turn and run to their deep zones as would be the case in Cover-2 but will instead initially keep their depth. Corners "bailing" from a Cover-2 look is generally a tell-tale sign that the defense is in quarters. Teams also will mimic single-safety looks with one safety closer to the LOS, but the deep safety will immediately rotate to one side at the snap while the other rotates to his deep zone rather than taking a curl-flat zone as he would in a single-safety zone. Again, the corners will be in "bail" technique.
Remember that, due to their proximity to the LOS, one or both safeties can be used as in "primary" run support, taking responsibility for a gap in the running game. Whether this is the case is directly tied to the scheme used by the defensive front (we'll cover various fronts in the future; suffice it to say that for a team to play an "8-man front," one safety must have a gap). If the team tends to give a safety a gap and play 8 or 9 man fronts, it is critical that the offense know which safety will be used and for what gap (this is where film study is important). Then it is simply a matter of setting up play-action to that safety's gap and slipping a receiver over the top for a score. (There are obviously other textbook ways to attack quarters coverage, but this is most important for our purposes.)
In the second half against UAB, Florida State was able to establish a fairly successful running game, forcing UAB to bring their safeties up in quarters coverage. When Jimbo Fisher saw this from the press box, he put Richard Goodman (one of our fastest WRs) in the slot (matched up with a safety likely to be used in run support) and had him simply run over the top of the safety, who had to be mindful of the run because of our prior success. All that was missing for this to have been a "textbook" case was the playfake, which was unnecessary this time simply because Goodman was fast enough to beat the safety over the top without it. Few college safeties in single coverage will be a match for Goodman's speed, let alone a safety with run support responsibility. The end result: Touchdown, Florida State.
That we were able to score in this way is a huge positive to take from this game. First of all, having even a remotely decent run threat to force the safeties up is a huge improvement from last year. Secondly, that throw over the safety requires that the ball be driven downfield without hanging in the air. It is not one that Weatherford has consistently made over his first two years, and that he made it with such authority is a sign of real growth. In addition, the mechanical improvements that allowed him to make that throw (a deep drop and a solid step into the throw, two things he was not doing last year) have been evident throughout the first two games. Jimbo Fisher's impact on our offense is already visible; it's only a matter of time before larger-scale improvement results from the attention to detail we are seeing. At any rate, having executed this play against UAB will force defenses to think twice about walking their safeties up to challenge the run, allowing our offense even more room to work.