Coach's Corner

While these articles might be too basic for some of you, hopefully most of you will find some insight in this summary of traditional pass coverages. While terms and calls will vary from team to team, most teams employ a combination of these schemes.

Robber Coverage

If you're only interested in college and pro coverages, ignore this section, as this defense is designed to stop the heavily "run-oriented" offenses many HS teams face. While the safety play mirrors the rules of Cover 2 Invert from the previous article, this defense is played out of a "4-4" or "5-3". This means there are only 3 DB's on the field, which means only one safety. Obviously, the superior passing offenses of the levels above HS make a fourth DB a necessity.

In Robber coverage, the corners are playing deep zones, each responsible for ½ the field. Depending on their speed and coverage abilities, they are taught to align anywhere from six to nine yards deep and just inside the No. 1 receiver their side. To combat the quick passing game (one or three-step drops by the QB), their technique at the snap is just a bit different. Instead of immediately giving up ground by backpedaling, they are taught to "shuffle, shuffle, backpedal." This shuffle technique, when mastered, allows them to break up more effectively on quick hitches, outs or slants and make a play on the ball or receiver. Once the corner correctly reads drop back, play action or rollout pass, and the deeper routes that are associated with those pass plays, his responsibilities turn to normal deep zone principles, which were briefly touched upon in the Cover 3 section of my first article.

While the corners are the DC's "safety net" in this defense, the reads and the instincts of the safety determine it's ultimate usefulness. The safety aligns eight yards off the ball in the strong side "A" gap (between the center and guard). This puts him in a good position to react to his reads, and gives the OC an incorrect read as a traditional Cover 3 look. Several of the safety's reads were mentioned in the Cover 2 Invert article, but I'll list them again. The safety reads the TE's initial movements after the snap, so if: TE blocks down, S runs the alley immediately (S attacks the LOS just outside the tackle-box), providing run support from the inside-out; TE drive blocks out, S flies to C-gap (gap between TE & tackle) for run support; TE arc blocks (tries to hook or reach the outside defender on the line of scrimmage), S runs the alley, trying to scrape off the TE's rear end to provide run support; TE releases on a vertical pass route, S covers him man-to-man; TE releases into the flat on a pass route, S looks to "rob" the No.1 receiver, who is often running a slant pattern back towards him (looking for the INT or a "light's out" hit); and there are more reads as well.

With all of the talk on IrishEyes regarding the "Apache" position, it is interesting to note the safety in this Robber coverage is a hybrid as well. While not to be confused with characteristics of an ideal "Apache", a Robber safety is not a traditional safety. In this coverage, the responsibilities and traits of a good traditional safety are better suited for the two corners. The Robber safety, on the other hand, needs to be more physical and a very strong tackler. His value in this defense comes as a run-stopper. Most blocking schemes cannot account for this extra defender in the box soon after the play starts, so if the safety has mastered his reads, he is often unblocked.

This defense is ideally suited for a "pro set" (two RB's, two WR's, one TE) or any other two back sets. A minor adjustment that is often seen is a "twins" set (both WR's on one side, opposite the TE). In this case, the defense has a "corner over" call. Both corners will align on the same side of the field as the WR's, bracketing them. They still play zone coverage, with the inside corner having more field to cover. This "twins" set doesn't change a thing for the safety, his reads and alignment remain the same. There are a multitude of adjustments depending on formations, but any one-back offensive set requires the defense to "check-out" of this coverage.

Strengths of Robber Coverage:

Great run support. If the safety reads run due to the TE's block, he becomes a ninth man in the box very quickly. As long as the offense uses two or more backs in the backfield, it is very flexible, and can be adjusted to account for multiple formations and motions.

Weaknesses of Robber Coverage:

With the popularity of the spread offense, more teams even at the HS level are using one-back and no-back sets. Due to the intensive drill-work the safety needs to master his reads, any team that faces several spread offenses on its schedule needs to decide if it is worth their practice time to perfect a coverage they won't be able to use against various opponents each season. And just like Cover 2 Invert, a misread key by the safety can lead to disaster.

Cover 4

As I've mentioned before, most DC's label their coverages in a manner that will make them easy to remember for their players. Once again in Cover 4, the number represents how many DB's have deep responsibility. Cover 4 is a four-deep zone coverage. Each DB is responsible for ¼ of the field. The linebackers and possibly a nickel and dime DB will be responsible for the underneath coverage. At the HS level this coverage is usually the DC's "prevent" defense. So it is called when the DC is willing to give up a short pass, but absolutely cannot give up a deep completion. On rare instances, it can be used when the DC believes the offense will try a deep throw, even in down and distance situations that don't call for that type of play.

The game situations that call for Cover 4 present the DB's with more of a cranial game. Whether it is the last play of the half or game, or third-and-very-long situation, or first-and-10 with two minutes left and your team is nursing a two TD lead, the game of football is still a place for players who can think. Some of my proudest moments as a coach have come in these situations. I've watched a DB, unsure of whether or not he could get into position to make a play on the ball, simply let a WR catch the ball and immediately push him out of bounds, ten yards short of the end zone with no time left in the half. Or watching two DB's, both in position for an interception, having the intelligence and team-first attitude to communicate to each other which one will go for the INT, and which one will collision the WR on a "Hail Mary" pass. Or seeing an offense call a "hook and lateral" play, and watching one DB tackle the initial receiver and another immediately wrap up the player running with the lateral. When speaking to youth football camps or junior high teams, I've always encouraged the players to watch some football every Saturday and Sunday. Too many young people are becoming "Vidiots – Video game playing idiots." The little things a young person can learn from watching a little college and pro football each weekend can pay off big as they begin to play the game competitively.

Strengths of Cover 4:

Although fluke plays happen from time to time, this coverage should never give up a big play. If the offense still chooses to try a deep throw, the DB's should be in great position to come up with interceptions. And trick plays shouldn't pose a problem, as all four DB's are concentrating on staying deep.

Weaknesses of Cover 4:

While it has a very valid place in defensive football, going to Cover 4 too early while protecting a lead can allow the opposition to march down the field without much difficulty, thus staying in the game. It is often a passive scheme, which allows the QB much time to throw. It can also lead to defensive players adopting a passive attitude, taking away the "killer" instinct.

Combination Coverages

A strategy often used by DC's to mix things up a bit is the use of Combination coverages. Many times this involves distinguishing a "strong" and "weak" side of the offense's formation, and playing one coverage to the strong side and another to the weak.

For example, my HS team occasionally plays a Cover 2 to the strong side of the formation while playing man-to-man on the weak side. We call that Cover 21. These types of schemes are the result of film study and tendency evaluation. The keys discovered during film evaluation can make the advantages of these combination coverages obvious. When opponents fall into tendencies regarding the running plays or routes they run to the strong side versus the weak side, combination coverages can be used to maximize the defender's advantages.

There are times when a team will run a Cover 2 Invert to the strong side, while running a traditional Cover 2 on the weak side. This would attack an offense that liked to run a more traditional power running game to their strong side, while attacking with triple-option and the quick passing game to the weak side. Once again, the possibilities are endless, depending on how each defense can best attack an offense's strengths and tendencies.

Strengths of Combination Coverages:

Combining schemes allows the DC to tailor each game plan to each opponent. It also disguises the defense, causing false reads for the QB and making the OC's job of analyzing the defense more difficult. Remember, the more "looks" a defense shows, the harder it is for the offense to get into a rhythm.

Weaknesses of Combination Coverages:

The same things that make this an advantage can also be a disadvantage. Without proper practice time perfecting techniques, the greater chance a DB will be out of position. The more a defense has to think, the greater the chance they will play slower, and not instinctively. Just like the OC has to be careful not to have too many plays, taking away from running the basic plays perfectly, the DC has to decide how many coverages he can implement, without taking away from the effectiveness of each scheme. Until you've made the mistake of over-complicating a defense during halftime adjustments, more always sounds better. However, screaming out an adjustment to four DB's on the field, and having two or three of them return no verbal communication, just "blank stares", will instill a Keep-It-Simple,-Stupid (KISS) backup plan. (By the way, having a fellow coach yell out to the DB's "Just cover someone!" is not a sound plan, and will always lead to an ugly sideline confrontation between coaches).

Final Thoughts:

Without going into too much detail, prowling is a term that is necessary in all these coverages. Prowling is the pre-snap movement of the DB's disguising their alignment and coverage scheme. If the defense lines up exactly where they're going to play each snap, the offense has the advantage of reading the coverage and taking advantage of its weaknesses. As the DB's prowl, several of these coverages will look similar. Confusing an offense puts the defense at an advantage. This chess match is a necessity against advanced offenses.

Many schemes are designed to make one coverage look like another, with slight adjustments at the snap of the ball changing the scheme dramatically. In college, our DC used Cover 5 as a Cover 3 look, with the coverage "rolling" to the strong side just before the snap of the ball, or as the ball was snapped, to end up in Cover 2. And while the terms and numbers used in these articles are fairly common, many DC's use different numbers for their coverages.

Without knowing the exact defensive call, and each player's responsibilities, it makes it difficult for us as fans to evaluate a defensive team. While at times a mental or physical breakdown and the resulting bad play is fairly clear, many times the true culprit to blame for the poor play cannot be distinguished without knowing each defender's responsibilities on that particular play. Only the coaches and players know for sure. As we all know, DB's mistakes are costly to the team, and they are rarely eliminated or diminished by a great play by another defender.

The coverages listed in these articles are some of the basic schemes from the high school team I coach. Take what you've just read and multiply it by 100 (or more). Now we're coming closer to the complexity of the college and pro game. Each coverage changes due to formation, field position, personnel package, motion, etc. Attending coaching clinics and listening to the top coaches in their field is an eye opening experience. I recommend it for all football fans. Top Stories