In the regular seasn finale losss loss to Michigan State, the Spartans ran an impressive pass play that got them within three points of the Nittany Lions; a play that immediately responded to Rodney Kinlaw's touchdown run and continued MSU's comeback surge. You can see this touchdown strike at the 2:07 mark of the video below. What happened for MSU's sole split end on the field to get wide open? What key role did the Spartan play to open things up?
The general scheme PSU was in was a "Sky" coverage set. In this set, the two corners and the safety are in a basic cover-3 shell to cover the deep zones and cut the width of the field into thirds. The defensive linemen (ends and tackles) enter their standard lineup, with the linebackers behind them in the flat. This coverage allows the defense to disguise different schemes; it can stunt or blitz a corner (which PSU rarely does), a safety or a linebacker.
In this particular play, the two cornerbacks (CB) and the safety (FS) split the deep route flat into thirds, which serve as their deep coverage zones. The corners play about six yards off the line of scrimmage to maintain coverage of the split ends. Michigan State has seven on the line of scrimmage, two in the backfield and one wide receiver, conveying a run play.
In the standard set, the linebackers and remaining safety cover their intermediate zones with the internal players covering the hitch routes and the outer players covering the curl to flat routes. This takes a lot of communication, instincts and speed to run effectively, since the zones can get crowded quickly with crossing routes and slants.
Here are the assignments each major defensive player has on this play:
MLB: Run/Pass Read
LCB: 1/3 Flat Zone Coverage
FS/H: 1/3 Flat Zone Coverage
RCB: 1/3 Flat Zone Coverage
Here is basically how the play is initially set:
MSU snaps the ball and fakes the handoff. Given the stacked line and only one wideout on the field, this immediately draws the linebackers in, as they were likely reading the play as a run from the start, and pulls them away from covering the flat. The running back stays in the pocket to block while the fullback (FB) runs an intermediate hitch route to the flat wing.
With no outside linebacker there to cover the fullback's route, the left cornerback (LCB - A.J. Wallace) breaks off his coverage of the split end to cover the fullback, who he believes is the quarterback's target on this play.
This results in a wide open deep man on the out route. The safety (FS - Anthony Scirrotto) quickly pulls out and pursues the wideout to maintain coverage, but is well out of position and playing catchup at this point. This allows the MSU quarterback to hit the receiver in the end zone, resulting in a touchdown.
This is a sort of compound play that builds off itself. The key to this play's success is the Spartan backfield. First, the play-action fake to the running back freezes the linebackers and draws them in and away from covering the flat. The back then helps pick up the pressure to give the MSU quarterback time for the play to develop.
See the various steps of the play below:
The fullback then runs to the vacant zone out in the wing, which causes the left corner to break off his coverage and release the wide receiver deep. This subsequently leaves him all alone on his route and puts the pressure on the safety, who then has to play to catchup from the center of the field to fill the gap in the coverage. By the time the ball is delivered in the end zone it is too late and Michigan State has its fourth touchdown of the game en route to a great comeback.
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Other breakdowns in our PSU Playbook series: