X's & O's: Breaking Down Cleveland Browns' Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton's Go-To Pass Coverages

After setting the front seven in Ray Horton’s attacking 3-4 defenses during last week's film study, the OBR moves to the backend of the defense to break down the aggressive coordinator’s base coverage packages. Join us as we look at scheme, concept, and technique to gain a better understanding of Ray Horton’s favorite pass coverages and look to projecting personnel usage for the season.

Horton's two seasons at the helm of the Tennessee Titans’ defense felt like history repeating itself to observant Browns' fans. While the 2015 Titans’ defense finished 7th in passing yards per game (230 yard yards-per-game), the unit allowed opponents to convert 42.9% of third downs (25th in the league) and recorded only eleven interceptions. The squad was plagued by many of the same issues experienced during Horton’s first stint as Browns’ defensive coordinator: inconsistent pressure on the quarterback, too many big plays, and an inability to get off the field on third down. Let’s dive into the film to determine what Horton’s base pass shells will look like on the field and how they play out when executed correctly.

A key component of Horton’s base shells is his heavy use of a single deep safety in both man and zone coverage, often referred to as MOFC (Middle of the Field Closed). Horton’s use of MOFC coverage concepts can be primarily attributed to two factors:

  1. Safeties (generally the strong safety) are heavily utilized in defending the run-game, particularly on early downs
  2. Horton runs a hyper-aggressive blitz package from multiple position groups, leaving minimal defenders to play pass coverage

Cover 1

Our first base coverage is Cover 1 (also known as ‘man-free’ or’ man-hi’), an across-the-board man defense with a single deep safety protecting the middle of the field.

Man defense is simple in theory; guard your assigned man wherever he goes. Cornerbacks, nickelbacks, and safeties will generally cover outside and slot receivers, with linebackers and safeties covering tight ends and tailbacks.

As we can see in the image above, cornerbacks will cover the outside and slot receivers with the strong safety covering the tight end. The box linebackers will read the tailback using a ‘banjo’ technique in which the back’s release determines who is responsible for his route in coverage (if the defender releases to the defense's right-side the MIKE takes him; if the tailback release to the defense's left-side the WILL takes him).

Next, notice the defenders aligned over their respective men at the line of scrimmage. This is known as press coverage, a key feature of Horton’s man defense.

In press coverage the defensive back will align over the wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. The defender will use his body and hands to disrupt the receiver, looking to deliver a punch to the pass-catcher's chest (known as a jam) before he can release into his route. When executed properly, press coverage works well because it disrupts the timing of the receiver's route, prevents him from releasing cleanly at the line of scrimmage, and allows the defender to stay in his hip pocket through the route stem (or break).

Cornerbacks playing in Horton’s scheme must have the ability to execute press coverage as he relies on the technique to disrupt route concepts, giving the pass rush time to attack the quarterback. (2015 season aside Haden and Williams are good press cornerbacks).

The OBR has previously analyzed press coverage technique while looking at Joe Haden’s disastrous 2015 season; before moving on let's briefly review the concept and technique.

Good press coverage can be broken down into four coaching points (although there is no universal technique):

  1. The Stance
  2. The Jam
  3. Mirroring the Receiver
  4. Locate the Ball

Good press coverage technique starts from the feet up with the cornerback’s stance. The feet should be shoulder width apart, with bent knees and dipped hips to create a low center of gravity. Most of the body’s weight will rest on the balls of the feet, resulting in a slight lean forward. Many coaches teach the body position using the phrase “Eyes and nose over toes,” as this position creates an athletic stance and balance. The defensive make must start froma strong base.

The next coaching point is likely the most well-known, the jam. A guiding principle of man-press is that the hands MUST work with the feet at all times. If the feet stop moving when the jam occurs, the cornerback will lose the battle.

A jam can be executed with one or two hands. When using two hands, the defensive back should aggressively strike the receiver’s chest plate with his palms out and thumbs up. If the receiver has released to one side, the defender should strike with the opposite hand, as this will allow the shoulders to turn in conjunction with the hips. The cornerback must NEVER punch with same hand to the side of the wide receiver release (this will put the hips and shoulders out of alignment, leading to an awkward running position).

The third (and often most difficult) coaching point of press technique is known as 'mirroring' the receiver. The cornerback’s goal is to move in whatever direction the receiver moves using short, lateral steps, or ‘hot feet’. The defender should stay square in his stance to avoid turning too soon. This movement will block the wide receiver from running straight upfield by forcing him to move around the defensive player.

When the wide receiver approaches the cornerback’s hip, he will kick step by opening his hips 45 degrees towards the receiver. By not turning completely, or ‘opening the gate’, the defensive player forces the pass catcher to move around, rather than through him. This angle also allows the cornerback to screen the wide receiver by getting in the path of his route.

Finally, when playing man coverage, the cornerback must never look back for the ball too early, as turning the head slows down the body, creating seperation. Although again the specific coaching points differ by system, defensive backs are taught to read the wide receiver's eyes to cue them to the ball. When the ball approaches the wide receiver, his eyes will enlargen as he tracks it through the air and he will raise his arms to make the catch. When the defensive back sees cues they are taught to 'rake the pocket' by using their arm to rip through the recevier's hands while getting the head around to avoid a pass interfernce penalty.

We can see all our principles of press coverage in action from a short clip showing Joe Haden playing press on Torry Holt in the red zone during the 2013 season.

Moving on, the free safety is responsible for “protecting the post”, or providing deep help against any vertical routes that threaten the middle of the field. The free safety will often cheat his alignment towards the wide-side of the field, the side of the field with the greater number of receivers, or the most dangerous down-field threat (this will vary by system and game plan). In our example above the free safety has cheated towards the wide-side of the field, protecting the deep middle against the most dangerous vertical threat (twin receivers).

Cover 1 is a popular run-down coverage with coaches that scheme their safety to be an active part of run-game defense as it allows the drop safety to aggressively play near the line of scrimmage. Its strength against the pass is provided by physical, tight press coverage, deep help in the middle of the field, and the ability to play behind a blitz. Weaknesses include rub concepts that pick defenders, crossing routes that require defenders to chase a receiver across the field, personnel mismatches created by linebackers/safeties guarding tight ends/tailbacks, and an inability to disguise the coverage pre-snap as each defender must follow any motion by his assigned man.

Let’s see how Cover 1 plays out against a common man-beater, the flat/wheel. Expecting man coverage, the offense wants to use the flat routes to pick the wheel defenders, opening up the vertical routes for an explosive play downfield.

Notice that every defender in coveragee gets hands on his man. Man defenders must be physical at the line of scrimmage as NFL receivers are too skilled to be allowed ‘free releases’. Disrupt the route and stay in the offensive player’s hip pocket to avoid easy completions.  

Focus on the in-the-box linebackers at the snap of the ball. As soon as they read their run/pass key and identify “pass”, both get eyes on the tailback (banjo technique) to determine who will take him in coverage. Because the back releases to the right he becomes the MIKE’s responsibility. Without a man to guard the WILL sinks into the weak hook zone, looking to squeeze passing windows and confuse the quarterback’s read.

The free safety starts the play by reading the EMLOS for his ‘hi-hat, lo-hat’ run/pass key (hi-hat will generally tip a pass; low-hat will generally tip a run). After identifying “pass”, the safety will read the quarterback to speed up his break on any vertical routes. The deep safety is able to break well before the ball is out because the quarterback does not attempt to look him off by moving his eyes away from his intended target. In addition, the safety can read the quarterback’s shoulders as they will ultimately point where the the ball is going.. While the safety has little chance of making a play along the sideline due to the distance he must cover from the opposite hash mark, he does put himself in position to tackle the receiver if the catch is made.

Our next example of Cover 1 takes us to a common formation used to beat man coverage, the ‘stack’ formation, in which multiple receivers line up in close proximity to create picks for each other at the line of scrimmage.

In order to avoid these picks the defenders will use a ‘levels’ alignment and play a FIFO (first in, first out) technique at the line of scrimmage, known as a ‘Sambo’ check in Dick LeBeau’s verbiage (Ray Horton's mentor). The concept is very similar to the banjo adjustment we examined in our first example, a two-on-two match in which the defenders read and match the receiver’s release (in or out).

The defenders will generally align over the stack with one just inside the point man on the line of scrimmage (inside leverage) to play press. This defender will man-up the first inside route, with the second defender aligning 7-8 yards deep and playing man against the first outside route.

We see the Sambo check along the bottom of the image, with linebackers covering the tailback and tight end and a cornerback covering the closed-end receiver. The free safety will play the deep post to provide over-the-top help.

Focus on the pre-snap motion and adjustments by the corner and nickel at the bottom of the GIF:

The defense is running a five-man blitz with the nickel defender attacking the weakside D-gap. Because the tailback stays in to block, the defense has five man defenders to cover four route runners and a deep safety to protect the post. If the pass defenders can hold their coverage through the three-step game and the pass rush gets there, the defense should get the sack or force a turnover.  

Notice both defenders communicate the stack check with hand gestures and (likely) verbal cues pre-snap. The defensive backs execute the stack release perfectly, with the defender on the line of scrimmage matching the outside receiver’s inside release (towards the middle of the field) and the outside defender (on the 20-yard marker) matching the point man’s vertical route. The double-out concept is likely the quarterback’s primary read here, but the excellent coverage takes away both throws.

To the top of the screen the cornerback matches the vertical route by the closed-end receiver and both linebackers wall off the tight end, forcing Marcus Mariota to pull the ball down and take the sack. This is a great example of how good pass rush and secondary play complement each other, leading to a big play and getting the defense off the field.

Cover 3

Our next MOFC coverage concept is likely the most well-known in football, Cover 3.

Cover 3 is a three-deep, four-under zone-based defensive shell that provides great protection against deep routes while bringing extra support to the run-game defense as a safety will play near the line of scrimmage. The defense is set with three defenders splitting the backend of the field into three parts, with one responsible for each zone. A combination of linebackers, safeties, and (sometimes) cornerbacks will play four underneath zones to break on short throws.

Before moving on to the play let’s take a quick look at each of the zones and the technique required to play each.

  • The deep-third zones rules are relatively simple, with the cardinal rule being DO NOT GET BEAT DEEP. The outside-third defender will generally line up 7-8 yards deep with his back to the sideline. He will retreat at the snap using a ‘zone turn’ (back to the sideline) and scan any threats to his zone. He must ensure that he does not get caught peeking into the backfield as smart play callers will overload the player’s zone and/or bait him with inside-breaking routes in order to slip vertical routes behind him (post/wheel).
  • The technique used to play the outside underneath zones is known as a curl/flat drop. The curl/flat defender will open his hips to the sideline and retreat at a 45 degree angle, alternating his eyes between the quarterback and any routes to the flat area. Most curl/flat defenders are coached to not break on routes, but wait for the ball to be thrown and rally down to make the tackle. If any offensive player attempts to cross the defender’s face, he will collision the route to throw off timing.
  • ·The middle-two zones in Cover 3 are known as seam/hooks. The seam/hook defender will gain depth at the snap, collision any defender entering his zone, and carry any vertical routes that do not cross his face.

Cover 3 has a number of strengths that make it highly popular from youth football to the pros. The three deep defenders protect against explosive vertical routes and the drop safety aggressively plays the run game (like Cover 1) as he will play a curl/flat (Cover 3 ‘Sky’) or seam/hook (Cover 3 ‘Buzz’) zone. On the other hand Cover 3 is weak in the flats and seams, can be flooded with three-receiver concepts, and is very vulnerable to four vertical route combinations.

Our first clip examines how Cover 3 plays out against an empty formation running a strongside Y-Stick concept. The image below shows the drops each defender will make at the snap of the ball, although the shell will morph as defenders jump receivers entering their zones.

The zone defenders do a great job matching the patterns according to their zone rules, although the deep-third cornerback almost gets beat deep by Devin Smith’s vertical speed before recovering to pin Smith to the sideline and make a play on the ball. Two examples of great Cover 3 technique stand out here:

  1. The curl/flat defender at the top of the screen does a great job gaining depth to buzz through the curl area without breaking on the flat route. Remember, defenders break on the ball, not on routes. Because the defender does not jump that first route to the flat, he is able to squeeze the stick route from the strongside #3 receiver.
  2. The curl/flat defender at the bottom of the screen demonstrates why it is so important to collision receivers as they attempt to enter the seam. Notice how far inside the #2 receiver takes his route to avoid the jam, putting the weak seam/hook defender (located on the left hash) in great position to carry any vertical routes.

In our future breakdown of Horton’s blitz package we will look at a modified version of Cover 3 known as three-deep, three-under

Cover 4

Our final coverage example uses MOFO, or Middle of the Field Open principles. MOFO coverages utilize two deep, or ‘split’ safeties to take away deep throws in the seams, leaving a hole in the middle of the field.

After Cover 1 and Cover 3, Cover 4, or ‘Quarters’, is likely Horton’s most-utilized defensive shell. He will call the defense in a variety of downs/distances, making its use fairly unpredictable, although it often shows up on third-and-long. The defense is a four-deep, three-under coverage that often involves ‘pattern-matching’ principles in which defenders start in zone before converting to man based on the wide receivers ’releases at the line of scrimmage, much like a match-up zone in basketball.

Cover 4 provides strong run-game support from both safeties, protects against vertical routes due to the four deep zones, and allows outside pass catchers to be double-covered by a cornerback and safety. The scheme is weak in the flats due to only three underneath zones, can be flooded using three-level pass concepts, will give up big plays off post routes due to the middle-of-the-field hole, and leaves the safeties susceptible to play action due to their aggressive fits against the run.

Cornerbacks can play a variety of alignments and techniques pre-snap in a Cover 4 shell. Notice both cornerback’s depth at the snap. The defender to the twin receiver side of the formation is in press alignment, while the cornerback to the single receiver side is playing off-man at seven-yards depth. You will see cover 4 cornerbacks in press, off-man, or a mix and match of the two, providing an element of pre-snap disguise.

The strong and weak safeties are responsible for the inside deep quarters, or the #2 receiver if the defense plays pattern-matching principals. The safety will read the release of the #2 receiver to his side of the field and:

  • Play him in man if he runs a vertical route
  • Zone off and look for other threats to his area if he releases inside (shallow route) or outside (flat route)

The outside, underneath defenders will play the curl/flats while the inside defender plays both hook zones and is responsible for any crossing routes.

Let’s go over some coaching points using the GIF above.

Focus on the underneath defenders first. Because the flats are not threatened both curl/flat defenders gain little width or depth in their drop. They now zone-off looking to squeeze the short and intermediate passing windows and rob any routes coming behind them. The underneath defender at the top of the screen attempts to wall off the #2 receiver as he enters his crossing route, but fails to make contact. Not a good example of technique as the linebacker needs to slow down routes breaking inside towards the hole between the split safeties. The middle-hole defender easily takes away the tailback’s short sit-down route to complete the short-game coverage.

The press cornerback (top of the screen) makes minimal contact at the snap and zone turns (back to the sideline) to carry the receiver downfield. The off-man corner also makes a quick zone turn to carry his defender vertically, leaving the safeties to play the remaining route, a deep cross.

The strongside safety is likely reading the H-back’s release (#2 receiver to the strongside) for his pass responsibility. Because the H-back blocks as part of the play action the safety immediately moves his eyes to the #1 receiver, creating an outside-in bracket. We see a great example of situational awareness here as the strong safety continues to scan for threats to his zone, allowing him to assist the second deep safety with the crossing route.

While it is impossible to know Horton's verbiage and signals, it is probably safe to assume that they will be more player-friendly than the previous regimes communication system. When executed correctly Horton's concepts and techniques will stop the passsing game, although he third down efficiency needs to dramatically improve. Now that we have examined Horton's base looks, the OBR will dig deeper into several other coverages the 2016 defense will utilize, including the Tampa-2, Cover 6 (often referred to as quarter-quarter-half), and 3-deep, 3-under zone in future articles. Until then, study up on your Cover 1, Cover 3, and Cover 4 technique, watch film, and bring your chalk talk to the OBR forums!

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