Hokepoints Draws Up Rolex

Submitted by Seth on May 1st, 2013 at 8:28 AM

Sorry this one's short, since I'm neck deep in the HTTV editorial right now. When we did the Marlin Q&A I shot him a question over email after the fact about his favorite type of defense. The answer I got back was very detailed, and mostly Greek to anyone who hasn't immersed themselves in it. I also thought it made a great snapshot answer to the question of what's the difference between college defense and pro/Alabama defense.

The question:

What's your favorite type of defense/base formation? Is there one that's more fun to play in and another that you think is the most effective, or are those one and the same?

My favorite type of defense is the 4-3  zone blitz with a mix of cov 4 and cov 2. My favorite coverage was one named Rolex, a mix of cov 4 and 2. DBs must read the number 2 receiver in order to know which cov to play, if 2 goes to the flat, outside corner comes off one and plays cov 2 while the safety pushes over the top of #1. If #2 goes vertical instead of to the flat, the safety takes #2 and the corner stays on #1 playing quarters cov.

Glossary (skip this part if you're already comfy with football terms)

4-3: The 4-3 you know: four linemen and three linebackers. Because the NFL plays with so many different fronts, specifying the base shift isn't necessary—they're going to align to what the offense shows and change it up three times before the snap to confuse the offense.

Zone blitz: Credited to the '71 Dolphins and popularized by LeBeau with the Bengals and Steelers. All it really means is dropping guys you'd expect to pass rush into coverage and blitzing from one of the guys you'd expect to be playing coverage. In a 4-3 defense it usually means a defensive end is in dropping into coverage and a linebacker or safety is blitzing. Granted your DEs are not going to be Ed Reed out there but it's effective because you screw up the OL's blocking assignments and you can get some quick picks from quarterbacks trained to throw in the direction of the extra rusher.


a typical cover-2 zone blitz

Cover 4 and Cover 2: Two basic defensive schemes for playing zone defense:


As you can see by the size and shape of the coverage zones, they have different strengths and weaknesses. Cover 2 is strong against short passing and is effective against the run because the linebackers don't have to go very far and the corners can keep that edge. It's weak to either side of the safeties, beaten by abusing the MLB deep or the spot on the sideline over the corner's head. Common routes to beat Cover 2 are seams, four-verts, and posts, which put receivers on either side of the safety's zone, or going high-low on the cornerback, making him pick between receivers running routes both under and over him.

Cover 4, also called "Quarters" is strong where Cover 2 is weak, and vice versa. You attack it by attacking the flat, for example with stop routes or making a linebacker carry a receiver/tight end to one side of his zone and having a back roll into the spot just vacated. You also can attack Cover 4 by running into it, but because the coverage just went back to normal for those safeties, and because the NFL has guys like Marlin, and Polamalu, and Ed Reed available to them, some coaches use this opportunity to line up one or two safeties in the box as supplemental run stoppers, trusting he'd have the speed to get back to a deep zone. Ohio State and Virginia Tech do a lot of this. The base quarters play is this:


The Flat: You should know this but it's the area between the hash marks and the sidelines within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.


1 receiver, 2 receiver: Lots of coaches have different terms for the different receivers in any given formation, and defensive coaches have their own sets again for better kenning. In this terminology throw out all the stuff about slots and Y's and split ends versus flankers, and just think of the No.1 receiver as the outside guy.1and2

Cover 2 and Cover 4 both split the field in half, so in the defensive back's mind he just needs to be watching to see what the receivers are doing on his side, hence the plural 1's and 2's.

High-Low: He didn't say that but it's what this play is trying to prevent. The cornerback on the right of this gif is getting high-low'ed:


In this case the corner plays it safe and decides to stay with the receiver running a flag to the top of the corner's zone, effectively forcing the corner to play a Cover 4 zone and abandon his Cover 2 zone, where there's now a tight end hanging out with a whole lot of nitrogen. Boom: high-low'ed.

If you look at left side of the above-gif'ed play, you can see they're running the other thing that beats Cover-2, putting the free safety in a bad choice (and requiring the cornerback to turn and carry the receiver out of his zone). If you start covering the flat and leave the #1 receiver to the safety, the offense can punish you deep and down the middle. Here the free safety was put in a bad choice between taking the tight end who's already behind the linebackers or a receiver who's behind his corner's zone. Boom: vert'ed.

But what if you could play Cover-4 when they try to verts you, and stay in your Cover-2 zone when they try to hit you in the flat?


This is Rolex


purple means it's a read

The point of this play is to take away one of the methods of beating Cover 2—going high-low on the cornerback—without opening something else up by having the safety and corner read the #2 receiver (for ease I've made this the tight end) and adjust accordingly.

In the example above, if Y goes into the flat, then the cornerback lets the receiver go and covers the flat, and the safety knows he is responsible for that receiver (who you're expecting to head out to corner). If the Y is running a vertical route the corner and safety play a Cover 4.


This Isn't Cover 4 or Cover 2

If you watch the linebackers' zones, it looks like a Cover 2, since the outside guys aren't covering the flats. From the offense's standpoint, the whole thing is playing havoc with the keys you've been drilled on since your first snap: the zone blitz means there's coverage in the direction the pressure is coming from, and though you recognize Cover 2 zones in the first few seconds of the play, when you go to throw the pass that's supposed to beat Cover 2, there's a cornerback or safety playing it super-aggressively.

Whole thing:

Rolex - Copy

How to Beat It

It's a changeup, not a complete defense. Marlin didn't say what they do if the #2 receiver goes on a slant inside or something, but I think that plays right into the teeth of the defense; just double up the #1. I am confused about how they deal with the opposite high-low method:


…since the corner's read is going to drop him into Cover 4—perfect spot to intercept a ball to #2 but who's got #1 now? My guess is he just plays quarters with the linebacker (or in this case the SDE), who has responsibility for the flat. Also the SS is playing quarters so he's got his ears back.


Best I could find after watching lots of tape (Marlin failed to mention it was an Eagles defense until after I'd watched a lot of 2007 Colts). The #2 receiver stayed in to block, and the corner reads the backfield to be sure there isn't an RB trickling out into the flat, then leaps into Cover 4. The LBs are playing Cover 2. Another from that same guy.

Can we try this?

Mattison certainly played with this kinda stuff with the Ravens. But this year we're going to have at least one untrained safety, and the corners have about a year and a half of experience between the two starters. The thing about this play is it requires several defenders all to make the correct read and react to it quickly. It's the kind of advanced stuff that an NFL defense can install and practice until it's second-nature, but seems like a hard thing to get a young secondary to do. In the future, projecting that a handful of the defensive back recruits do work out, yeah I absolutely see Michigan trying stuff like this. Mattison loves his zone blitzes, and you could see in 2011 and last year that he wanted to put some more quarters and mixed coverage stuff in.



May 1st, 2013 at 8:56 AM ^

Isn't this a lot like the base coverage MSU uses? I'm not sure what their LB's do, but their safeties read the #2 and the act appropriately; either by reading run, short pass, or deep pass, and then coverage is adjusted in the secondary. I'm not exactly sure what their corners do on the reads, bit I was under the impression it's not always just drop into a deep quarter coverage. Whatever it is, It may have taken them 4 years to achieve it at a high level, but it has resulted in a very consistently good pass defense and safeties that are up in run support at appropriate times.


May 1st, 2013 at 9:06 AM ^

They play a lot of quarters: http://mgoblog.com/diaries/pat-narduzzi-quarters-coverage-and-evidently-extant-msu-defense-rope-sand but they do a lot more man to man coverage than trying to salvage zones. It's not as sound because you open yourself up to mismatches potentially, and you also turn your back to running QBs, but it's a good college answer when you're dealing with college kids. MSU also doesn't coach dummies: their secondary hasn't had many underclassmen getting playing time, and Dantonio has demonstrated he's willing to pull guys directly out of jail in order to make sure he's got his experienced guys back there.

Space Coyote

May 1st, 2013 at 11:15 AM ^

MSU runs a cover 4 that tends to look a bit like man because they press on the outside. This is great in college, particularly in a B1G without great QBs, because it takes away  a lot of the quick game and screen game in the flats and forces QBs to try to hit WRs over the top near the corner. This is a big reason why teams aren't successful consistently against State, but they do occassionally give up big plays on the outside when safeties are caught peaking or sneaking up or corners simply get burned. This is another reason why State has regularly recruited and played tall CBs.


May 1st, 2013 at 9:41 AM ^

it happening real time during the game.   

It will be interesting to see if the more athletic/mobile DEs we are recruiting will allow us to increasingly disguise A gap blitzes and the like, by picking up more short coverage situations. 


Michael Scarn

May 1st, 2013 at 10:54 AM ^

I'm a little confused on your discussion about beating this coverage with a smash route (or any high low combination).  If the inside receiver releases vertical, the corner will virtually man-up on the outside receiver in quarters coverage, no? You say the corner's read will take him to Cover 4, but Marlin's description says otherwise.  

"If #2 goes vertical instead of to the flat, the safety takes #2 and the corner stays on #1 playing quarters cov."

In your diagrammed play, the safety doesn't have a fun cover on that tight end (although hopefully he'll get a a chip from the SAM), but the corner read receiver 2, saw that he went vertical, and will likely not have too much depth already so he can adequately cover the outside receiver.  

Space Coyote

May 1st, 2013 at 11:37 AM ^

The corner still has to sink because your making sure your note giving up the corner route. This is really intended to prevent plays deep, but it gives players the opportunity to play very aggressive and trick the QB into throwing into something he thinks he's seeing, but isn't really.

Once the safety recovers onto the corner route, the CB will snap back down onto #1. The OLB will most likely cover into the flat a bit more than he would in a typical cover 2, making this a fairly immediate catch and tackle.

To run this offense, you need very fast and atheletic safeties. They need to be able to cover ground and not get beat on double moves back to the inside (fake the corner route, run a post). CB will be responsible for setting the edge (#2 will most likely down block, meaning the CB will have cover 2 run responsibilities). On crossing route by #2 will be called out and passed on to the LBs, CB will cover #1 like man, safety will look for anything coming from the other side of the field (deep cross, LBs will take anything shallow coming from the other side) and slide to double #1 over the top.

Michael Scarn

May 1st, 2013 at 11:55 AM ^

Doesn't making the CB worry about the corner route over his head defeat the purpose of this?  From my perspective, running this defense means you want the ability to be aggressive in the defensive backfield, but also have a relatively simple read for your corners to help them be able to cover deep.  As Marlin describes it, the tight end read means the corner should then snap his head to the outside receiver and cover him pretty aggressively.  If he tries to cover the corner route and the hitch, he covers neither.  (I realize this is the point of the smash concept). However, the safety knows based on his read that the tight end is his, corner route or not.  Make the QB take the time and throw the difficult corner route over a safety.  

I may be confusing myself though, as Marlin uses cover-4 and quarters interchangeably, but I'm choosing to see this as a combo cover-2 and quarters coverage.  

Space Coyote

May 1st, 2013 at 2:46 PM ^

But the way that it will work is that the CB will see the #2 go deep. The CB needs to cover his deep responsibility first and foremost (he's looking for verts at this point). In that time he will be sinking still, which will cover the immediate corner in time for the safety to recover. When he finds #1 (assuming that a smash concept has been used), he will break back on him.

The big advantage of this is that it covers any sort of double vertical route and then allows the CB to aggressively break on any route by #2 into the flat. The safety has to be fast because he's not going to have the outside receiver bracketed if #2 goes into the flat, so he knows right away he has to get to the sideline, meaning he doesn't have middle of the field responsibilities. That's my understand of how it works anyway.


May 1st, 2013 at 11:39 AM ^

I have only been following this site for a few months, so it's mostly been basketball stuff, but I would love to see more posts on this kind of "nuts and bolts" aspect of football.


May 1st, 2013 at 11:56 AM ^

In the top right, just under the HTTV Kickstarter info is a "site search" box. Search for "picture pages", this is where Brian (and others) have taken a play and broken it up into a frame-by-frame analysis. You can also search "4-3" and other tags. Pretty much any football term you can think of, and you can see where it's been discussed earlier on the site.

EDIT: after teaching you to fish, here's a fish:


The FannMan

May 1st, 2013 at 12:50 PM ^

I also recommend searching for "UFR."  Brian breaks down every play of every football game with a paragraph description.  Many plays have a link to video.  You can read what happened and then watch it.  Then watch it again.  He does one for offense and one for defense.  He also assigns points and grades out players.  It is wonderful stuff.  


May 1st, 2013 at 1:31 PM ^

UFR is one of if not the greatest features of the site. But you've gotta walk before you can run. UFR can be a little technical and can get a little inside-joke heavy at times (in a very good way. As a long time reader of UFR i get it completely, but jumping into UFRs might be difficult if you're less familiar IMO).


May 1st, 2013 at 11:43 AM ^

use to run 2 read coverages..

at least they were starting too, with shafer..  its his base coverage,  a 2 drop and a 2 match concept...


both involve reading 2's,  its been my base coverage for 10 years now.

corners always love playing it, espically agressive press corners becasue it allows them to disguise and jump under routes...



May 1st, 2013 at 11:48 AM ^

since the corner's read is going to drop him into Cover 4—perfect spot to intercept a ball to #2 but who's got #1 now? My guess is he just plays quarters with the linebacker (or in this case the SDE), who has responsibility for the flat. Also the SS is playing quarters so he's got his ears back. 


to answer the question,  the olb, is problaby carrying number 2  to the safety,  he may work to the flats if its a short yardage situation..


otherwise the corner is playing both,  basically usuing a creep technique with eyes on qb to decide if he should jump one on top,  or creep under 2  with safety help on top...


reading qb is the key for the corner,  and staying in creep and not raising up..    so its a 2 read,  but its really a 2Q read...    through 2 to QB...


May 1st, 2013 at 12:12 PM ^

More like these please.

But why in the hell can I never, ever never ever ever, complete a corner route against Cover 2 in Madden on Pro level?  Yes the Patriot receivers suck, but corner routes forever get picked in that game.


May 1st, 2013 at 1:22 PM ^

This is exactly the kind of analysis I come here for. Thank you for putting the work into the animated schematics. Very helpful visual aid.

Blue boy johnson

May 1st, 2013 at 4:19 PM ^

Great stuff, although I didn't understand any of it.
I am glad you were short on time otherwise I wouldn't have enough time in my day to read this.
"Sorry this one's short, since I'm neck deep in the HTTV editorial right now."

Ron Utah

May 1st, 2013 at 5:35 PM ^

...since the corner's read is going to drop him into Cover 4—perfect spot to intercept a ball to #2 but who's got #1 now? My guess is he just plays quarters with the linebacker (or in this case the SDE), who has responsibility for the flat. Also the SS is playing quarters so he's got his ears back.

This is simpler than you're making it (but still very difficult).  Just because the corner reads "Quarters" doesn't mean he goes deep.  Once he sees 2 go vertical, he's releasing that responsibility to the safety.  While he will probably continue his backpedal, he's now reading the 1.  When he sees the 1 break for his hitch, he can come down to cover that route and trust that the safety has taken the 2.

The effect of this is that his drop will initially discourage the TE (2) corner route but his eyes are on the 1.

That said, this is a very challenging play for the defense to defend if there is no pressure on the QB and the offense has a good TE(2).  Why?  Because the QB can wait for the CB to come down on the 1, and if the TE (2) is fast and big, he can get deep and wall off that safety to the corner.  Or, if the TE(2) runs great routes (like Gallon) he can double move the safety on a post-corner and get some open space.

This is definitely a route combination that Borges uses and should be effective with Funchess and Butt running that corner route and Gallon underneath on the hitch.


May 1st, 2013 at 8:58 PM ^

This was a quality picture pages, but to say that this type of defense is extremely challenging to implement at the college level I just can't agree with. I ran a similar defense in high school called Blizzard where the corner and safety were expected to read #2 and respond according. It involves making 1 read. Maybe I'm missing something but I just don't see what makes that so challenging for college level athletes?


May 3rd, 2013 at 12:57 PM ^

The coaches above touch on those challenges. You are going against great athletes at this level who can adjust ther routes on the fly if they recognize the coverage. The reads have to be a lot quicker and everyone has to make the right read or you've busted something big. If read 2 is your base defense then yeah you can get really good at this. But if your base defense is a Tampa 2 or Quarters, this is a wrinkle, and takes some time to teach all the mechanisms, especially with the linebackers. I guess I've seen too much awful defense in college to take it for granted that the team will pick this up with all the important nuances in just a few practices, especially when most of the backs are still relatively new to your base defense.