With Mark Sanchez headed off to the NFL it looks like USC will have a good old fashion QB derby during the Spring and Summer practice sessions. Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain will be the favorites but Garrett Green and Matt Barkley will get their share of looks as well. Who will win? I have no idea. The winner will have to demonstrate various leadership qualities, gain the confidence of their team mates, show the ability to make things happen when the designed play breaks down and of course be able to make all the prerequisite coverage reads and throws.
With that latter point in mind it is a good time during the off season to brush up on the basics of QB reads. Ron Jenkins formerly of El Camino JC has put together some basic material on the topic that is widely available on the internet. I’ll highlight some of the basic thought patterns below regarding the rudimentary aspects of coverages that QB’s have to start learning in high school on up through college and the pro ranks. In a later follow up post I’ll cover ten very basic reads that the QB must make in order to succeed and point out some coaching material for sale by Ron and others on this topic.
Coverage schemes can get very complex but the fundamental starting point is to understand the basic families. Most coaches start by teaching their players the concept of middle of field open (MOFO) or middle of field closed (MOFC). By this coaches mean recognizing whether or not there is a single safety in the middle of the field. Sometimes this is also referred to as reading either “0” “1” or “2” safeties deep. I’ll try to explain below.
In the MOFC category the two main cases are called Cover 1 and Cover 3. Both are eight man front schemes that put an extra defender in the tackle box and rely upon a free safety in the middle of the field. In Cover 1 the defenders are all playing basic man coverage with the help of a single free safety deep for protection. For this reason it is also called Cover 1 Man Free. This sort of coverage scheme would look like the following graphic. Notice how there is a defender in the middle of the field.
Every coverage family whether it be zone based or man based has its weak points and this one is no exception. The strengths are as noted above and teams with good cover corners often use this coverage at certain times when advantageous. Unfortunately the scheme also has its weak points as it is often susceptible to pick and rub type crossing routes and play action passes. Skilled WR’s will beat man coverage if they are more physical and or simply faster than their defender. Big plays in games often result when the offense beats man coverage as there are fewer defenders deep for safety purposes. QB’s can also often scramble to the flats and gain significant chunks of yards as the corners are chasing after WR’s down field.
As an alternative to Cover 1 there is of course the more commonly known scheme called Cover 2. Cover 2 belongs in the Middle of the Field Open (MOFO) or 2 deep category of coverages. When the QB looks up the area behind the linebackers between the hash marks (assuming we are in the middle of the field) is open compared to Cover 1. In this case there are two safety players deep and in basic cases they are dividing the 53 and 1/3 yards of field width between them. Refer to the picture below for an example:
Cover 2 dictates a seven man front as there are two corners playing the flats and 2 safeties playing the deeper part of the field. There are actually a lot of flavors of Cover 2 and I will only briefly mention the more common varieties. The first case is sometimes called hard corner Cover 2 where the corners are used as part of run force on the outside and turn run plays back inside. On pass plays Cover 2 corners cover WR’s to a certain depth and them funnel them off inside to the deeper safeties on the play.
The second case is more of a complex style Cover 2 where the corners read the play as it develops. This is often referred to as the pattern read style of Cover 2. What the corner does on the play depends upon whether it is run or pass and if a pass play it further depends upon what type releases the #1 and #2 WR’s to that side of the field take. Coverage rules are governed by “if – then” type of situational logic.
The third case is the reality that Cover 2 need not be entirely zone based at all. In other words the coverage can be a man and zone combination scheme. Specifically the two deep safeties on the play can be in zone while the five underneath players (2 CB’s + 3 LB’s) can still play man to man. This is normally called Cover 2 Man Under.
The fourth case is the Tampa Two style of Cover 2 made famous by Monte Kiffin and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This style is similar to Cover 2 pre-snap but has an added feature where the MLB drops deep on the play and plugs the middle hole on the play. This makes it more difficult to exploit the middle of the field and essentially becomes a hybrid model between Cover 2 and Cover 3 which I’ll outline next.
Cover 1 is not the only coverage scheme that closes the middle of the field (MOFC). Cover 3 is another eight man front with three deep defenders for pass coverage. This front is very common scheme versus run oriented teams and is a way to provide some degree of safe protection against down field throws. Unlike Cover 1 where the corner backs are near the line of scrimmage and often playing a press technique on the wide receiver in Cover 3 the corners play off the line of scrimmage as shown in the graphic below.
The benefits of this technique is that corners are less likely to get beat deep versus superior wide receivers. The downside of course is that this technique relatively gives up the area to the side of the field known as the flats. QB’s will have an easy time throwing quick out breaking routes, screens, hitches, and other common plays. It has further structural weakness as listed above.
In reality teams often align in one scheme pre-snap and play another scheme post snap. Cover 1 and Cover 3 can easily be exchanged in a moments notice to attempt to throw the QB off of his read. Show one scheme and play another. This disguise intent is of course true for most all coverages.
Just like it is easy to switch between Cover 1 and Cover 3 it is easy to switch between Cover 2 and something called Cover 4. Just as the name implies in Cover 4 there are four deep defenders on this play and it would fall into the general category of MOFO. The difference from Cover 2 is that the corners will play further off the WR to avoid getting beat deep. In reality Cover 4 is very similar to man coverage as strange as that may initially sound. The coverage scheme has fairly complex “if – then” decision rules for who covers which receiver when the #1 WR runs an in breaking route and the #2 or #3 WR runs and out breaking route. However once past 10 yards defenders are essentially playing man style of defense versus any player that comes into their area or zone. For this reason it is frequently thought of as a match up zone style of play and is common with a lot of teams. The graphic below shows a pre-snap alignment example and some of the basic rules. Cover 4 is also known as quarters coverage since the deep field is divided into four parts.
Why play Cover 4? Coaches like it for multiple reasons. Both safeties in Cover 4 play downhill on run plays allowing the defense to essentially have a 9 man quickly in the box versus the run. In Cover 2 the safeties are backpedaling and first reading pass and protecting against post and corner breaking routes, etc. Run defense comes second. Cover 4 is strong against the run and with strong cornerbacks it can be difficult to throw against. It has some weaknesses of course versus throws to the flats and play action passes that may deceive the safeties.
The last main MOFO open category is an easy one to spot and understand. It is true Cover 0 with no safeties deep on the play. Unless it is a disguise to confuse the QB this is an all out blitz scheme where there is essentially no deep help on the play. Everyone is locked on a single player in man coverage and the defense attempts to rush more players than the offense keeps in to block. Below is a typical example.
In cases like this the QB is going to look to get rid of the ball quickly versus the rush. If protection holds up the offense often makes a big play versus this defense. If not then the defense usually gets in a good shot on the QB or at least forces a very hurried throw.
In reality there are various combinations of the above defenses that I have not mentioned. USC saw a common one versus Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Penn State played a lot of Cover 3 versus the Trojans but also had a package where they combined Cover 2 to half the field and Cover 4 to the other half of the field. This scheme goes by different names and is also sometimes called Quarters Combo since it is a mix of both. This combination attempts to get the best of both worlds by allowing 7 and 1/2 men in the box and yet still obtaining the benefits of one safety deep in the middle, having the flats protected to half the field, and having two defenders to one side in Cover 4.
In reality of course there are a lot of possible more advanced combinations and coverage schemes but these are the basic starting points for understanding the structure of secondary schemes. When blitzing gets involved teams default to different patterns. Some teams have man blitz schemes which put the defenders in man coverage on blitz plays. Other teams opt to rush five and leave six defenders in zone coverage. A common technique then is to have a 3-3 zone with three deep defenders and three underneath. Many more combinations are possible up above than I could ever explain here in any detail. The reality today in college and in the NFL is that teams show one defense then play another scheme entirely after the snap. Also teams play different schemes versus different formations to take away certain plays and relatively give other areas. Part of the QB’s job is to recognize these disguises first through film study and then recognition once the ball is snapped and put into play. It is no easy job however the TV analysts could easily do a much better job of explaining this to the audience than they currently do.
In a follow up post I’ll try to describe some of the more common plays used to defeat each of these coverages and provide some further links for follow up information. Here is a short 10 minute video clip of the above concepts posted on YouTube by Ron Jenkin’s TopGun QB Academy.