Wisdom on how to (try to) defend four verticals with Cover 3

Question: How would you defend the four verticals pass play with Cover 3? Answer from mgoblog contributor (and defensive coach) Steve Sharik:

Four verticals against Cover 3 [is] really a 2-on-1 against the free safety.

The QB is coached to look off the Free Safety and throw to the #2 receiver away from him. Well-coached safeties are instructed to not come out of the exact middle of the field until the ball is in the air. Four verticals against Cover 3 is not designed for the home run. The QB should deliver the ball on a relative line (a la Denard [Robinson] to [Roy] Roundtree in the spring game) at 15-20 yards downfield; i.e., behind the LBs and in front of the Free Safety.

Right where you want them

A properly coached Cover 3 defense will use its LBs to re-route and not give up easy seam throws. For a 3-3-5 defense, the alignment of the #2 reciever changes who is responsible for this. If #2 is a TE or Wing, then one of the Stack Backers (Sam, Will, whatever) is responsible for seam elimination (as we like to call it). If #2 is a wide slot, then either the Spur or Bandit is responsible.

The objectives are threefold:

1. Take away the quick seam throw by jamming and running with #2.
2. Widen the seam route to the Corner’s zone, or outside 1/3. Do not let #2 cross your face.
3. Get your eyes to #1.

Once the jam and re-route is accomplished, the LB will key #1. If #1 continues vertically up the field, the LB will continue to run with #2. If #1 throttles down, the LB will come off #2 and get to his zone. The Stack Backer will hunt a crossing route by #1 while the Spur/Bandit will hunt inside-out; i.e., curl to deep out to quick out. This is an easy read but hard to get to quickly. The Spur/Bandit must be a superior athlete. (This is one of my reservations about Kovacs. I don’t believe he can take away a seam and be able to get to a curl against quality QB/WR combos.)

The properly-coached Corner in Cover 3 will align himself on the outside shoulder of #1 at a depth of 7-8 yards (assuming he is not using a bail technique, something I loved to use). His keys are #2 to #1. Against 4-verts, the corner will read the vertical release of #2 and pedal with the idea of splitting the distance b/w #1 and #2, and then key #1. Seeing #1 also vertical, he indeed splits the horizontal distance of #1 and #2 while staying deeper than the deepest. (If #1 were to run an underneath route, the Corner would then adjust his backpedal to the outside shoulder of #2 without going inside the hash.)

The Mike is responsible for crossing routes b/w the hashes and checkdowns. Digs and hooks he will attack; shallow crosses and checkdowns he will not attack until the ball is thrown. Saban rule: in Cover 3, never break on any route under 5 yards until the ball is thrown. If you do, he will oversign your ass out of town. (Okay, I added that last part.)

Of course, all this is nice clinic talk. In reality, a good QB/WR unit can carve up even a good defense in Cover 3 with Four Verticals.

cover 3

Probably not the best option

  • OR

    you could play Cover 3 like Nick Saban and have a built-in answer
    Rip / Liz adjustment to Cover 3

    More on this to come (in the coming weeks) along with some insight into how he plays/uses Cover 7 Meg/Mod/Fist adaptations.

  • endersgame

    You’re writing about Saban’s Cover 7? YES! Can’t wait for the read.

  • DrB

    Rip/Liz is the way to go IMO.

  • steve sharik

    I would never play straight Cover 3 against 2×2. The post was a response to a question on the message board at mgoblog. Someone asked if Michigan were playing 3-3-5 Cover 3, how would they defend 4-verts.

    That said, I have never learned the Saban Rip/Liz adjustment, nor any of his Cover 7 schemes. These are concepts I would love to learn.

  • Remember Cover 3 and Cover 1 (man/free) could be disguised/interchanged on the fly – especially if you’re Rex Ryan and love to bring heat on the QB ala the NY Jets. My perfect D-Coordinator would be to fuse Rex Ryan and Nick Saban into one person.

  • atown

    We teach our corners to sink between the one and two recievers if both go vertical to help the F/S out. If you call 4 vertz againest a three deep your not looking at the outside reciever anyway…at least not in high school.

  • donkeypunch

    I agree with Brophy, “Rip/Liz Match” ala Saban is the way to go. Convert cover 3 to cover 1 vs 4 vert.

    Brophy, I too, can’t wait to see the cover 7!

  • Tom

    I disagree that cover 1 and cover 3 can be “disguised/interchanged on the fly” they both may be a MOFC look but you still have to play Man or Zone leverage and technique. If you try and play man out of Zone leverage or vice versa you are going to be in a world of hurt against a well coached passing team.

  • well, that is the trend that many are headed to……amorphus coverage shells playing catch-man (NFL trend of the last decade making its way into college the last 5 years) – it can be nearly anything you want it to be (you don’t always have to ALIGN to get leverage).

  • Dan

    If you sack the QB, you don’t have to worry. Spoken like a true D line coach 🙂

  • donkeypunch

    @Tom – Saban would tell you that horizontal leverage in cover one is dictated by proximity to mid field help as per the “divider rules”. IE if you are covering a reciever that is aligned close enough to your FS (and any possible free LBs) then you play outside leverage. Pass coverage should always play/align to help. I can think of many other very good defenses that play cover one, or robber, the same way… Boise State immediately comes to mind.

    Brophy, when is the cover 7 going up!? Can’t wait!

  • steve sharik

    DB (and esp. corner) guru Greg Brown would say the same: in cover 1, horizontal leverage is determined by the horizontal alignment/width of the receiver. If WR is outside, play inside leverage. If WR is inside, play outside leverage.

  • boom! done….

    (or maybe, just started)
    Rip/Liz Saban Adaptation To Spread

  • steve sharik

    Well, if pure spot-drop Cover 3 is vanilla, then my OP is a chocolate sundae. Brophy’s posts on Saban’s Cover 3 concepts are a 7-course meal at a 5-star restaurant.

  • This is a great discussion of the Rip/Liz–very information, love learning something new! To bring this back to the practical, it will be interesting to see how Michigan does handle the coverage issues now that they are running the 3-3-5 full time. Steve may be able to speak to this more intelligently, but the breakdowns I saw of Michigan they were very vanilla in playing base cover 3 out of the 3-3-5. I am still not convinced of the defense adaptability and ability to give the offense enough coverage looks.

  • What coverage issues does the 3-3 inherently have? At WVU, that 33 didn’t play MOFC against every formation/situation, so I’m curious where the UM defensive issues are at

  • jlewing2

    Our team has been running the 33 Stack for a few years now, and this was one of our biggest concerns when first making the change. We have been blessed to have a lot of speed in our program, but we struggle to get good size.

    A few years ago, I spoke with a coach at a clinic (apologies that I can’t recall his name to give him the proper credit), but he played for Coach Rodriguez at WV and mentioned that he had instituted the 33 when he began coaching. His suggestion became what we now call our “Cover 3 Trail.” The idea is to play a Cover 3 shell with the Corners and FS and have our Bandit/Spur (or whatever you may call your alley players) play a soft man coverage on the slot receivers. We don’t teach a bump and run (with most high school kids at the small school level it’s difficult to find athletes that are physical enough and quick enough to pull it off… or at least for us it is), but we teach them instead to ride the back hip of the slot and creat a much smaller window for the QB to deliver the pass.

    The result, that we have seen, has been that most QBs will try to put the ball over the top of our “Trail-man” and give the FS an easier ball to make a play on. Last season, we were able to generate 3 interceptions for our FS with the Trail look.

    Again, as the opposing QB improves beyond the level that we play, you will most likely need to ask more from your Bandit/Spur in order to keep the window as small as possible for the opposing QB.

    I’m not completely familiar with Coach Saban’s philosophies, but I just thought that I would chime in with the adjustments that we have had success with.

  • nexxogen

    Hello Chris.

    I have recently read an article on your old smartfootball blog about Dan Gonzalez’ Vertical concept and I’ve seen that coach Gonzalez himself talked about it there. I have his book and I would like to ask him something about his Horizontal concept from that book so I was wondering if you knew a way to reach him. Thank you.

  • Qwe143

    W and SS need to re route the vertical and funnel them to the outside while getting to their curl/flat zone.