I've been looking recently for some things to share about the differences in zone coverage and was reminded of an excellent clinic I attended some time ago and a book that was recommended that focued on the basics of zone coverage. Hopefully this weeks Zone defense focus will help everyone that had questions about the Quarters Coaches Corner thread understand some of the basics in zone coverage. Most of this is also covered in this book, which you may want to order if you like the thread. USC features some Football clinics to local youth and high School coaches, and this is one of the types of topics they cover. http://www.trojanfootballanalysis.com/zone_coverages_attack.html All defenses in football have weak spots or holes in them somewhere. The playing field is 100 yards long and 53 and 1/3 yards wide. The width of the hash marks vary by level of competition but there is quite simply a lot of ground to cover both vertically (end zone to end zone) as well as horizontally (sideline to sideline) for any defense. Coaches have tried for years to exploit the entire field to their advantage in some manner with either the running game and or the passing game. In his pamphlet entitled "A Brief History of Football Concepts" retired football coach and historian Homer Smith mentions that teams out west in the 1950's were experimenting with 4 and 5 WR formations back then even at the college level. Mouse Davis did this again at Portland State in the 1970's and teams like Hawaii and Texas Tech do it today. Sid Gillman and others in the NFL in the 1960's were attacking the defense downfield and others emphasized stretching things sideline to sideline. Urban Meyer's spread option offense concepts today are simply a way to spread the field with 3, 4, or even 5 WR's taking wide splits to take more defenders out of the tackle box area. This conversely allows his offense more room to run the ball which is one of his main goals. Crowd too many defenders up too close to the line of scrimmage however and his squad will of course throw the ball. Each coach has his own different philosophy on offense and defense and each can work if executed properly. Let's just consider the passing game and zone defenses for a moment. At the high school and college level my guess is that 80% of the time you can expect to see either the pure zone or man under versions of Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, or Cover 4 about 80% of the time at least on pass plays. Understanding the weak points in each of these schemes can help us understand what the offensive coordinator is attempting to do on certain plays and situations. For starters let's look at a standard passing tree. USC TROJAN PASSING TREE Standard route trees exist and differ slightly for running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers in the graphic. Here are the most common ones I could find. What is important is that these routes match up to specific distances based upon timing. The depth of the QB drop for example (3 step, 5 step, or 7 step) also relates directly to these plays. 3 step drops are short throws in the 0-7 yard range, 5 step drops are intermediate throws in the 8-15 yard range, and 7 step drops are for deeper throws beyond this level. (For simplicity let's put aside rollouts, sprints, bootlegs, play action and other passes.) The drop of the QB, the distance of the pattern are tied together by a well developed sense of rhythm and timing. 3 step drop slant routes for example are generally 1.2 second timed plays but each varies slightly depending upon the quarterback and the receiver. Other passes are in increments of 1.8 seconds, 2.4 seconds, or longer for example. On the quick three step drops like the slant route the QB normally reads whether or not to even throw the ball even before the snap based upon how the defender is playing the wide reciver. Success in throwing the ball depends greatly upon reading the defense, adhering to proper timing, the WR running the route correctly, and of course sufficient pass protection. So how does the QB know whether or not to throw a certain pass like the slant route? All teams have a certain degree of tendency on offense and the same is true for the defense. Coaches analyze film and create databases to show what teams tend to do in certain situations. When facing a 3rd down and 10 yard situation teams will often play off of the defender in a zone coverage scheme. Intentionally they will "give" to some extent a 7 yard completion as long as it stops the opposition from making a first down. Other teams have might have a tendency to blitz in this situation or to play man to man defense. Before teams even take the field on game day the opposition's tendency has been well established and the offensive game plan is put in writing and practiced during the week leading up to the game. On game day the first 15 plays by USC for example are scripted in advance and the coaches are watching carefully to see if the opposition plays with tendency or goes against tendency for example. Monitoring past tendency and the alignment of the eleven players on the field tells the quarterback and coaching staff much about what the defense will "give" or what the offense can "take" if you prefer to think of it that way. Let's look at some of the coverage zones and what they allow. COVER 2 SOFT SPOTS Some teams will play a Cover 2 defensive zone (either pure zone or with man coverage underneath) in certain situations. Knowing that the defense will play Cover 2 on second down and 10 for example 80% of the time in the middle of the field is an example of a tendency. If the offensive coordinator and head coach want to go with the odds they will probably call a pass play that attaches the blue shaded areas or vulnerable areas of this particular zone scheme in those situations. The QB will of course check at the line of scrimmage to see what the defense looks like on the field. If it is not as expected it is his job to check out of that play and into something else. What works to attack those Cover 2 soft areas? Well go back to the passing tree above. Any route or combination of routes that attack the middle of the zone between the safeties works in concept as well as routes that attack the area outside of the safeties near the sideline. Underneath routes are relatively more difficult against this defense unless the defenders are playing far enough off the receivers to allow a short route like the previously mentioned slant play. Of course the defense knows this as well and they are watching for those sorts of plays... Offensive coordinators also like to send multiple receivers into areas to attack a zone coverage as well using concept plays. Here are some general examples used against Cover 2. One concept is called going "High-Low" for example putting a receiver above and below a defender and making him cover one receiver or the other. Another concept is Three Verticals for example that puts two receivers up the different sidelines and one up the middle of the two safeties. This creates a "3 on 2" advantage for the offense if the defense is truly in a two deep zone situation. Two on one Isolation Patterns can also be created deep if two receivers can flood the field versus either of the deep safety defenders. "Four verticals" is another concept pass pattern that will accomplish this goal as well. Route patterns like "Curl Flat" combinations where one receiver goes deeper and clears the way underneath work as well against this defense. Play action passes, bootlegs, roll outs and other misdirection pass plays all tend to work well in concept against Cover 2. The problem behind all of this is of course timing and protection of the QB. Having a good play call is akin to having a good strategy...it is useless however if the play can not be executed properly. This is why coaches spend so much time with players on techniques, fundamentals and practicing detailed things related to footwork, blocking, tackling, and other mundane parts of the game. Cover 3 by nature is a balance coverage with three defenders deep and four underneath in zone defense. In Cover 3 the CB's try to stay wide of the WR's and box them in towards the inside of the field. This defense like Cover 2 is an excellent disguise coverage from which to stem into other coverages especially Cover 1 for example. Here is a picture of the soft spots in a Cover 3 zone defense. COVER 3 SOFT SPOTS The CB's in particular are normally playing off the WR in this case by several yards. This makes the defense vulnerable in the uncovered flat zone areas in front of the WR's as well as the seams between the CB's and the deep Safety. This makes Cover 3 quite susceptible to the quick passing game with most of the 3 step drop patterns above in the passing tree. In 1.2 seconds for example the defense generally can not close fast enough on the WR to get to the ball. Similarly with only four defenders underneath instead of five like in Cover 2 there is more lateral field for the defense to cover (i.e. 53 and 1/3 yards divided by 4 people instead of 5 people). Conversely the defense knows the offense will often throw the ball short on these situations and are less likely to attack deep when only a few yards are needed for first down. The defense "gives" some things and the offense can "take" some plays against this alignment. Concepts that offensive coordinators like to run against Cover 3 are some of the following. Quick Hitch routes on the outside where the receivers drive hard and then turn back work well. Quick Speed Out routes to both sides work as well. Curl (or Hook) routes by the wide receiver while the backs or tight ends run Flat routes underneath them work well also. The corner is preoccupied with the WR coming at him and the back or TE goes laterally to the flat area before the slower linebacker can get there. Three Verticals probably will not work well against Cover 3 in the secondary but sending 4 WR's (i.e. 4 Verticals) down field will. The reason is again that it leaves 3 DB's to guard 4 WR's...someone has to be open. Comeback routes on play action passes work against Cover 3. Double Post routes run by WR's from the slot positions could work as well by putting two WR's into the middle against only one safety. Many other combinations will work as well. The key in all of these is for the receiver to work his way into a seam and remain away from a defender. COVER 4 SOFT SPOTS Cover 4 or quarters coverage is as its name implies. This is a subset of a "2" deep family of safety zone plays. Four defenders are back to defend against the pass. This alignment is geared towards stopping big plays and giving up short yardage in front of the defenders. It is quite difficult to complete deeper pass routes against Cover 4 as there are more defenders able to react to the ball while it is in the air and they have to travel a shorter distance. For example there is now 53 1/1 yards divided by 4 people. In reality there is even less room if the ball is on the hash marks to one side of the field unless the QB has a very strong arm and can throw across the field. Sometimes to confuse the QB the depth of the CB's will vary in this defensive alignment in order to make it look more like a Cover 2 shell and then they'll back off before or after the snap to change the actual coverage. The strength of this alignment is that the corners and safeties can often work together more effectively in combination. Putting two receivers into an area in an attempt to create the isolation problems mentioned above won't work as well. The seam in the middle of the field between the hash marks is much smaller as well for the tight end or any receiver to attack. Conversely the weakness of this particular coverage scheme is that it gives up easy underneath throws. The WLB and SLB simply can not get to the outside play areas fast enough to defend against those types of throws (i.e. 53 1/3 yards divided by only 3 defenders). This opens up pretty easy pass plays for the outside flat zones and in between the linebackers as well. Of course the defenders know this and "cheat" towards those areas when possible or if they somehow read the play in advance. Some of the concepts that are used to attack this style of zone defense are the following. Quick Out routes to the WR's are effective as well as the Quick Hitch routes. Sending the WR's deep to occupy the DB's while the tight end or RB's release to the outside work as well also. Putting two WR's on one side (or both) and having them run Double Slant routes gains an advantage before the 10 yard region is reached. Having two slanting defenders in a zone for the WLB or SLB makes it impossible for them to cover both. Slant and Go ("Sluggo") routes can work if the WR's sell the slant part hard enough to pull down the safeties in the middle of the field. If the safety bites on the initial slant a second "go" move up the field can put them in the clear with the corners too far away to react and provide help. Throwing combination Curl (or Hook) routes in conjunction with a receiver coming underneath works well in the Flats. Despite the fact that there are four defenders deep some form of High Low isolation can still be achieved to one side of the field or the other. Send a tight end for example right at one DB with a 10 yard hitch route to pull down a safety and run the other WR to the middle of the field on a post route. This creates a lane over the safety for the QB to now throw the ball and the CB generally can't react in time. Simply running 4 WR's on vertical routes does not work well as there are 4 DB's back to cover the play. However if 3 WR's are to one side and can create a 3 on 2 advantage then there is a good chance for the route to work. Putting multiple receivers to one side of the formation is a good way to force defense to drop out of zone or tighten it to the side of the field to the side with the WR's. As you can hopefully see there are a multitude of ways to attack any zone defense. The soft spots are all well known and the pass tree is fairly standard. So why don't teams give up zones entirely and just play man to man defense? The answer is quite simple. Man defense has as many flaws and weak spots as do zone coverage schemes. Coaches have endless plays up their sleeve to attack one on one coverage. Teams with slower defenders for example can't cover speedy receivers and will be easily beaten. Even teams with faster aggressive DB's are vulnerable to getting "picked" or "rubbed" by having WR's run crossing routes in front of them or put in one on one isolation type plays. USC for example would love for the opposition to use extensive man to man coverage as this always means there is a match up advantage for USC's talent somewhere on the field either in terms of height or speed. As a result few teams in college spend more than 30% in man coverage situations for the simple reason they can be attacked AND when a pass is completed against man defense it often gives up a big TD play. Like Bill Doba of Washington State once famously said, "If you get a player like Reggie Bush isolated one on one with a linebacker you might as well start whistling the USC fight song". Virginia Tech plays about as aggressive a defense as there is at the college level with good results year in and year out. They have predominantly been a Cover 1 / Cover 3 team with some man coverage and a high degree of blitzing mixed in. In the June 2007 edition of American Football Monthly defensive coordinator Bud Foster commented that his Virginia Tech defensive backs will play much more 2 high safety defensive schemes this year. The reason why? Teams have spotted Virginia Tech's tendencies and started making too many plays against them for big yardage in his analysis. Head Coach Rich Rodriquez of West Virginia made a similar point in a different way at a 2007 Nike Coaching clinic. Paraphrasing slightly he noted that all elite QB's coming out of high school that he sees today can identify the main coverage schemes noted here (and others) and identify where to attack them immediately. Credit the high school coaches and QB camps around the U.S. for making this happen. No single defense in isolation can work any more. Against a good QB it quickly becomes a defensive liability. The defensive coordinators have to resort to mixing coverages and confusing the alignment of the LB's and secondary at the line of scrimmage. Otherwise the advantage is all with the offense. In order for a pass attack to succeed nowadays the issues is rarely one of "play calling" ability or strategy for most top flight teams like USC - it is one of execution, protection, staying out of 3rd and long situations and teaching the QB to manage the game. The QB has the final responsibility of knowing when to stick with a call on the field or to check to a different play at the line of scrimmage. Also there are of course anywhere from one to five players that can go into pass patterns for the offense depending upon the alignment and play. The QB has to scan the field quickly, make the right read, and throw to the open player - i.e. take what the defense gives. Increasingly this means that football is a game of execution and less about simple play calling. There is also the dichotomy in football of power and deception on any given play. The teams that have been winning for the past decade or more all are "balanced" offenses in that can both run the football and throw as well. Being able to do both in different situations has its distinct advantages for putting the defense into certain types of alignments as well as taking advantage of them as well. A more detailed treatment of the topic of pass patterns and attacking zones can be obtained by reading the following book by Steve Axman. It can be found on either Amazon.com or CoachesChoice.com. A less detailed explanation is available here just using diagrams showing some of the basic pass plays used by BYU in the 1990's and USC even today on 5 step drop routes. It does not show the zone coverages in conjunction with the pass routes but you can think about which work against which coverage schemes and more importantly "why" for practice. KEY POINTS ABOUT ZONE WEAKNESSES Now that you've had a chance to hear various ways to attack the basic Cover 2,3, and 4 zones; I wanted to mention some things that take us back to the previous COACHES CORNER on Quarters coverage. First of all, notice the SOFT spots in all the coverages listed in the diagrams. Notice that of the 3 zones, the soft spots in Quarters coverage are the least damaging to give up. Now some will say - Yes, they are the least damaging, but they are also the easiest to throw. The Quarters soft spots or the flats, but in reallity the "soft spot" isn't really all that easy to throw. For example, unlike the deep soft spots in Cover 2 (3 soft areas) or the multiple soft spots in Cover 3 (Deep and Flats), the Quarters soft spots are all underneath. Moreover there is only one soft spot on each side of the field, so finding players to respond to balls thrown in those two underneath areas is realitively easy to do. For example, Quarters teams can line the CB up on the WR in a jam technique (Lester Hayes style) yet still be running Quarters with a Cover 2 look. Teams that see this will be unlikely to attempt to throw into the flat as that Cov. 2 look makes that a dangerous proposition. Especially if you mix in a little Cover 2 with your Quarters from time to time. The other thing a Quarters defense can do is have the CB line up at 5-6 yards off the WR, which puts him plenty close to the flats to respond especially given the fact that his drop steps are not super fast drop steps in Quarters. Lastly, that flats can be covered or responded to by having an aggressive drop called to the OLB to "FLY" to the flats and look for the INT or big hit on reception if its a clear passing situation, and even just doing a read drop is usually more than enough to do the job. The key to successfully defending the Quarters soft spots is practing responding to those areas EVERY day in practice from all of the alignments and looks. So the CB's and Safeties will practice responding up to the ball from up, back, etc. The OLB's will practice responding to the ball from a read drop as well as the deliberate pre called drop. By doing this, the angles become familiar and the response is swift. Again, I'd like to point out the other zone soft spots are much more damaging when they give up the "easier plays" and are also much more difficult to defend, even with practice. A primary reason this is true is because the LB's can't be expected to respond back into zones, and Cover 2-3 both have significant soft spots deep. Only the DB's can respond to those areas - thus the more dangerous zones. The last, but not least significant aspect of Quarters coverage that I'll mention again is that is also allows a Nine in the box defense against the run, whereas the other coverages offer 8 in the box at the most.