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Whiteboard Wednesday: Explaining basic coverages

Let’s take it to the whiteboard.

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Tomahawk Nation is bringing you more and more analysis about what the Florida State Seminoles will do under their new staff, breaking it down to each of the important coaches and their philosophies. Our CoachAB and Jon Marchant recently broke down Adam Fuller’s defense. CoachAB dove into Fuller’s blitzing in Tutorial Tuesday just yesterday.

As we delve into the nitty gritty, we know there are some concepts that bear explanation. Prior to diving even deeper into Fuller’s defense, let’s start at the top of the whiteboard.

Our future articles will be dealing with more complex defensive concepts. There are multiple types of pattern-matching employed by modern defenses, which’ll be the focus of the deep film dives into Fuller’s history. His teams operate with pattern-matching out of open and closed coverages. Before we get to that, let’s start at the earlier dog-eared pages of the playbook.

For now? The base coverage families.

My salad days writing about the more intricate details of football began in the Jimbo Fisher Era at Florida State. My personal favorite coach-written (ghostwritten) article is Fisher’s breakdown of the smash concept against any coverage. Fisher breaks down how the Smash concept can work against any coverage-family, and we’ll do similar as TN dives into the history of Norvell’s staff.

As such, we begin with 2 main coverage families:

Middle of Field Open (MOFO)

No, MOFO is not a curse in this context. MOFO, open coverage, two high, quarters, cover two - all these are differing terminology and/or coverages describing the same concept - two players deep, without one in the middle.

Two safeties deep, whether it manifests itself as man or zone, leaves the middle of the field “open”.

MOFO coverage generally means the safeties are playing near the hashmarks, leaving the space between the hashes open for offenses to attack. The depth of the safeties can be critical to how teams play. A true, traditional Cover 2 with two safeties deep, and the remaining back seven underneath can play rather differently than Cover 4.

Cover 2

Cover 2 can be played as a man or zone coverage scheme, but most critically, two defenders are deep, each covering half the field. This is done primarily with two safeties who line up somewhere around the hashes, or between the hashes and numbers (for collegiate fields). Much less frequently, safeties drop into underneath zones, while corners take deep positions in what is called inverted Cover 2.

Cover 2 has two methods of implementation for its underneath coverage: zone or man.

“Man Under” is the Cover 2 variant which many FSU fans will be familiar with. In 2012, Mark Stoops’ final year at FSU, Cover 2 Man Under was arguably the most-used coverage from Florida State.

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Cover 2 Man Under
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Cover 2 Man Under is in every team’s playbook, from the Pop Warner level to the NFL. The coverage is relatively simple to explain, and at the upper levels of football, can work well when there’s a talent advantage - which is why Stoops used it with such success in 2012 (he used complicated fronts to make it more effective, but we’ll discuss that another time).

Zone is the other sub-family within the Cover 2 grouping. Most often, Cover 2 Zone is employed with 5 underneath defenders.

These underneath defenders are spread across zones that are appropriately named for areas/concepts they defend: flat, curl, and hook zones.

Cover 2 Zone
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Cover 4

Cover 4, alternatively called Quarters, refers to defenses that play four deep defenders. Most often, these are two cornerbacks covering outside deep zones, and two safeties covering middle deep zones.

Cover 4 Zone generally is played with 4 deep defenders, and three underneath defenders.

Cover 4 Zone
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When safeties play shallow, Cover 4 can be used to add an extra man in the box, in order to counter the number advantage afforded an offense by having two safeties deep.

Cover 4 is a favorite of the Michigan State, Mark Dantonio school of defense for this reason - as said by longtime Sparty defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, “Why Cover 4? We get nine men in the box. People talk about, ‘Man, we’re in an eight-man front.’ Well, we’re in a nine-man front.”

Additionally, Cover 4 can handle the nemesis of most defenses (Four Verticals) with little modification.

Middle of Field Closed (MOFC)

That eight-man front Narduzzi was talking about?

Usually the extra man for the front comes from dropping or rolling a safety down into the box. This leaves one deep safety, often referred to as a “center-fielder”. That deep safety leaves the middle of the field closed.

The reason Narduzzi prefers an open concept is explained in part by the linked article above from Chris Brown of Smart Football: the deep safety has significantly more ground to cover, which requires an athlete who is smarter and better.

There are two main coverage families represented within closed coverages: Cover 1 and Cover 3.

Cover 1

The ubiquitous-nature of Cover 1 defenses in the pre-spread era meant many teams had differing terms for the coverage and how they deployed the dropping safety. Robber, Rat, Man-Free, Rover.

The extra safety in the box can play one of two roles: a “replacement” for a linebacker who takes more of a role in the front (or as a blitzer), or as a roving player whose assignment is somewhat fluid. The latter is what Robber, Rat, Rover and many other names describe.

Cover 1 Robber
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The Robber/Rat coverage can feature a “Rat in the hole”/Robber, where that safety drops either at or before the snap into the “hole”, where his shallower depth prevents and disrupts crossing routes. Additionally, that’s the extra man in the box, assisting the defense in the run game.

Cover 3

Ahh, good old Cover 3.

The Saban tree is decidedly a Cover 3 base. While his disciple Dantonio shifted to a Quarters base as part of their solution to overcoming a talent deficiency, Saban maintained Cover 3 as the base of his defense:

Cover 3 Zone
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The basic Cover 3 zone features one deep safety occupying the central deep third with the cornerbacks occupying the wider deep thirds. Underneath, generally the safety in the box rolls into the flat, as does his opposite linebacker, while the other two linebackers occupy hook zones.

The extra safety in the box helps against the run and can offer better matchups than having a linebacker operating against certain personnel.

This article is a primer on the basic coverage families. In future Whiteboard Wednesdays, we’ll dive deeper into coverage concepts based on these coverage groupings. And then we’ll discuss how these are paired with defensive fronts, as we progress through the series.

Please feel free to ask any questions - and we plan to make both the basic concepts, the advanced items and anything in between part of Tomahawk Nation’s Football Glossary to help educate our readers.