When Nick Saban says “aight”, things are not “aight.”
They have likely gone awry for the Tide and for Saban’s defense.
The things that do go aight, however, are largely down to the execution of Saban’s defensive schemes, which are widely and deservedly lauded for their success at the college level.
Amongst film junkies and coaching circles, if there was a word association game played with Saban defense, you would hear the following:
Rip/Liz is the Saban jargon for a pattern-matching, single high safety coverage employed heavily by Alabama in base downs.
We will be breaking down this coverage, discussing its purpose, its execution and how Florida State may employ this under new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller.
In previous installments on defensive football, Tomahawk Nation broke down pattern matching, split field coverages, and basic coverages. Be sure to check those out as a refresher on some of the concepts discussed.
Middle of field closed (MOFC) coverages are run primarily to add an extra defender in the box. The numbers are simple - if there are more defenders than blockers in the box, you have a good chance at stopping the run game.
While the extra run defender is a critical aspect, this also leaves the defense open to vertical passing concepts. Four Verticals in particular can overwhelm Cover 3, with the No. 2 receiversz presenting a dilemma:
Pattern matching schemes were devised precisely to address this conundrum.
Four Verticals forces the deep safety playing centerfield into choosing which No. 2 receiver’s vertical route he has to carry - leaving the other No. 2 receiver wide open running up the seam. When the offense is in a 2x2 (two receivers to each side) alignment, and they run four verticals, this conundrum kills a traditional defense.
Rip/Liz was developed by Bill Belicheck and Nick Saban to protect their base MOFC Cover 3 from four verticals. They simply were torn up by “verts” during their 1994 season with the Cleveland Browns, particularly by the Steelers. Both their main MOFC coverages, Cover 1 and Cover 3, were shredded by four verticals. The physical mismatches in man coverage on Cover 1 and the impossible choice in Cover 3 precipitated the new pattern matching concept.
One of Nick Saban’s most famous quotes epitomizes the conundrum with traditional spot drop zone or man coverage: “Well, when Marino is throwing it, that old break on the ball [fecal expletive] don’t work.” He definitely threw an “aight” in there breaking it down in the film room.
So if you cannot physically cover from man, and you are overloaded in the zone, what do you do? You play man-match zone - you pattern match, letting the distribution of the receivers (particularly vertical distribution of the No. 2 inside receiver) dictate the coverage.
You play Cover 1 man and Cover 3 zone at the same time. This is what Rip/Liz match allows you to do.
Let’s start with the terminology. In football jargon, when you call a play to one side, either a number or name will dictate which side that is. Rip and Liz are no more than Saban’s jargon for right and left - other teams will call Roscoe and Louie, or a number will dictate the call (particularly on offense).
A Rip call means the safety in the box will roll down into the right side of the formation:
This leaves the outside backer away from the call side to call “Match” - this means that this OLB will carry the No. 2 vertical. In a four verticals scenario, this means the call side will feature the rolling safety F matching the No. 2 vertical to the call side and the OLB W matching the No. 2 vertical to away side:
The call here is Rip with away side playing Match Left. So the above scenario would be called Rip - Match Left. All four verticals are covered - with the deep centerfielder assisting in coverage of one of the No. 2 vertical running receivers.
The beauty of this call is that even in the alert scenario, all four streaking receivers are covered, and you still feature six players in the box.
What happens if the defense calls Rip, rolling safety F into the box, with away side OLB calling Match, and away side No. 2 does not carry vertical?
Then you simply have basic Cover 3. To the call side, $ plays flat zone with the corner manning a deep third. To the away side W plays the flat zone underneath, with the corner playing a deep third. Backer M and safety F occupy hook zones. There are further pattern matching rules regarding communication on handling underneath routes, but the alert scenario is addressed.
Adam Fuller, as most all modern defensive coordinators do, will be using this type of pattern matching coverage to protect his MOFC calls from being exploited by streaking receivers.
Florida State fans will have seen Rip/Liz in action plenty, with former defensive coordinator and current Tennessee Volunteers Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt being an astute disciple of Saban’s defensive schemes. They will continue to see it on Saturdays, hopefully soon in the fall.
Coming next in this series, Tomahawk Nation will break down MOFO coverage based pattern matching, and then we will move on to discussing the fronts. The fronts will pair with these coverages, and certain scenarios (defending trips) will follow.
Jump in the comment section and feel free to ask any questions about how Rip/Liz, pattern matching, or any general defensive concept works.