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100 Days to Kickoff: Film Room - Defensive Base Coverages and Blitzes

A small dose of what to expect from the other new playbook

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday’s article focused on formations and positional responsibilities, and today’s will take at some of the coverages and blitz calls to expect from the defense this fall. Most of this will be based on observations the spring game, with a little additional info based on some Temple film from the 2018 season.

Common Coverages

Press Man

This is less of a specific coverage and more of a general description of the trend for the cornerbacks that was discussed to an extent in Tuesday’s article. When the corners are in man coverage on a given play, they are almost always asked to play up on the line and, more often than not, to get physical and try to jam the receivers to some extent. This could be the extremely aggressive tactic of trying to fully jam them at the line to shatter their timing, or it could be a simple nudge a couple yards downfield to throw things off a tiny bit.

They don’t even have to be right up on the line to achieve some disruption. On this play, Jaylon King and Tre Swilling both start a couple yards off and then jostle with the receivers while staying close as they move downfield, and the play ends in a coverage sack:

The corners can be in man coverage with any number of things going on behind them, so here are a few of the potential coverages.

Cover 2 / Tampa 2

The name “Cover 2” applies to a wide variety of plays, but just about every defense in the college game runs this concept in some form. In a traditional Cover 2, the two safeties are playing deep zones and splitting the field in half. It can be run with everyone underneath playing man, everyone in zone, or some combination of the two (like the linebackers playing zones while the outside corners play man).

The notorious Tampa 2 scheme, which became an NFL staple in the early 2000’s, was a Cover 2 zone variant in which the middle linebacker had a read responsibility. If he predicted a run, he would step up to defend it. If he read pass, he would drop back into a deep zone, and the safeties could adapt and would now each be responsible for a third of the field instead of half (making it more of a Cover 3 in practice). Tampa 2 elements have found their way into most teams’ playbooks over time, and the first play of the spring game made it clear that Tech is one such team:

The player to focus on here is David Curry in the middle of the field. As the Mike linebacker, it’s Curry’s job to read the offense and decide whether to step up to defend the run or drop back into coverage. With an empty backfield in front of him, he naturally goes with the latter, and to that end, he’s drifting back at the snap (a little early, since usually the Mike waits until the snap to make his read) and continues for a couple seconds, presumably in anticipation of multiple deep routes out of the five-wide set. Instead, tight end Tyler Cooksey runs a short slant hook over the middle to where Curry was standing and ends up wide open.

It’s possible that both sides colluded to leave the tight end open so he could make the catch for symbolic reasons. But regardless, the playcall suggests that some Tampa 2 will be part of the Tech playbook this fall. It also meshes well with the general emphasis on letting the corners press more, as jamming receivers at the line is ideal for this playcall.

Inverted Cover 2

An “inverted” Cover 2 (which can have a standard or Tampa variant) is similar in principle to the standard package but switches up the responsibilities. Instead of the safeties playing the deep zones, it’s the corners who drop back into deep zones while the safeties stay up in short/medium zones.

The inverted variant can be useful in a couple ways. The first is that it can be disguised as a Cover 3, in which the corners often do play deep zones—or actually converted to a Cover 3 by running an Inverted Tampa 2. The second is that by keeping the safeties closer to the box, it ends up being more effective against the run, so it’s a good way to hedge. On the flip side, the risks are that the corners have to quickly scramble back to their zones and tend to have their backs to the play, leaving them extra vulnerable, as Tech learned against Miami late last year:

Expect this call far less frequently that more standard Cover 2 and Cover 3 packages, but it can make for a very effective change of pace in the right situation.

Cover 3

As the name implies, a Cover 3 tacks on one more deep zone to better protect against deep strikes. By splitting the field into thirds, Cover 3 better protects against the deep sideline and over-the-middle passes that can put a dent in Cover 2.

The trade-off is underneath. With one fewer player available, if the defense wants to play man, they have a choice: rush three and cover every back/receiver, or rush four and leave one of them uncovered. And if they want to rush four and leave the others in zone, everyone has to cover more ground; depending on the specific playcall, a good QB with time to throw will often find someone open in the flats, along the sidelines at medium depth, or in between zones over the middle.

A good example of a successful Cover 3 call by a Geoff Collins and Andrew Thacker defense comes from Temple’s win over Cincinnati in 2018:

At first glance, this might look like an inverted Cover 2, with both corners rapidly moving to deep zones at the snap and barely paying attention to the receivers. However, the free safety is lined up far enough downfield that he doesn’t even appear on screen, and he’s playing deep over the middle. So instead of needing to play half the field, each corner only needs to take a third. (Author’s tangent: I know it’s not possible to have them at every game for logistical reasons, but Skycam and All-22 are infinitely superior to the traditional angle for understanding what is happening on a given play.)

Meanwhile, up front the middle of the field looks completely barren, but the strong safety steps up and the Edge steps back to play short zones over the middle. The linebackers cover zones closer to the sidelines just in front of the marker, and the nickel back is the fourth rusher. Sending that fourth rusher means more vulnerability somewhere, and in this case the flats are wide open... but no receivers are going there, so everyone is covered and the QB ends up having a bad day.

Cover 0 or Cover 1

When a team fully expects a run or decides to send multiple rushers at the QB, they might throw caution to the wind and have one or zero players in deep zones. It’s a gamble on the pressure getting to the QB quickly enough to avoid a downfield pass—or on the offense calling a run play, in which case everyone is already converting to the ball.

Conversely, if the pressure doesn’t arrive in time and someone gets beat, it can end very poorly. Take it away, Ryan Lantz:

The defense is running a Cover 1 Robber package and sends the boundary corner on a blitz and Will linebacker Charlie Thomas on a delayed rush. With six players rushing and two in zone (free safety deep, Mike linebacker medium), there are only three players available to cover four receivers in man, leaving the slot receiver closest to the line uncovered. The free safety picks up the uncovered man, but when Oliver is beaten by the other slot receiver, there’s nobody to pick him up.

The playcall was a gamble, and it’s worth noting that the pressure very nearly reached Lantz, but he got off a perfect throw and capitalized on the bust for a huge gain. That’s the clear risk with such a play, but the rewards of successfully getting to the QB can be worth it in the right situation.

Blitz Packages

Okay, so the big news is that Collins and Thacker want to attack a lot. How exactly will that manifest in the playcalling? The spring game showed us a few of the playcalls to expect.

Nickel Back (NB) Blitz

As mentioned in Tuesday’s article, it’s common in some defenses for the nickel back to essentially function as an extra corner against sets with 3-5 receivers (look no further than Ted Roof for a clear example). The new defense takes the opposite approach: the nickel back needs to be a dynamic athlete who is equal parts blitzing linebacker and cover corner. Thacker ran NB blitz heavily in the spring game, calling on Kaleb Oliver, Ajani Kerr, and Avery Showell to make noise in the backfield and relying on the safeties to step up and help them in coverage.

Regarding the blitz portion, Oliver looks like he’s settling in nicely as the favorite to start:

Okay, so he didn’t have to deal with any blockers. But (while it isn’t in the above gif) he did disguise his blitz well until the half-second before the snap, and he showed great burst in getting into the backfield, both of which are necessary for a rusher coming from a coverage position.

Will Linebacker (WLB) Blitz

This looks similar in form and function to the NB blitz, but the fifth rusher comes from the opposite side and is rushing alongside the Edge player. It’s a call that sets up well for some stunts between the Edge and WLB. An interesting note is that when Tech ran this in the spring game, the nickel back was positioned such that he essentially replaced the WLB as the second linebacker in the formation. As time goes on, there may be some bleed between the two positions, particularly with converted defensive back Charlie Thomas slated to start at WLB.

Boundary Cornerback (BCB) Blitz

This was routinely one of Tech’s most effective playcalls a year ago, and Thacker seems more than willing to keep it in the toolbox. The boundary corner lines up on the shorter side of the field and thus has a shorter route to the quarterback than the field corner. If he’s quick enough to get around the remaining blockers, it can be a lethal play, and Tre Swilling has already proven to be adept at it:

With trips on the field side and only the tight end on the boundary side, Swilling has few obstacles in his way. He flies past right tackle Jack DeFoor, and with the running back stepping up to block, his path to the QB is clear. Lucas Johnson senses him coming and steps out of the way, and were this a real play, it’s possible he would have avoided the sack—at least from Swilling—but the play is blown dead.

From the small sample available, it seems that Thacker will seek to maintain boundary/field positioning for the Edge player and the nickel back but is not as stringent for the cornerbacks, preferring to leave each of them on a certain side of the field. That means it won’t just be Swilling on the BCB blitz—any of the other corners could get the nod. Thacker seems willing to send the BCB on any play where there are no wide receivers on that side (and even occasionally when there are), so the corners should see plenty of opportunities to go after the QB.

Stunts

One thing Woody did well on paper (though it didn’t always translate on the field) was to draw up interesting stunts. They’re more or less vital for a modern defense to be successful, and they should be a part of Thacker’s playbook.

Stunts—where one rusher changes direction to go around another—are generally used to try to confuse the blockers or to clear a lane for a specific rusher. Here’s an example from early in the spring game, though this one didn’t lead to any extra pressure:

The stunt is defensive tackle JaQuon Griffin briefly engaging left guard Jared Southers and then going around to his left to attack the right side of the line. The main goal here is to create a more favorable matchup for defensive end Justice Dingle, and Griffin achieves that by drawing Southers’ attention and creating a one-on-one matchup for Dingle with the left tackle. Dingle isn’t able to get past his man before the pass is thrown, but he does get the matchup he wanted, and the play only goes for a short gain anyway thanks to a nice open-field tackle by Oliver.

Conclusion

Collins said in the lead-up to the spring game that the defense would be running a very simple playbook, so to date we’ve only seen a small slice of what the team will be running this fall. It’s likely that any more complicated stunts were tabled as part of the plan, and blitzes were probably limited in scope. Still, the playcalling was enough to indicate how often Thacker is likely to send pressure and how willing he is to send defensive backs as the blitzers.