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Inside the Steele Curtain: Cover 3 & ZoneBasics

Cover 3 Zone
Cover 3 Zone

In starting my research of candidates for the DC job when it became apparent that VK was going to be out of Clemson, I looked at all the names mentioned and I thought that getting Kevin Steele or Dick Bumpas would be a small coup. Both had the mentality, that I missed when Reggie Herring left, of an aggressive, attacking defense that would confuse the offense and dictate the tempo of the game. Of course, Reggie blitzed every play, and eventually it would bite him.

Of course, I did not expect Clemson to be able to land Steele away from a burgeoning national powerhouse at Alabama, and thought we'd end up with Bumpas or The Chief. When it became more clear that Steele was a real candidate, I started looking through his coaching history and as many old interviews as I could find. Since some other Clemson bloggers just post bullshit and rants, without anything really about football itself or thinking about why things are, I figured I would go into some real X's and O's.

Kevin Steele has a background of running both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense. His playing days at Tennessee were in essentially a 50-style defense under Johnny Majors. If you watch tapes of the 1981 Clemson team, you see a similar scheme. He worked on Dom Caper's best 3-4 teams at Carolina, coaching Kevin Greene, Sam Mills, and Lamar Lathon. He worked under Nebraska's great DC Charlie McBride in the early '90s, and they ran an attacking 4-3 scheme. We've all seen Mickey Andrews' defense at FSU, and Steele was the ace recruiter and LB Coach there for 4 years. Most thought that since Alabama was based on 3-4 last year, and since he ran a 3-4 at Baylor as HC, that it is what he'd run here. Few fans follow Saban's schemes outside of Alabama fans, so they just see a 3-4 scheme advertised in the starting lineup on TV, and don't actually pay attention to what they are doing. The truth is that a Saban scheme is very complex, and Saban is smart enough to adjust it to what personnel he has. At LSU he ran a 4-3 nearly all the time. Also, wee have two guys on this staff who were part of Saban's staff: Steele and Harbison (LSU 2001), co-coordinators of our defense.

Steele has said in every published interview that he isn't inventing a new scheme, he's just copying one. Given that his longest tenures on staffs were with Alabama, FSU and Nebraska, and his failure at Baylor, its pretty fair to assume we'll be running a 4-3 attacking scheme based on those three defenses. Given that Steele has praised Saban for his teaching ability, and the scheme itself, its fair to assume that he will essentially copy his old Alabama playbook. Saban's philosophy is the following, from his 2001 LSU playbook:

The LSU philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will occasionally play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will primarily play man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush four or more players versus the pass about ninety-percent of the time.

One initial difference between a VK scheme and a Saban scheme is the alignment of the defense. What you saw last year was essentially a 4-2-5 scheme that stacked two inside LBs and employed various rotations in the secondary based on field (wide side) and boundary (short side of the field) situations. Stunts were used to increase the pressure from the down 4. A Saban scheme, I have a copy of his LSU playbook, bases the calls off the strength of the offensive formation, and adjusts according to it on each play. Field and Boundary calls are still used however. Saban usually makes his Free Safety the "Quarterback" of the defense, and he makes most of the alignment calls (Saban was a defensive back in college). Steele has indicated that his Mike Backer will be his "Quarterback," but Mike can't make all the coverage calls in the secondary, he will give the sideline call and then likely only adjust the defensive front.

Last year, VK primarily ran what was called Cover 0 in his terminology, but in technical terms Cover 0 (no deep safety) is actually man coverage. What we ran was a 3-deep zone coverage and a Cover 4 (4-deep/quarters) coverage. WR's hate to see zone coverage compared to man, because its a fair chance that they are not going to only get hit by one guy, but 2 or 3 at once. His philosophy was to make those WRs nervous and have a few hitters to lay the smack on them (Hamlin) to make them gun-shy on the next play. He generally played his underneath coverage as spot drops, forcing the opponent to execute all the way down the field to score.

Here is one basic Cover 3 call, using either a bump & run corner or matchup zone:

Saban's schemes use Cover 3, particularly when he blitzes (a 3-under, 3-deep), with a combination of "cloud" or "sky" calls and rolling coverages. This is no different from VK's scheme in the basics, we will just blitz out of it next year. I'm not covering the blitz packages just yet, but in any event, the call will be made by sidelines for the front and the secondary coverage will be whatever is called behind that.

A "Sky" call refers to what the Safety is doing. When this is called, usually upon seeing the strength of the formation by the FS, it is the FS and two CBs who have deep responsibilities. The SS would have primary run support (force) if this is called, and would key the RB in addition to whomever he is assigned based on the formation. He could also be assigned to blitz or cover a free-space in the underneath zone, vacated by a blitzing LB. A wrinkle that is sometimes added is to give the FS the run key, and have the SS back up in deep zone after the could be read by the QB as a Safety blitz, when he is not even coming. The Sky call is strong against the run but weak against the quick out pass to #2 receiver on that side. This flip of the safeties (it can also be done between a S and a CB) called an inversion, and in some DC's playbooks the "force" is played by the FS instead of the SS. Here is an adjusted Cover 3 Sky call.

A "Cloud" call refers to one of the Corners. When this is called by the FS, it is the two safeties and one of the CBs who have deep responsibilities. A OLB would shift into the underneath zone vacated by this deep CB, for example. Blitz MIKE from that shifted-OLBs usual spot, and you have a difficult read. The other CB has primary run support (force) and keys the RB in addition to his assignment. Usually the coverage rolls to the CB who has the run key and isn't playing deep, and a S lines up behind him, with the other Safety taking the middle. The Cloud call is strong against the quick out pass to #2 but weak against the run except on wide runs. Anytime the #1 receiver does not align wider than the safety is off the line of scrimmage, the Safety will check to a Cloud call which keeps the defense from being outflanked. Anytime the #1 receiver does align wider than the safety is off the line of scrimmage, the Safety will make the Sky or Cloud call according to the coverage called by the coach. So you see, it all depends on how they line up.

You might also divide the deep field into quarter-quarter-half, assigning the FS one half of the field, and giving two quarters to the SS and CB to cover. This will all depend on formation and strengths of the opponent.

For example, if a team lines up in an I-formation or 1-back, with two WRs to one side and a TE on the other, the SS would cover deep on the TE side, which might be a full half of the field, while the other S and CB would have deep coverage on the two WR side, which would only be quarters for those two defenders.

For teams which prefer to roll to one side, or have one excellent WR, a DC would call quarter-quarter-half to give added protection on one side, putting a the 1/4s on the side likely getting attacked. Usually this is the strong side of the field. Steele's scheme will adjust based on the strong side, compared to VK's which would've adjusted to the Field side. Many times those are one and the same.

Here's another example of what you might see next season, rotating the 3 over behind the CB blitz:

(note: you'd never CB blitz from the wide side of the field, only the short side unless its a Nickel)

When the opponent likes to throw fade passes, fly patterns, and sideline routes, quarter-half-quarter coverage can force those receivers to come across the middle.

But what is the "seam" you always hear about on TV? When the announcers refer to a "seam route" they mean that the receiver ran a fly route into the cracks of the defense. Each defense has a place to attack it, and Cover 3 has two of them that run from 15 yds from the sideline and are a few yards wide. This would be because your slot receiver/TE runs between a OLB who has Curl responsibilities and a run key (meaning he has to wait and see what the RB does), and a CB who would have flat responsibilities, for example. Like the seam in the standard Cover 2 (not the Tampa 2, which is actually closer to Cover 3) it runs from 15 to 25 yards deep, and the hole between the deep coverage and the underneath LB/CB.

A problem that many zone coverages have is the coverage on the boundary, where a WR might still find the sandwich hole between the deep S/CB and the guy in the flats.

One complaint of most of us, after watching Koenning's zone, is the softness of the zone. There is a no-cover zone which extends 3-5 yards from the LOS, in which no defender is supposed to pick up a receiver (typically the RB sits out here). The key point of the zone, in general, is that the DB is watching the QB and breaks on the ball at the right time to break the pass up. VK's defenses didn't always do that so well, and they sat in their zones too long before breaking, which is a coaching point I expect Harbison to clear up. Once they have experience and know how to attack, they become better at forcing breakups and turnovers.

How can they do that better? They watch the drop of the quarterback, knowing that short drops lead to shorter passes. They watch his eyes, and the position of the shoulders: longer passes require the quarterback to dip his back shoulder. They learn the difference between a passer's pump-fake and his throwing motion, and they look for clues, like patting the ball, that indicate that the quarterback is ready to release. This is done in the film room.

One particular coaching point that Saban himself excels at is pattern-reading. This means that the DBs are coached to expect what routes the offense runs. For example, in a Smash play, one reciever runs a deep corner route, while the Flanker runs a quick hitch.

(In the figure, MOFC=middle of field closed=cover 1/3, MOFO=Cover 2)
At first glance, Cornerback has a real problem here, and is forced to pick one guy to cover. Either he backs up, trying to stop the deep corner route (B), or stays in his flat to stop the hitch or in/out (Z). Although the example is primarily meant to attack Cover 2 (where the CB stays in the flat), the same concept applies to any offensive attack.

Against Cover 3, the TE might run a 10 yd Curl route and be sitting next to a SAM in zone. At the same time, a RB flies out in a wheel route, and a WR running a deep post or fly. The deep route takes up the deep coverage, and the LB is forced to pick who to cover if the CB drops back with that deep receiver. Only disciplined and experienced players will stick to their assignments like they are supposed to. A secondary taught in pattern recognition will expect this route combination based on alignment of the WRs/RBs/TE and film study, and that CB would read the WR and TE release, and stay in his flat to pick up the RB, for example.

While VKs schemes did alot of spot-drops, because they are easy to teach, Harbison will almost certainly do pattern reading. Spot drops are simply that, a LB drops into his zone and watches the QB. The weakness is that good WRs can find the hole in the zone, and just run to it. Here is a depiction of the different passing zones defenders drop into.

But pattern-reads teach the defenders what to expect, and they essentially matchup onto whomever comes into their zone in man. Once he leaves their zone, they release him to someone else. Its also referred to as a Combination coverage and is more difficult for a QB to read pre-snap. In Saban's LSU playbook, he has hundreds of examples of combo routes the offense will run, and the defender is expected to recognize them. Where Saban excels is in how simple he can make all this information and teach it to his whole defense, instead of just a couple DBs. Each defender is essentially looking at only two guys, and he can adjust based on that. With Harbison being someone who learned under him, I'd expect us to do well in a year or two at pattern-reading.

Now, returning to our basic 3-Matchup defense above:

The responsibilities of each player is indicated in coachspeak on the figure. There are two corners, both aligned 8-9yds off. Their responsiblity is to key off the #2 on their side. For the Weakside, he's watching the near RB, then the QB and the ball. The strongside is keying the TE, then the backs to the ball.

The Strong Corner keys #2, and if #2 runs up the seam he's supposed to keep an eye on him as he releases from the LOS, keeping the combinations of the #1 and #2 in his mind. Otherwise, if the TE blocks or runs into the flat, he squeezes the #1 reciever matched on him.

The adjustment, labeled BUMP (in case Cloud is called), is to jam #1 and then play flat/curl. This is a CLOUD adjustment.

The Weakside CB does essentially the same, with an eye on the RB and the combinations he can run with the split end.

The SS aligns, in the basic package, 4x5. That means he's 4yds off the #2 (TE here), and 5 yds deep off the LOS. He drops 10yds down the seam, and plays curl/flat on the TE. All the while, he has to watch #3 on that side, the RB. #2 and #3 will run a pattern, and if the TE runs a seam route the SS picks up the RB in the flats, otherwise he stays in his curl zone. In case BUMP is called, he would pickup the deep 3rd instead of the Strong CB. Another adjustment would be to line him up in front of #1 and jam him.

The FS aligns 12 yds deep off the Weak OT, keying any uncovered linemen to the backs. He essentially backs up straight against the pass and covers his 3rd of the field. He watches for a post route up the seam, particularly by #2 (RB in the figure, remember the SC has the TE if he runs a post, but it could also be a slotman), and tries to read the QBs progression to break on the ball.

The SAM keys the TE, through the linemen to the near RB. His alignment will depend on whether sky or cloud is called and the call of the front. He plays the hook zone. His responsibility on pass is to read the pattern of those two receivers and attack any short dumps from the inside out, meaning he tries to force everything from his zone to the sideline.

The MIKE is watching the RBs, and aligns straight up 4 yds off the Center. In the figure above he is sent into the other hook zone. WILL essentially mirrors the SS, moving at first outside into the flat and backing up into the curl zone.

In the next post, I will go into blitz packages which play Cover 3 behind them.

[h/t goes to Smartfootball and Trojan Football Analysis as references]