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The Pittsburgh Defense: It’s Cover 4, Not Man

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Y’ALL GON’ LEARN

NCAA Football: Marshall at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Narduzzi was considered one of the premier defensive coordinators in college football when he left Michigan State to take the head job at Pittsburgh nearly two years ago. In today’s fast-paced college game with strict mandates on practice time, the most successful coaches are the ones who perfect a simple, condensed philosophy (on both offense and defense) and can use it without rotating personnel or formations; minimizing signals and confusion by doing a few things really well, rather than many things not as well. Narduzzi is something of a poster boy for defensive success by simplicity through the use of what I (and Brent Venables) consider to be the ideal defense: employing 4-3 Over in front of cover 4, or quarters, coverage.

There’s been an unbelievable amount of misinformation floating out of various Clemson media outlets surrounding Pat Narduzzi and his current defense at Pitt. All week I’ve heard and read about how bad Pitt has been in man coverage and how if “Virginia Tech, Miami, etc. victimized the Panthers so devilishly outside, imagine what Mike Williams and Deon Cain could do to against Narduzzi’s overmatched corners in man coverage!” I consider myself something of a Venables disciple, so to see/hear more than a few Clemson mouthpieces fail to recognize the exact same base and philosophy we enjoy here drove me up the proverbial wall. So, I’m climbing up on my soapbox to preach the good word of the cover 4 defense, which Narduzzi uses extensively and would prefer to use exclusively.

First I’ll put it plainly: cover 4 often looks like man because it can become man depending on the routes run by the inside receivers (slot and tight end). It is difficult to identify unless you know to look for it; on one play it could look like zone, on the next play it could look like man. Much like the zone read play on offense, one simple call could has various contingencies based on post-snap reads.

If the inside receiver runs an underneath (horizontal) route, the safety will help double cover the outside receiver on his side and leave the underneath coverage to a linebacker; if the inside receiver runs upfield, the safety will man up on the inside receiver.

A different illustration to help you visualize that this is, in fact, zone coverage:

Corners: if outside receiver goes deep, man up; if short, drop into your deep quarter. Safeties: if inside receiver goes deep, man up; if short, help corner outside. This is why it’s easily perceived as man!

Cover 4 allows defenses to be extremely aggressive with its safeties against the run while maintaining simplicity and flexibility in coverage. Narduzzi, in particular, loves to keep his safeties within 10 yards from the line of scrimmage to create essentially a 9 man box and shut down the run:

With Jayron Kearse and TJ Green in 2015, Venables was similarly aggressive (thanks to stellar cornerback play he could trust) and used one of the two as an extra linebacker far more often than not. Side note: we haven’t seen either safety this year in the box as frequently as a year ago for multiple reasons: a drop off at cornerback requires more caution; Van Smith’s physical limitations (not great in run support); and Jadar Johnson’s outstanding play at “center field” makes Venables hesitant to move him from the back of the defense too often.

Unfortunately for Narduzzi, all the philosophical similarities have not replicated the success on the field Venables has enjoyed here at Clemson. The primary culprit is, of course, a relative lack of talent. While solid in run defense thanks in part to the 9 man box, the obvious weakness here is the secondary. The cornerbacks, particularly, have not held up in quarters coverage. Most relevant to our matchup here, they were eaten alive on fades by VT’s big, athletic receiving group. Clemson already rode the fade to Williams for a victory at Auburn, and you know he and Cain are eager to attack this secondary against a coverage they see frequently in practice.

VT threw up prayers like this all night and found a shocking amount of success. This isn’t even a good throw; it’s a duck.
The strong safety should’ve been able to double team the receiver, but fly motion pulled him out of position to provide support. He realized it immediately, but was too late. Clemson can exploit this.

Clemson will need to get creative in its run game (meaning zone read counters and bucksweeps) to find much success on the ground and thus open up the play action against a good front. Defensive end Ejuan Price will likely be a nightmare for backup right tackle Sean Pollard, but fortnunately Wayne Gallman is excellent in pass protection and Clemson will throw plenty of quick fades and screens to neutralize him. Look for Clemson to attack the perimeter heavily against an aggressive front and undermanned secondary. Play action should be effective against any aggressive cover 4 team, but Clemson must be balanced and diverse in order to maximize the damage.

This is somewhat like self-scouting the Clemson defense, since many of the same vulnerabilities can be found in each unit due to scheme. Clemson has the talent to mask many which Pitt does not; Clemson enjoys a huge advantage out wide, and has the dynamism to expose Pitt’s linebackers and safeties to boot. Combine this with the perception that Clemson is on an upward trajectory, and it should be a relatively comfortable autumn evening in Death Valley to clinch the division.

Clemson 48, Pitt 17