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Florida State’s Cover 4 Defense Will Be Trevor Lawrence’s Toughest Test

NCAA Football: Florida State at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

When an opponent sticks to its professed scheme religiously, I relish the opportunity to make myself seem far more intelligent than I actually am and detail the specifics of said scheme. This is one such week, and in Tallahassee we will find a scheme with which we are all too familiar: new defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett’s cover 4, or quarters, coverage.

Anyone who ever played Madden or the old NCAA Football video games remembers cover 4 being somewhat synonymous with soft prevent defense and is thus useless in those games. It featured corners and safeties dropping back into stupid deep zones no matter what the opposite receivers did, with gaping holes between inadequate linebackers and pointlessly deep defensive backs. Cover 4 was a patented Very Dumb Call, and if you ever selected it you were effectively trying to lose. Or you did whatever Ask Corso/Ask Madden suggested, in which case you were also effectively trying to lose, but with a healthy appreciation for anarchy.

Cover 4 in actuality is one of the most aggressive and adaptable coverages in football, and it’s why Brent Venables heavily utilizes the coverage himself. Still need convincing? I shouldn’t need to remind you what happened the last time Clemson faced a strict cover 4 disciple from Michigan State, Pat Narduzzi: the eventual national champions fell to Pittsburgh at home, unable to run the ball or punch it into the endzone when it mattered.

FSU presents the same aggressive scheme which overwhelmed the Clemson offensive line and confounded Deshaun Watson into head-scratching turnovers, but with comparable (if not better) talent to Clemson to boot. For all it’s horrendous and downright comical problems on offense, the Seminoles are a far more imposing challenge for Trevor Lawrence than the loaded box and soft coverage outside NC State brought last week; unlike the Wolfpack, FSU has an excellent pass rush and athleticism in its secondary.

Cover 4 is often confused for man coverage, since corners and safeties will man up on a receiver entering his respective zone should the route and read dictate it. It reached the point that leading up to the infamous Pitt game 2 years ago, Dabo Swinney had to correct many a beat writer who asked him about Pitt’s man coverage.

To the uninitiated, this is understandable, since it is difficult to identify unless you know to look for it. (Bane voice) but we are initiated, aren’t we STS? Members of the League of Venables.

Pattern match coverage only blurs the lines between zone and man, and it’s easy to misjudge. Safeties in cover 4 are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and are supposed to fly in on run support. Their tight alignment often tips man coverage, since it’s easy to presume a cover 0 blitz, or because safeties may align directly over an inside receiver.

But this is a mirage, and to put it simply, the inside receivers (slots and tight ends) determine the coverage. If an inside receiver runs upfield, the linebacker underneath will release him to the safety, who has a deep quarter and will then man up on the receiver as he runs upfield. If the slot or tight end stays underneath, the safety will leave him to the linebackers and help the cornerback outside with a double team.

On the outside it’s a bit more simple: when a boundary or field receiver runs a route upfield, the cornerback mans up and carries him upfield. If the outside receiver runs an underneath route, the corner leaves him to the linebacker underneath and drops into his deep quarter, and will man up on an inside receiver working deep and outside, like a corner route.

The simplest illustration I could find which visualizes cover 4 zones. In the diagram, #1 is an outside receiver and #2 is an inside receiver.
This diagram shows how cover 4 can resemble man coverage, but also the importance of safety play since safeties have two reads in addition to run support responsibilities. If a safety makes an error, often due to play action, it’s a usually a huge error.

I was among those who expected FSU to return to (or even surpass) the dominant ways of the Jameis Winston era eventually under Willie Taggart — bringing a spread offense to a P5 Florida school seemed like a no brainer with all the in-state talent growing up in the system, and imagining a true cover 4 with FSU’s talent could be unbeatable — yet the Taggart era has begun so horribly, it isn’t unthinkable to suggest it may not even last three years.

Whether Taggart simply needs time to change the culture or is in over his head, FSU’s problem hasn’t been its defense. With the schematic basics outlined, we can dive in to what FSU is doing well and how they’ve been beaten, with a focus on its most recent improved performances agains Miami and Wake Forest.

First of all, cover 4 makes running the ball extremely difficult. Forget an 8 man box like NC State threw at Clemson; FSU will throw in 9:

Your typical cover 4 alignment. The Sam splits the distance between the slot and the tackle, and the safeties are 8 yards from the line of scrimmage.

A problem with tight safeties with heavy run defense responsibilities? The frequent inability to get back and double the outside receiver downfield after play action or RPOs.

The free safety has to ensure it’s not a handoff, eye the H back for an upfield route, then retreat to double team the outside receiver before the ball is thrown. He can’t get back in time, and Miami draws a PI call.

Lawrence has been lethal on RPOs and last week and gashed NC State perfectly, correctly pulling and throwing on all 10 RPO calls. Safety manipulation will be even more important this week against a polar opposite defense in terms of aggression.

Brian Burns is the best pure pass rusher in the ACC.

The FSU pass rush is a problem and will put far more pressure on Lawrence than he has seen. If there is a way to stop this balanced Clemson offense, it’s get pressure on Lawrence or he will pick you apart whether he has a run game or not; FSU is more than equipped to do so with its front 4, especially if cover 4 limits the run as intended. And when they do blitz? We’ll see the sorts of line stunts and interior pressure which have resulted in a turnstyle at right guard for the Tigers.

If there is hope for Clemson on the ground, it’s found in FSU’s inconsistent linebacker play. NC State controlled Clemson’s power run game with outstanding linebacker play, following the pulling blockers rather than flowing with the line blocking down on power runs. With crashing safeties, FSU can almost always find a numbers advantage to control the run, but missed assignments and poor gap integrity have sprung a few leaks:

FSU is one of the top rush defenses in the country, and while much of it has to do with cover 4 safeties, there is no way to discount the talent the Noles bring up front. Demarcus Christmas is still a monstrous defensive tackle and can control the middle if he shows enough interest. The corners are undersized, but speedy; Clemson will need to hit back shoulder throws with its bigger receivers outside and manipulate athletic, aggressive safeties in coverage in order to sustain drives.

I’d look for a return to form for the Clemson run game, thanks in part to FSU’s wariness of playing the RPO overaggressively, but also because of relatively weak linebacker awareness. The power and counter should be able to find the holes which NCSU linebackers plugged, and if Clemson does begin to pull away we know FSU isn’t above unravelling.

In all, I expect FSU to present far more of a challenge for Lawrence than NC State; they will come after him and force tough throws rather than sit back and let him do what he wants. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he struggles early and FSU stays in the game on the back of its fired up, aggressive defense.

But on the other side, I don’t see how FSU moves the ball without short fields or gadget plays. There is no greater mismatch than the Clemson defensive line versus the FSU offensive line, Deondre Francois is still struggling with RPOs and accuracy, and FSU has little to no run game. This offense has been more or less a dumpster fire all year, and jumping from the Wake Forest defense to the Clemson defense is the largest gap in competency possible at the Power 5 level. Without turnovers, gaffes, or special teams, I would be surprised to see FSU hit double digits.

Eventually Clemson will find a balance which FSU can’t stop, the only question is how long it will take; if Lawrence is manipulating the safeties in cover 4, it shouldn’t take too long, but it’s a tall task for a freshman against the most athletic and aggressive defense on the schedule.

Clemson 31, FSU 10