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Split Coverages: Taking a Lesson from TCU
Split coverages, whether they’re regarded as such, are used by many high school, college, and pro teams. While most teams also have a balanced zone coverage, like cover 3 or cover 2, split coverages are growing more popular. Perhaps TCU is best known for successfully implementing split coverage schemes.
Consistently one of the top defenses in college football, details on the TCU 4-2-5 defense are among the most sought-after topics in the football coaching community today. Whether it’s playbook information, or even a clinic talk, the concept of split coverages is very popular today, whether a team implements a 4-2-5 defense, a 4-3 defense, or another scheme. If you’re looking for some drills and techniques in regards to how to implement this, please look at these articles, linebacker drills and defensive line drills
Quarters Based Coverages
Before we jump into split coverages, we need to discuss cover 4 and the quarters coverage family. Many teams that use split coverages start out of the quarters or cover 4 family. What exactly is cover 4 or quarters coverage? It is not a prevent defense, as video games make them seem to be. It’s an aggressive run-stopping front that also defends up to 4 vertical threats very well.
Cover 4 matches the corners on the #1 (outside most) receiver to their side of the formation. The safeties match up on the #2 receiver, whether he is in the backfield, in the slot, or in a closed position next to the tackle (a tight end). If three receivers are to one side (a trips formation), the defense usually will adjust in someway to cover the #3 defender, and there are multiple ways to do this (typically either checking out of the coverage or bring the backside safety over to a “Cheat” position). If the #3 receiver is in the backfield, i.e. the tailback in diagram 1, one of the linebackers is responsible for matching up with him if he goes vertical.
Now, this isn’t man coverage, though it can quickly become very similar. Different teams run the coverage in different ways, but the main point to understand is that the corners and safeties are responsible for the guy they are aligned over if that receiver goes vertically up the field past 8-10 yards. If that happens, then they are in man coverage.
From there, things get a little more complicated, based off of the routes that the receiver runs. For a basic breakdown, I encourage you to watch the video below that I recorded a few months ago on cover 4 versus the 2×2 set.
After watching the video, I described two variations of cover 4. This actually can be run just like I describe in the video, which means it is a split coverage! Some teams would just have their safety to a side make a check based on the receivers’ alignment to his side of the field, i.e. “BANJO!” While the players may not think they are running a “split coverage” (explaining it this way may confuse kids more than you can imagine, and I am speaking from experience), they are actually doing just that.
Perhaps the most popular split coverage is quarter-quarter-half, sometimes known as cover 6. The basic idea of
quarter-quarter-half is that, to the field, the defense will play quarters or cover 4. The corner to the field, the area with the most width, will typically matchup with the #1 receiver, and the safety will matchup with the #2 receiver, just like cover 4.
On the backside, depending on the gameplan and the tendencies, the defense will likely run a form of cover 2. Cover 2 has one defender playing the flat, and one playing the deep half to that side. The defender playing the flat could be the corner, the safety, or even a linebacker, depending on the defensive system, personnel, and the offense’s tendencies out of their formation. This is illustrated in diagram 2, which shows three different ways in which this same coverage can be executed versus two pro sets.
Is the juice (split coverages) worth the squeeze?
But why would a team do this? What makes quarter-quarter-half and other split coverages worth it, because it sure looks complicated. When the principles are applied from other base coverages (cover 4, cover 2, etc.), split coverages become a way to present a completely new look to a quarterback and an offense without adding many new details to a defense’s playbook. Yes, communication and getting line up properly will take time and understanding, but overall the knowledge can be recycled into these new coverages. On top of that, and perhaps more importantly, technique can be recycled.
A lot of coaches want to install so many different coverages to give the offense a different look, but they don’t take into account how that coverage can be game-planned for by the offensive coordinator. Some teams run fire zone blitzes and get so out of position because a defensive end wrong-arms instead of squeezes a play (for instance, he forces the play outside when he should have kept it inside). This may seem like a simple mistake, but when a kid is programmed to do something over and over again, and in the middle of the third quarter on a long drive a play similar to this is called, it can become easy to make one simple mistake such as that. When split coverages are run that reuse current zone coverages, they recycle technique and knowledge that eliminate big plays, while still giving a look of complexity to the defense.
In addition, running split coverages can allow a defense to match up to what the offense provides on each side of a formation. Teams like Stanford and Wisconsin are really good at causing defensive secondary run fit issues, a.k.a. confusing how the defensive secondary pursues the play. Because it is essentially running a different coverage to each side of the field, as long as the right coverage for that side of the offensive formation is called, the run fits should be sound on both sides of the ball
So… why doesn’t everyone run split coverages?
Yeah, I think split coverages are great, but they do have weaknesses. Motions and shifts (like Wisconsin and Stanford like to use), can cause a lot of checks in quick succession. Sometimes it may be smart to check to a more vanilla coverage upon a motion or a shift. This is what TCU has done when a receiver goes across the formation.
Another drawback, especially for quarters based coverages, is deep crossing patterns and play-action routes that settle in that 8-10 yard range which can cause poor matchups on the outside. It may get a safety to settle his feet and hips and sit on the #2 receiver when the #1 receiver is running an inside breaking route like a post. This can be a big play problem.
In addition, intermediate crossing patterns (8-15 yards deep) that have players on the backside working to the front-side may allow offensive players to find a nice hole in the zone if the #1 and #2 receivers to the strong-side clear out the safety and corner to that side because they get locked onto their receivers.
Conclusions on Split Coverages
While split coverages may not be a call for every down (though some teams do that successfully), they can be a very strong asset for any defense because they can provide sound schemes that don’t add too much extra knowledge or technique for a defense.
If you have any questions or want more insight, feel free to contact me at the information listed in my bio, or visit Strong Football.