X’s vs. O’s: Attacking the Single High Safety

Zach Pierson Analysis

Welcome back to X’s vs. O’s! In this series, we will analyze how Oregon utilizes different schemes and techniques to attack and defend the opposition. Today, we will examine a play from the 2017 Oregon spring game. Before we begin, let’s review the basics of the Cover 1 defense.

A Cover 1 is a man coverage based defense that includes two different zone defenders. One zone defender (the “low hole”) covers the middle of the field in the short to intermediate area. The other zone defender (the “post safety”) covers the deep middle of the field. The defense is designed to funnel receiving threats inside, where the man defenders have help from the low hole linebacker and the post safety.

Let’s see how this defense matches up with a common coverage “beater.” A beater is a route combination used by the offense that, by design, attacks a weakness of the coverage. The offensive play we’ll look at is commonly referred to as “Hank.” In the West Coast offense, Hank is a mirrored curl/flat passing concept with a 10-yard locked curl by one of the inside receivers.

A mirrored pass concept is one where the receivers on each side of the formation run routes that mirror each other. In the diagram, you can see that S1 and S2 mirror W1 and W2, respectively.

We’ll review the job descriptions of five offensive skill positions: S1 through S3, W1 and W2 (S for strong side and W for weak side), and then look at the job descriptions for the key defensive positions.

Offensive Job Descriptions

S1: 12-Yard Curl

The receiver explodes to a depth of 12 yards, then plants off his outside foot and works back to the quarterback (QB). His goal is to finish the route inside the flat defender. This may mean working inside slightly to the “next window” to provide the QB with the proper throwing window inside the flat defender.

Here are the coaching points for the curl route against different defensive techniques:

  1. If the defender has outside leverage, run the route as explained directly above.
  2. If the defender has inside leverage, the wide receiver (WR) will come back “down the stem” at the top of the route. This means he retraces his steps back down the original route stem. Once the ball is thrown, he should use his body as a shield between the defensive back (DB) and the ball, while securing the ball with his hands.
  3. If the defender is in tight man coverage, either head-up or with inside leverage, the WR should use an outside release to a 10-yard stem. He knocks away the defender’s hands as necessary while they continue up the field. At 10 yards, he abruptly ends the route stem and throttles down, with the idea of using the defender’s momentum against him and causing him to over-pursue. He then aggressively works back “down the stem” as described earlier. Hand fighting and positioning is key in situations that involve tight coverage techniques from the defender.

S2: Flat Route

The receiver steadily gains width and depth, aiming for a final depth of 5 yards. He must be careful not to run out of bounds. When he is approximately 5 yards from the sideline, he turns around and squares up to provide the QB with a stationary target.

One of the most common route “tags” in the curl/flat concept is for the flat player(s) to run a wheel route. On a wheel route, the WR executes an outside release, with an aiming point slightly outside the painted numbers on the field (the “top of the numbers”).

Due to route spacing concerns, when paired with the curl route, the WR no longer has the ability to settle versus a cushion. The WR should maintain four yards of separation from the sideline at all times to allow the QB sufficient space to place the ball. This tag can be useful to exploit an athletic mismatch against man coverage or pattern-matching defenses.

S3: 10-Yard Locked Curl

A locked route is a route where no post-snap reads or adjustments are executed by the receiver. The receiver works his way to his landmark, and it is his job to “own” that part of the field.

In this route, the landmark is 10 yards downfield in front of the center. The receiver inside releases and gains depth as he moves upfield. After settling in at the top of the 10-yard route, he looks for the QB to place the ball on the shoulder opposite the defender’s leverage.

This is the default route for this player in the Hank concept. There are route “tag” options available for this receiver that can be used to better stress certain defenses or to exploit a matchup advantage.


W2: Mirrors S2

The W2 receiver runs a route that mirrors the S2 receiver’s route.

W1: Mirrors S1

The W1 receiver runs a route that mirrors the S1 receiver’s route.

Defensive Job Descriptions

Man Coverage Defenders

All the man defenders in this concept are operating with outside leverage. Their objective is to funnel the receiving threats inside, where they have help from the low hole linebacker and the post safety.

Low Hole

This player executes a “Rat” technique. He should slowly and steadily gain depth, to a maximum of 10 yards, while looking to make contact with the first route to cross his face. This route will more than likely be a shallow or intermediate crossing route.

The low hole progression is shallow crossing route, to intermediate crossing route, to intermediate in-breaking route. He should be alert for screen passes and draw action, since his assignment places him in a good position to provide help against these strategies.

Post Safety

The post safety is responsible for the deep middle of the field. The progression is seam routes to post routes to dig routes. The safety must be as deep as the deepest offensive threat, so he can attack straight downhill at the appropriate angle to drive on the ball and contest passes.

If the middle of the field is threatened by multiple vertical routes, the post safety will apex (midpoint) the routes and break on the QB’s body language. He does this by reading the QB’s front shoulder. A high shoulder means a possible deep ball throw such as a fade or deep post, while a level shoulder means a more intermediate drive throw like a dig or skinny post is to be expected.

Example from the Spring Game: Why and How Did/Didn’t It Work?

The video above is an example of Hank against the Cover 1 defense. By design, curl/flat is a Cover 3 beater, but it can be effective against man and press man coverage if properly executed. The job descriptions detail how the outside curl receivers use varying techniques to defeat different types of man coverage.

Hank naturally attacks the weaknesses in the Cover 1 scheme. The post safety will not be able to provide much help against any of the routes on the field, and the locked curl might find a crease between his man defender and the low hole player.

In the clip, the WR at the top of the screen successfully creates separation from his defender, and provides the QB with a solid target. Unfortunately, the pass protection breaks down rather quickly. The right guard is quickly defeated by his assignment, bringing the play to a swift conclusion.

Looking at the defensive side of the ball, we see the defensive backs in a press alignment on the outside wide receivers. The interior defensive backs are not showing the same press alignment. They do this to avoid allowing the offense easy completions off quick rub or “pick” routes. It is still possible for the interior defensive backs to play tighter than they are in the clip, but it is imperative they align on different planes (levels) to avoid rubs.


Curl/flat is one of the most well known single high beaters in football. A single high defense refers to a defense, like Cover 1, that features a deep safety (the post safety) patrolling the deep middle of the field. This concept has stood the test of time; it has been around for over 100 years.

I’m looking forward to watching, studying, and analyzing how the Ducks exploit their opponents this season with the curl/flat concept.

Zach Pierson
Birmingham, Alabama

Top Photo by Kevin Cline

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