X’s vs. O’s: Oregon’s 4 Verticals vs. Nebraska’s Cover 5

Zach Pierson Analysis

Welcome to the third installment of 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 discuss how the Cover 5 defense matches up against the 4 Verticals (so called because it involves four vertical receivers) passing concept. These common enemies clashed in a third-and-long situation early in the second quarter of the Ducks’ week two matchup against the Cornhuskers.

Cover 5 is a man-based defense that includes two deep defenders protecting the deep halves of the field. The coverage is often referred to as “2-Man Under,” which is an apt description given the defenders’ assignments. The underneath man defenders play with inside leverage, and aggressively challenge the receivers knowing they have safety help deep.

Due to its versatility, 4 Verticals is one of the most ubiquitous concepts in football. It can be run from a wide variety of offensive formations, and provides a multitude of options for route tags and built-in route conversions.

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: Outside Streak Read

The wide receiver (WR) releases up the field, attacking the outside shoulder of the cornerback (CB). Ten yards into the route, he decides whether he can beat the the CB deep down the sideline. If so, he continues up the field on the fade (go) route. If the defender maintains a cushion, the receiver stops at 14 yards, turns around, and retraces his steps back down the route stem.

Some teams will convert to a “comeback” route against a cushion. This route has the receiver angle out towards the sideline after his break instead of retracing his steps straight down the stem.

S2: Seam Read, Off an Outside Release

The receiver releases up the seam, and heads up the field to a landmark just outside the college hash marks. He runs the seam option if the middle of the field is closed (MOFC). If the middle of the field is open (MOFO), he breaks at 12 yards to run the skinny post option.

If a safety remains in the deep middle of the field (MOFC), the WR may slightly widen his route to further stress the deep third defender. If the safeties widen and vacate the middle of the field (MOFO), the receiver will bend slightly inside to attack the vacated space. If a safety is using a flat foot read, either option is available, depending on how well the defender maintains his leverage.

S3: Blocks, No Route Running Assignment

On this play, the running back is responsible strictly for his pass-protection assignment. He will not release into the pattern. This is commonly referred to as a solid protection.

W1: Outside Streak Read

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

W2: Seam Read, Off an Inside Release

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

Defensive Job Descriptions

Man Coverage Defenders

The defenders in man coverage use an “inside eye” alignment. With an inside eye alignment, the CB aligns his outside eye with the WR’s inside eye. The underneath man defenders utilize a “trail” man technique, looking to aggressively undercut inside-breaking routes by sitting on the receiver’s inside hip.

When the coverage is played from a press look, the defenders play to distort the rhythm of any timing-based route concepts at the release point. The coverage can also be played from an off-man alignment.

The underneath defenders can play aggressively due to the deep safety help, but they must stay in phase with the receiver (within arm’s length). In Cover 5, the defender is in phase  – and using the proper technique — if he is in the receiver’s “hip pocket” while maintaining his inside leverage.

If a defender is out of phase, he needs to work to get back in phase. A common mistake is to look back at the QB once the receiver has created separation. It’s an instinctive reaction, but it only leads to increased separation and larger throwing windows.

Fiddle Technique

In this assignment, both linebackers (LB) key the running back (RB) at the snap. If he releases in their direction, one LB plays him man-to-man, while the other executes the “green dog” technique (see next section).

This two-on-one pseudo-bracket prevents the defense from being quickly out-leveraged by the offense. If the running back stays in to block, both LBs can green dog, or one may execute another predetermined assignment.

Green Dog Technique

In this assignment, if the RB runs a route to the defender’s side of the formation, the defender plays him man-to-man. Otherwise, he rushes the QB.

If he rushes the QB, he must work through his man assignment. By making contact with the offensive player on the way to the QB, the defense avoids coverage busts, and protects against slip screens and check-and-release (delayed) routes.

Banjo Coverage

Banjo is a two-on-two pseudo-bracket man-coverage concept. It’s an “alert,” or check, used when two offensive threats are aligned in a compressed formation.

One defender aligns with inside leverage against the innermost receiving threat. He is responsible for the first in-breaking route. The other aligns with outside leverage against the outermost receiving threat, and is responsible for the first out-breaking route.

The defenders must be prepared to diagnose and communicate double-in or double-out breaking-route concepts. Offenses will often use switch releases and other tactics in an attempt to exploit the base banjo rules.

Deep-Half Safeties

Deep-half safeties must gain enough width and depth to create the proper angle to drive on a pass once the ball is thrown. Otherwise, the underneath man defenders will be left vulnerable to routes that attack the intermediate and deep areas of the field.

The safety will read the QB’s front shoulder to determine the proper angle. A high shoulder suggests a deep ball throw such as a fade or deep post, while a level shoulder suggests an intermediate drive throw like a dig or corner route.

If the safety’s zone is threatened by multiple vertical routes, he will apex (midpoint) the routes.

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

In the two clips, Nebraska disguises the coverage pre-snap. The safeties initially show a “one high” look, and then quickly stem to a “two high” shell just before the snap.

The QB reads the initial alignment of the defenders pre-snap, particularly the safeties, to gather clues about the coverage scheme he will see post-snap. This allows him to move through his progressions quickly. However, after the snap, he needs to confirm his hypothesis, to account for the possibility of a “trap” (disguised) coverage.

On the chalkboard, Cover 5 is well suited to handle 4 Verticals. One of its strengths is the ability to challenge vertical routes, from their inception at the line of scrimmage through the vertical stem.

Cover 5 is a great call in obvious passing situations such as third and long. Often, defenses will pair this coverage with a pass-rush stunt designed to defeat the expected pass-protection scheme.

The defense is designed to take away easy completions inside, and force the offense to make tough outside throws. However, since both safeties expand to cover the deep halves of the field, it’s vulnerable to coverage lapses in the middle. If a receiver wins inside at the line of scrimmage or at the top of an in-breaking route, he will have plenty of open space.

In the clips, we see both deep-half safeties doing a good job of gaining the width and depth needed to provide help to the two verticals that are threatening their portions of the field. Due to excellent technique by the outside corners and the deep safeties, there is no space to hit the “hole shot” up the sideline between the defenders to either side of the formation.

The underneath man defenders do a great job of maintaining their inside leverage against the two seam read routes. The end result is a contested pass that leads to an incompletion and a small victory for the defense.


I’ve introduced the core concepts of these two schemes. There are variations of these plays that I may write about as they appear on film this season. Let’s see how Oregon uses their 4 Verticals package to exploit their opponents in the coming weeks.

Zach Pierson
Birmingham, Alabama

Top Photo by Kevin Cline

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