The Bartlett Defense: Part 5 - Coverage concepts

Happy Tuesday, friends.  Today, we get to the interesting and original part of this series about the Bartlett Defense, as we discuss coverage concepts.  At its core, this defensive idea is about reducing the efficiency with which offenses throw the football.  A lot of evidence indicates that championship teams throw well and stop the pass well, so I conceived this scheme with that priority in mind.

Before we get started, let’s put out the links to prior parts of this series, in case you’re just joining us, or you want to refresh your memory:

Part 1 – Personnel and Alignment

Part 2 – Principles for 100% Soundness

Part 2.5 – Responding to an Excellent Comment

Part 3 – Reads and thought processes

Part 4 – Running game principles

Okay, so what do we mean by reducing passing efficiency?  Well, if you are a fan of passer rating, you can use a metric like CHFF’s Defensive Passer Rating to see what I mean.  If you like PFR’s metrics, you can use them.  For me, a guy who’s more geared toward evaluating what I see with my eyes, I want a pass defense to accomplish three things:

  1. Make it more difficult to complete a pass the further downfield the route is run.
  2. Tackle those players who do catch a pass immediately.
  3. Force passing game turnovers.

I didn’t say sack the QB, because some of the best QBs will hardly ever let you sack them.  We want some sacks, but coverage is more important, because it accomplishes all three stated goals.  If a QB is normally a 65% passer, I want to give him tight windows, and make him a 58% passer.  When those 58% of attempts become completions, I want to tackle the receiver immediately, and try to strip out the football.  When the ball’s in the air, I want to try to deflect it and/or catch it.

All of that stuff is going to reduce defensive passer rating or ANY/A, which are basically telling the same story, in the end – the QB struggled more than usual, and his team lost the game.  We want to see a whole list of QBs struggle through that kind of day, whether they’re great sack avoiders or not.

Let’s talk coverage.  Have you ever watched a Big East basketball game?  Right after the opening tip, Jay Bilas and Sean McDonough pipe down, and Bill Raftery says “and UConn goes… MANNAMAN!” like it’s the funniest and most interesting gosh-darn catchphrase ever, according to the son of gosh himself, the man we know fondly as the Homie Jesus? 

Well, when it’s Syracuse who loses the tip, he’ll say “and the Orange come out in their standard 2-3 zone… with MANNAMAN principles!”  Raftery sucks, and I wish ESPN and CBS would get rid of him, but the Bartlett defense is primarily a zone scheme with man-to-man principles.  More specifically, it wants to be a matchup zone, similar to what John Chaney’s Temple Owls basketball teams used to play.

Every defense has a base coverage scheme, and for the Bartlett defense, it’s Cover 3.  Whenever the correctness of the sideline call is in doubt, vis-à-vis what the offense shows, the FS always has the ability to check to Cover 3, and to play it basic and safe.  We’ll even call some Cover 3 from the sidelines 15-20% of the time, to keep it unpredictable.  For those who don’t know, this is what Cover 3 looks like:

It’s simply deep-thirds across the back-end, and quarters underneath.  The weakness of Cover 3 is the short pass to the outside, but we’ll live with that, because it’s very tough to go deep on.  As you see, our base alignment lends itself exceptionally well to getting into Cover 3

The other 80-85% of the time, when we’re not playing Cover 3, we want to be in our preferred coverage, which I am about to describe.  Let’s do some math real quick, and think about numbers advantages.

On defense, I’m allowed to use 11 players at a time, which conveniently matches the 11 that the offense is able to use.  Both sides can create numbers advantages, but it’s easier to do on defense.  You’ll recall that I have an 8-man front on every snap, and that I have 6 defenders assigned to fill 8 gaps, and 2 free runners, the LBs.  Those 8 players are more than the offense can block, and if all my guys do what they’re supposed to do, I should win on defense.

In the passing game, it’s similarly easy to create numbers advantages.  Offenses have 1 QB, 5 eligible receivers, and 5 ineligible linemen.  For the most part, I’m going to have 7 coverage players to cover those 5 eligible men, and I want to try to effectively double-team 4 of the 5.  I know what you’re thinking – how do you double-team 4 guys with 7 players? Allow me to explain:

Throughout this series, I’ve been talking about 2-by-2 versus 3-by-1 offensive sets.  For the most part, offenses like to be even in the NFL, because the hashmarks are close together, and the game happens in the center of the field.  Our first assumption is that we’ll see a lot of 2 by 2, regardless of the personnel grouping.  We’ll be ready for 3 by 1, though.

Our second assumption is that the faster receivers will tend to play outside, and the slower ones will be inside.  Note that when I talk about inside or outside receivers, I don’t care if the player is formally defined as a WR, TE, or RB for Pro Bowl-voting purposes.

Let’s remember our alignment against standard 2-by-2 offense, because it’s going to lead us to the key coverage concept:

  1. Each LB is halfway between the inside receiver to his side, and the ball, five yards off the line of scrimmage.  The furthest wide he can align is as a 6 technique, in the case of a very wide inside receiver, though.
  2. Each inside DB is halfway between the inside receiver and outside receiver, also five yards off the line of scrimmage.
  3. Each CB is halfway between the sideline and the outside receiver, nine yards off the line of scrimmage.
  4. The FS is thirteen yards off the line of scrimmage, aligned on the QB.

You got that?  Let’s look at a picture of it, and I think it will make some sense:

This is a fairly crude drawing in PowerPoint, but I want to show positioning relative to the sideline, the numbers, and the hashmarks.  In this play, the offense is between the hashes, slightly to the left.  The left WR is wide, just inside the numbers, and the left inside receiver is split out from the formation in a slot.  That causes the RCB to be outside the numbers, and the Right Inside DB to be well outside the formation.  The Right LB is in a 6 technique, which is as wide as we want him to align.

The right WR is tighter, and the Right Inside Receiver is aligned as a TE, which causes the LCB to be inside the numbers, and the Left Inside DB to be tighter to the formation.  The Left LB is inside, because he’s halfway between the TE and the Center.  The key point is that this alignment is all based on spacing between an inside landmark and an outside landmark, which is why I wanted to show the variations.

Now, the reason why I want to space it like that is because the six coverage players, excepting the FS, are going to have very specific spacing responsibilities in the coverage scheme, and I’ve got them organized into lanes, like a kickoff coverage team.  Look at the same picture this way:

I’ve drawn six distinct lanes, the widths of which will tend to vary based on the splits that the receivers take.  These don’t work exactly like zones, and after the snap, they’ll shift and overlap.  Over the top, the FS has the area from numbers to numbers deeper than thirteen yards.  I didn’t draw that in, because it would confuse the drawing, but understand that he’s there.

Now, remember the part about how the faster guys are outside and the slower guys are inside?  If all four receivers take off in a dead sprint on a 4 Verticals concept, after 2.5 seconds, this is roughly what you’d see:

In a race, the faster guys beat the slower guys, right?  My faster guys are outside, and aligned deeper, for that very reason.  My moderately fast inside DBs are moderately inside, and shallower.  My slower LBs (who are still required to be pretty fast) are far inside, and also shallow.  If they’re trailing the play, this is how it looks:

What you see there is how you double-team four receivers with six defenders, and still leave a safety free.  Remember, almost all standard pass routes work off of the same twelve-yard vertical stem.  Knowing that, I can put the following assignments in place.  From the offense’s left, to the right, referring to the multi-colored lane monstrosity above:

RCB (Rick) –  Stay outside of and deeper than the left outside receiver.  Secondarily, watch for inside receivers breaking outside.

RDB (Rob) – Stay inside of and shallower than the left outside receiver, and outside of and deeper than the left inside receiver.  Try to stay halfway between the two players both vertically and horizontally.

Closed-side LB (Clyde) – Stay inside of and shallower than the left inside receiver.  Secondarily, keep an eye on the RB as a receiver out of the backfield to your side, and close the gap if that route emerges.

Free Safety (Frank) – Watch the QB, and flow to where his eyes and feet take you.  Secondarily, watch for in-breaking deep routes (post/dig) and be ready to take over deep inside responsibility on them.

Open-side LB (Opie) – Stay inside of and shallower than the right inside receiver.  Secondarily, keep an eye on the RB as a receiver out of the backfield to your side, and close the gap if that route emerges.

LDB (Lance) – Stay inside of and shallower than the right outside receiver, and outside of and deeper than the right inside receiver.  Try to stay halfway between the two players both vertically and horizontally.

LCB (Lou) –  Stay outside of and deeper than the right outside receiver.  Secondarily, watch for inside receivers breaking outside.

We can’t cover the whole field, so we want to cover the areas where receivers actually go.  We’re erring on covering deep and to the outside, because deep plays hurt us more than short ones do, and because we have the FS inside to help on guys who get free against outside leverage.

Remember, we want to cut 7% off the QB’s completion percentage, and tackle anybody who catches the ball.  Even if the QB is capable of getting it in there against hi-lo coverage, it’s harder to do than it is against single coverage.  Also remember, I value long arms and high intelligence in my DBs.

You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers:

  • What happens when the offense runs an in-out swap?  That simply triggers a reversion to Cover-3 principles.  All coverage players are reading the vertical stem of the receiver and the drop of the QB.  If the inside guys go out, and the inside guys go in, you just stay in your lanes and zone it up.
     
  • Can you defend the slant-out combo?  Yes, we can handle it well enough, particularly the slant.  Offenses love the slant against off coverage, particularly when the CB has outside leverage.  It’s like stealing, and that fact was one of the things that got me thinking about using the inside DB.  When he reads slant, he’s going to sink hard to take it away.  Likewise, when the LB reads quick out, he’s on his own, and needs to chase the inside receiver outside.  The CB should be ready to get outside and back him up on the tackle.
     
  • What about the RB in the passing game?  There’s a danger there, to be sure.  The LBs have to watch for swing action, and be ready to run to it, and make a tackle.  We prioritize covering the deep ball over short passes, because, again, no defense can cover the whole field.
     
  • How do you defend underneath routes from the outside receiver, such as those seen in Smash and Levels concepts?  Against offenses that run this action frequently, the LB will be coached to watch for outside receivers breaking off their routes to the inside, and shallower than twelve yards.  In that case, they assume responsibility for the in-cut, and the inside DB takes the inside receiver over the top.  The CB drops to a deep third, particularly to help against the inside receiver on an out-breaking route, such as a Smash concept.
     
  • Where does the pass rush fit in?  We’re coverage-focused, but we need pressure at a minimum, and sacks are appreciated too.  We’re not going to sell out for the sack, because a Peyton Manning isn’t going to take them, but we at least need to speed up his process.  Pass rushers will be judged on their ability to generate pressure consistently.

We can get more creative than this, and we would if we were completely building this out over the course of years, but the key base coverage concepts are Cover 3 and Hi-Lo.  Before I finish, I want to close the circle on playing Hi-Lo against a 3-by-1 offensive look.

From Part 3:

Note the alignment of the offense, and align yourself accordingly.  If the offense shows 2 by 2, each LB is assigned to align inside of the inside receiver on each side, five yards off the line of scrimmage.  If the offense shows 3 by 1, the backside LB becomes a straight-up MLB, and the frontside LB becomes a traditional OLB, aligning inside of the first inside receiver of the two on the heavy side. 

Here’s what that looks like, graphically:

In terms of coverage responsibilities in a Hi-Lo call, here’s how it plays out:

RCB (Rick) –  Stay outside of and deeper than the left outside receiver.  Secondarily, watch for inside receivers breaking outside.

RDB (Rob) – Stay inside of and shallower than the left outside receiver, and outside of and deeper than the left inside receiver.  Try to stay halfway between the two players both vertically and horizontally.

Closed-side LB (Clyde) – Stay shallower than the two inside receivers, and try to split the distance between them.  This is different, but you have underneath responsibility on both.  Secondarily, keep an eye on the RB as a receiver out of the backfield to your side, and close the gap if that route emerges.

Free Safety (Frank) – Watch the QB, and flow to where his eyes and feet take you.  Secondarily, watch for in-breaking deep routes (post/dig) and be ready to take over deep inside responsibility on them.  If in doubt, drift right, toward the strength of the formation.

Open-side LB (Opie) – (Playing as a Mike)  Stay inside of and deeper than the right inside receiver.  There’s no responsibility for the RB, only for running the deep seam, and staying over the top of the TE.

LDB (Lance) – Stay inside of and shallower than the right outside receiver, and be very aware of the RB on a swing pass.  Play the QB’s drop, and break off to the flat if it’s a quick setup play.

LCB (Lou) –  Stay outside of and deeper than the right outside receiver. 

As noted in Part 3, if the offense starts in 3 by 1 and motions into 2 by 2, the LBs simply shift back to their normal alignment, and the Hi-Lo call works in the standard way.  There are only two ways to work this.  No CB or DB will ever follow a receiver in motion – we’re only going to show a slight shift by the LBs that doesn’t give away the coverage.

That’s a lot of information to digest, and I suspect there will be questions.  I’ll do my best to answer them tonight after I’m done with work.  Check back on Friday, and we’ll do Part 6, which will deal with some blitz calls.  Though I wouldn’t blitz all that often, a well-placed one can be very effective and value-adding.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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