A mantra comically repeated within the circles of "Air Raid" offenses is, "everything works against Cover 3", meaning whatever the concept, you can pass at will against most cover 3 defenses. With natural voids in the defense in the flats and in the seams, the four underneath defenders are typically the lynch pin of how successful a cover 3 defense will be.
The easiest threat to victimize cover 3 is the #2 receiver in the seam. The defense must be able to account for this threat or it will spend much of the game seeing the free safety 'wrong' on a 4 vertical threat.
and so the chess match, beginsTo accommodate for this deficiency, Saban's defenses have evolved through the last decade with a "Rip/Liz" match based on where the safety drops into the box (Rita / Linda) against the 2 quick threat (2x2).
From Coach Saban, himself
When you’re playing a passing team you always have a better chance with split-safeties, but with all this zone read / zone option stuff we see…all the spread stuff, sometimes you’ve got to be able to play middle-of-the-field coverage to get an extra guy in the box.
We got to the point where, this is the reason that we do this, when everybody started going spread we couldn’t play 3 deep zone. This started with the Cleveland Browns, I was the defensive coordinator in the early 90s and Pittsburgh would run 'Seattle' on us , four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, what I call ‘pole’ route from 2x2. So we got to where could NOT play 3-deep zone because we rerouted the seams and played zone, and what I call “Country Cover 3” (drop to your spot reroute the seams, break on the ball). Well , when Marino is throwing it, that old break on the ball shit don’t work.
So because we could not defend this, we could not play 3 deep, so when you can’t play zone, what do you do next? You play Man (cover 1), but if their mens are better than your mens, you can’t play cover 1 .
We got to where we couldn’t run cover 1 - So now we can’t play an 8 man front.
The 1994 Browns went 13-5 , we lost to Steelers 3 times, lost 5 games total (twice in the regular season, once in the playoffs). We gave up the 5th fewest points in the history of the NFL, and lost to Steelers because we could not play 8-man fronts to stop the run because they would wear us out throwing it
We came up with this concept; how we can play cover 1 and cover 3 at the same time, so we can do both these things and one thing would complement the other. We came up with the concept “rip/liz match”.
The "Rip" / "Liz" call will alert the OLB to the call side that he has a safety coming down who will be assuming the Curl/Flat responsibilities. With the Rip/Liz declaration, the backers away from the call will alert to "Match" ("Rip - Match Left") their quick away from the call, and how the corner to his side will match their receivers. It is all premised on controlling #2 deep in the seam, by catching and carrying #2 vertical or outside past 12-15 yards (this should start sounding familiar to BRONCO/SCIF technique). If there is no threat of 2 verticals to a side, it really becomes your standard fare Cover 3. If #2 crosses / goes inside, he communicates with an "Under" call (alerting the backers inside to cut the receiver) and turns his focus to rob #1 underneath (like standard Curl/Flat Cover 3, robbing inside and underneath #1).
drop the safety down, you have to have a fast and efficient way to communicate which safety is dropping and how the backers away from the drop will respectively handle their threats.
Worst case scenario in Cover 3 is the 4-verticals concept (4 receiver on 3 deep defenders). Rip/Liz match specifically handles this. If you accommodate for 4 verts, you aren't left with many other issues that can hurt you because you will still have 6 in the box. Getting down to brass tacks, lets review how this concept fleshes itself out.
If #1 is vertical and #2 is vertical (VERTICALS)
#1 presses vertical, the corner takes all of #1 - #2 presses vertical, the C/F players takes all of #2
The inside linebackers will match #3 as he presents himself, looking to expand from the hook zone. By carrying the two inside verticals, remember you still have a middle of the field safety, so the backer/safety carrying #2 can maintain a low-shoulder, outside leverage on the receiver. This puts him in great position to discourage the SAIL (or 'pole') deep out break of #2 if it were to develop (past 12-15 yards).
If #1 is vertical and #2 is outside (SMASH)
Looking at the quick game smash concept (backside 5-step check), you can see how this is handled. #1 into the smash (right side of the diagram) takes all of #1 because he hasn't stemmed inside ("under" call, remember) and the C/F match player here handles all of #2 (vertical-outside). On the backside (here the 'rip' adjustment ~ left of the diagram), #1 stems vertical, so the corner matches all of #1. The #2 receiver runs a speed out, so the safety takes him man-to-man.
If #1 is inside and #2 is vertical (DRIVE)
Now a little tricky, the backside match (left diagram, away from 'liz'), has #1 immediately inside on a shallow, so the corner can sink and be over the top of #2, who is running a vertical (past 12 yards) stem into a dig. Because #2 is not inside ("Under"), the C/F safety matches #2 outside and underneath. With the shallow by #1, the backside inside linebacker is looking to cut the crosser (X) and the nearside inside linebacker will ROBOT the dig (depth and rob underneath).
If #1 is vertical and #2 is inside (SHALLOW)
Here, you see (right side of diagram) the match principle of the backer does NOT have a vertical stem of #2, so he declares the "Under" call, alerting the backers to ROBOT and CUT, as he will play standard Cover 3 curl-to-flat rules (with not threat to the seam), gaining depth and width (underneath #1 to his side).
If #1 is inside and #2 is inside (QUICKS / YOGI strong flood)
With the vertical stem of #2 (right side of diagram) the C/F match player carries him and since he is playing outside-underneath leverage, can easily take all of #2 with the outside break. With #1 vertical, the corner can match all of #1, as he would on a vertical #1 in Cover 3. The nuance here is that #3 is immediately releasing to the flat. The inside linebacker to flow (M) can be the final 3 player as there was no "Under" call. This eliminates the easy flood against Cover 3 (and remains consistent with Cover 4 rules and SCIF/Bronco rules).
"Rip/Liz" is an adaptation of 3 Deep zone. How the corners and backer/safety support is primarily a game plan adjustment and can be tweaked on how your opponent actually uses 2x2 route packages. Now, you may be saying, "thats all well and good, but what about trips and empty"? Right, that will be up next, when we explore Saban's "mable" adjustment to Trips/Trey formations.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out the 'breakout' session in the comments section below. Also, the adjustment to 3x1 "Mable" is located here. In addition, here is the only film representation of Rip/Liz I could find (outside of a broadcast) of the safety spin, Cover 3, versus 2x2. It doesn't represent the pattern match well because it was a bubble screen, but you can pick up on the fits, backer response, and leverage of the C/F players
FYI - I will update THIS POST with coverage cutups soon, illustrating this being used in game situations. Much respect to my guy, Chris Vasseur, for helping me flesh out the details here and who is also running this with the program he's at now. Also, to coach Chip Bilderback, who's contributions to providing Saban's adapations have proven invaluable.
This blog is primarily just a way of sharing and exchanging coaching information; just trying to pass along nuggets that may help you and your team. Handling spread is an interesting task, and this was one way of adapting a 1-high defense to meet the needs of a threat. Next, we'll take a look at a defensive coordinator's other option for handling the spread, by going into detail of Gary Patterson's TCU "2 Read" handling 4-verticals.