Sunday, July 8, 2012

No-Huddle Check-With-Me Defense

With as much wide-open spread and tempo offenses out there, surely there has to be a defensive solution to match this attack.  In this post, we’ll attempt to explain and explore the concepts a defense can use to take the wind out the sails of the no-huddle spread.

In today’s game, the true 2-back tight end has become rare. The order of the day has become a standard fare of 2x2 and 3x1 with a variety of 1-back run games and basic route concepts.  Huddling has become passé, passing games more prevalent and fast-strike offenses look to jump on sleeping defenses.  Again, we can distill the conversation down the basics; with only 5 offensive linemen and 1 back, the need for an 8-man front just isn’t there (you can live in split-safety with a 7 man box). When you couple that arithmetic with no tight end, now you can control the box with just 6 defenders (necessitating a nickel look) and control the receiving threats with 5 dedicated defensive backs. 

The numbers really never change up front. You can game and align how you like, but you’re going to account for those 6 offensive gaps with your linemen and linebackers. This leads us to what you are going to do against the only other formations you will see with 1-back; 2x2 and 3x1 (and its lovechild, 3x2). We’ve dealt with this before (twins coverage variations), but we’re going to attempt to take it a step further, going beyond old-school defensive adaptations and TCU’s swimming-in-vocabulary-system, to look at the practicality of using a ‘self-correcting’ nickel. 

This is something more than just looking for a blanket 'defense' solution (“ah, well we’ll just run Cover 2!”), but using a system with built-in answers for coverage/run support that adjusts on the fly.  It requires much more player indoctrination and processing up front, but once you’ve laid the framework, it can be anything you want it to be and essentially “run by itself”.  The simplicity is tied to the communication between the safety, corner and overhang player.  They communicate every snap so there leaves little room for ‘blown coverage’ (players not understanding what each other is responsible for).  Much like match-up zone basketball, it can be reduced down to multiple 3-on-2 banjo to each side of the offensive formation.

A brief outline of the benefits of moving towards this defensive system would be:
  • 2 high all the time
  • as many coverages as you want
  • complete carry over for all defensive backs
  • consistent with quarters / 2 read basics
  • adjusts to all formations and splits without needing to alter alignment
  • adapts per game plan
  • no more zone 3 deep 3 under wait and react....jump everything aggressive like banjo
Coverage is premised on playing man (after distribution), but with a quarters feel; each side independent of the other.  The Strong Safety and Nickel travel to the passing strength / field, while the Sam and Free Safety align away / boundary.  All routes are intended to be aggressively matched with a banjo principle and as such, there is no spot-dropping.  This plays into how pressures will be run.  The traditional 3 deep / 3 under fire zones, with underneath defenders dropping to areas without aggressively jumping receiver distribution only creates more opportunities for the offense to find the voids.  Whereas in the late 90’s and early part of 2000s, defenses could just provide a +4 to a side pressure and overwhelm protection.  The area drops sufficed at that time.  In today’s game, offenses have more protection alternatives available, more streamlined concepts with built-in rush routes, and quarterbacks are becoming better suited to handle the blitz.  This is why aggressively matching (it looks like true man coverage when executed) is where more and more defenses are headed to.

By packaging your defense into fronts and coverage, there is no need to huddle. Your personnel can just line up for the next play based on the ball spot.  The front / game can be signaled from the sideline if necessary.  Coverage can be signaled but most times it is decided by each safety once the offense sets the formation.  The check-with-me is controlled by each safety, who will coordinate with his corner and nickel/backer on how to handle the receiver split they face.  Each side will act independently of the other. The secondary aligns in the same 2-high look for every snap, with corners inside #1, cocked inside facing the ball.  This position allows them to easily get a hand-gesture-signal by his safety, acknowledge it, and be ready for the play.  The no-huddle check-with-me allows the players more time to receive more information from the sideline (personnel) and anticipate what the offense will likely do in this down and distance once the formation is set.  You can establish some basic principles and work the exceptions based on game plan.
Now, let’s take a look at various ways the check-with-me coverage works against formations…... 

2x2 – So How Do You Handle Twins?
That depends – there are host of possibilities available, but the best way to look at this is how the offensive threat changes based on known variables.  This deductive method for packaging the coverage helps indoctrinate players to how they need to understand/process offenses.  As a footnote, I’ll mention that much has been explained about Rip/Liz from a 1-high coverage as a way of adjusting to spread.  However, this was created as a necessary adaptation for the time.  Despite leading the innovation for a decade, Saban rarely uses it.  In numerous seasons worth of film dating back to 2002, I was only able to locate a handful where Saban actually used true Rip/Liz against 2x2.  Why? Because he (like most defenses of today) remain 2-high every snap.
The illustrations here will display scheme with zones, simply to represent the banjo concept of denoting the route the defender will attack.  We will use basic terminology (it doesn't matter how you call the adjustment, just make sure there is a way to communicate the idea) as much as we can to explain each situation.  I'll say that NONE OF THIS is all that revolutionary (its been done since the 80s when teams were double calling their coverage based on pro/slot), but it does set a framework to begin building the concept of a no-huddle defense that can call its own plays.  As a preface to this discussion, please reference this post on coverages ( basic coverages ).

Field / Boundary

Facing 2 quicks to the field creates some horizontal spacing issues.  With really only 3 defenders to cover a 35 yard swath, you will need some creativity and flexibility to put numbers in your favor.  To the wide side of the field, you could drop the safety to cover this horizontal stretch, with a modified version of the old Robber coverage.  Here the safety will be force on run-action to him and jump the first threat outside.  The Nic will have help outside and maintain inside leverage on #2 and fit the alley in run support.  Since the Nic will be used in outside blitzes frequently, offenses can never really be sure what his alignment represents.  The Strong Safety will drop on 8-10 yard curl and cut outside breaks of #1 or #2.

With limited space into the boundary, the horizontal stretch of the coverage just isn't there.  You may see more leveled routes (China/Smash).  To the short side of the field, the preferred call is “Sink” or what amounts to 2 read (we called this 'monster' at my last stop).  The corner will carry a vertical of #1 and retreat to the deep flat if #2 appears (out).  The Strong Safety is in position to match #2 vertical.  The backer (Sam) will wall #2 on the receiver's stem.  On run action, safety is primary run force with corner over the top.  2 Read / Sink can be played on either side, but is particularly effective against flat/curl types of throws.

Back To / Away

Having a coverage preference based on field position is logical because you want to protect against getting leveraged.  You can also incorporate how you would like to adjust based on where the single back sets to account for likely route/run pairings.  
  • Back away: stretch/power, back flare
  • Back to: speed option
Naturally, with a back offset to the twins side, you end up with a potential threat of three receivers.  With passing strength set toward the back, in addition to running Robber explained above, you could opt to cloud (corner force) that side to include an immediate perimeter defender, expecting quick 3-man game.

With the back away from the passing strength you won't be threatened with being outnumbered immediately on the perimeter (still have a 3-on-2 advantage). An efficient way of using personnel would be to declare 'buzz', allowing the Nic to be the force defender (buzz = backer force) with the safety dropping in late to the curl/alley.  This also is a solid alternative into the boundary.
At any point, if the split is wide enough between #1 and #2 where the safety doesn't feel he can provide deep over-the-top help on #1, he has the ability to make a "swim" call that denotes that he will take #2 man-to-man.  This leaves the corner with no deep help and will be man on #1 for anything other than an immediate inside route.  This prevents being out-leveraged by #1 and #2 (works like MEG in Cover 7) but also provides a confusing change-up because the the safety exclusively matches #2 everywhere.

Another change-up that remains consistent with the relationship split-field personnel is dropping a safety into the middle of the field hole as a box player.  This is particularly effective against 2-back sets when the linebackers will be bubbled in 50 techniques (versus a single-split the corner will likely be in man coverage, anyway).  With a pro formation you'd be fine dropping both safeties outside (ala Sky) or try something else.  Here we call this "Zebra", but you can name it as you like.  The point is without a need for 3-on-2 outside based on formation, the deep safety may be better suited added to the box for run-support gap integrity. 

3x1 – You’re Only Left With One Coverage To Play Against Trips
The standard quarters answer to 3x1 was always to man the single-split and zone combo the 3-man side.  Here, we'll provide some more alternatives to this with zone matchups that will play into the field area packaging.  

Another way to play 3x1 is with “Stump” where the the corner mans #1 completely and #2 and #3 receivers are banjoed by the inside defenders (Nic, Strong Safety, and Mike).  This is particularly useful when #1 is considerably detached from the other receivers (much like "swim" outlined above). 

"Stick" is the alternative to Stump, where #3 is manned up and there remains a 3-on-2 with #1 and #2.  This is particularly effective against quick game out of trips and bubbles by #3. The Mike provides support to cut the 1st crosser of #1 or #2.

Another way to handle automatic coverage against 3x1 is with pressure.  This is best introduced from empty...

3x2 – The Rules Hold True
After already establishing how you want to play 3x1 and 2x2, these ground rules help establish a base look to stay sound against empty.  When facing a quarters defense, you can expect to see coverage rolled to the passing strength.  The standard answer against trips is to solo the backside single-receiver and end up with some type of banjo concept to the 3 receiver side.  For many defenses this is really the only solution and when faced with 3x2 empty, conventional wisdom zones everything to play it safe or go-for-broke and bring man-free pressure.

To deviate from these basic standards you would want to be able to break from conventional expectations (offenses going to trips for the purpose of getting single coverage on a receiver), but also be flexible to adjust against motion and/or passing strength changes. Previously, we discussed how the fire zone would handle trips and empty, for a more aggressive method we can flip these rules on their head.

Man Side Becomes Zone Side
The trick with no-huddle defense is always giving a static pre-snap look so an offense never really knows what it is dealing with.  Even when safeties drop, you still won’t be sure what coverage it is until the receivers are into their break.  The same holds true here for empty.

With "MASH" (Mike and Sam blitz), the 3-man side will man-free each receiver (Corner, Nic, Strong Safety).  To the 2-man side, they will banjo zone the split (often times this is going to be to the boundary) between the Corner, Mike, and Free Safety.  Corner takes first to the flat, Mike takes second out.  It all boils down to a read on #2 as to how the receiver distribution will play out (again, consistent with quarters/2 read principles).  Meanwhile, the backer away from the zone side will be a part of the 5-man pressure up front.

Empty to 3x1

This pressure also works against 3x1 or the likely shift of the the weak slot to the backfield.  If 3x2 becomes 3x1, you still have the 3-man side manned up, but if there is no immediate inside vertical threat weak, then the Mike is now included in the pressure and the Free Safety drops to replace his ‘zone’.  The Free Safety will cut the first crosser with no deep help.  Nothing really changes here, the Mike just gets replaced by the safety.

With a back in the backfield, the End away from the Free Safety will peel if the back cross releases (to the 3-man side) in an effort to help coverage.

Empty to 2x2

In the event that 3x2 becomes 2x2, likely from one of the trips side receivers shifts to the backfield, you end up with a push.  With a back in the backfield, you have a trigger to engage the Mike in the pressure (both linebackers are blitzing).  Now the only thing to figure is where the back offsets to.  The side the back sets to weighs the twins to his side as the 3-man side.  In the ‘flipped’ example below, the back sets to the former weak passing strength.  The former passing strength (to the Nic side) has shifted away, therefore the 2-man side to the Nic is now the zone-side.  The Free Safety’s side is now the passing strength with the back added to his side.  This now becomes the man-side.   The corner and Free Safety man #1 and #2 and the remaining back will be fiddled between the same-side Mike (if back releases to the Free) and the away-side DE (if back cross releases to the Nic).

An additional change up against empty is to use a Tampa 2 coverage with the Nic retreating to the deep-middle of the field. This has the exact same look as the coverages above, but becomes completely different.  Now, instead of expecting man-coverage to trips, you’d be getting a true  3-deep 4-under zone defense.  Using nickel and setting the Nic to the field, you can feign him on a blitz (will be used quite a bit in pressures, anyway) bringing him closer to the box giving him less distance to travel to get to the middle of the field.

This has been a basic overview of using a no-huddle defense against the spread with coverage alternatives.  I believe this is truly where defenses are headed in the future (many are already there now) and the need to be creative and thoroughly prepare your players to think for themselves should force us coaches to live on the bleeding edge of the game's innovations.

Good luck this season.....

now presented without comment, a game with two full-time no-huddle nickel defenses...


Dustin Hatton said...

Did you play any 2 buster vs. trips?

Mf said...

how would you plan on running something like this versus a two backs set up, especially if you're forced to bring a 7th man into the box? 

brophy said...

I'd be happy to go into further details, but what part of the post (after covering twins) was unclear about how the Nic and coverage adjust to 2-back? Are you talking personnel change or matching 2-back / TE looks?

Play-It said...

This is basically what our defense (HS) does. We have auto checks to everything. I can call a blitz, but usually we check into the front and coverage based on formation. We also have auto-blitzes for certain formations/alignments.