Friday, October 8, 2010

Nick Saban: Split Safety Coverage (Cover 7)

Last year, we covered Nick Saban’s 1-high defensive principles, so its only fitting we review his 2-high concepts now. The bulk of understanding Saban’s philosophy resolves around digesting his vocabulary. This ‘vocabulary’ provides a comprehensive communication method for technique or concept that remains universal though his different sets.

With the propensity of 1-back attacks, and as illustrated with the 3-deep coverage series, a defense has to have a competent answer to the threat of 4-receiver vertical stretch (2x2 or 3x1 formations). This is why we see most every defense basing out of a 2-high coverage shell. This provides a comfort zone for defenses to match 2x2 formations and will illustrate why the 3-4 becomes a choice to achieve this balance (can adjust to two detached receivers to a side while keeping a 2-high coverage shell).

nothing wrong with being 2-deep
The easiest way to immerse yourself in his 2-high concepts is to start with Saban’s do-everything Cover 7. Cover 7 is man-to-man match quarters; 4-on-3 strongside / 3-on-2 weakside. At its most basic application, it is just a standard quarters defense. Each side will match according to the split of the formation and game plan. Because it can be adjusted in so many ways, the consistent 2-high shell can give a myriad of looks but remain constant before the snap.


To help digest this, its best to think of this in terms similar to the TCU coverage concept (with the exception of MOFO safeties). Away from the passing strength, you will have one receiver split, and at the most, two. This is referred to as the ‘triangle’ side, for the 3-on-2 apex the defense has (safety, corner, backer against a receiver and back). Typically, the dominant receiver will align as the passing strength (X).

With Cover 7, he can easily be accounted for in a few ways;
  • aggressive man-to-man with corner (“MEG”) or
  • double-coverage bracket between the corner and safety (“CONE”)
A “MEG” (technique) call will be made that declares the corner will man up with the #1 receiver wherever he goes (#1 will be matched by the corner).

A “CONE” call will double the single receiver much like how traditional quarters is played to the single-receiver side (if X is shallow, corner gains depth to his ¼ and safety constricts his deep middle ¼ ).

This leaves the #2 receiver or back-out as the only threat to be matched by the safety and backer (Will). The Will matches the fourth receiver (X,Y,Z are accounted for – so whoever becomes the 2nd receiver away from strength) or the 1st crosser (coming from the passing strength).

If second receiver aligns (outside the box) the Will adjusts and walks out to split the difference. Typically, if a second receiver shows to the ‘triangle side’, any “MEG” call would be adjusted to “MOD”, which simply has the corner playing off-man on the first receiver.

The “MOD” call declares that the corner will not take #1 on anything under 5 yards and will be anticipating some kind of 2-man China/Hi-Low concept from these two receivers (Will would now match #1 receiver short / corner would now match #2 receiver high). These adjustments can be called / declared by the safety, but more often used per game plan.


Believe it or not, that was actually the ‘hard part’. Quarters into the passing strength is actually quite simple, as it really is just standard quarters rules. With two receivers to the passing strength, you have the vertical stem of #2 being controlled by the deep safety, and any vertical by #1 being handled by the corner (unless in “MEG”). The SLB / Nickel will take the first receiver to the flat, the Mike will match the final #3. This should sound extremely similar to how pattern match coverage is introduced and used in 3-deep zone and fire-zone pressures.

The “MEG” / “MOD” adjustment is available to use on this side, as well. Why would you use this? Why wouldn’t you just hang back in standard quarters? Because the common weakness of quarters in the perimeter distance for the OLB to respond to. By modifying how the #1 receiver is played, you can remain in the same coverage with a minor tweak on the (standard) routes that will be used to attack quarters coverage (underneath). With a corner locking down the #1 receiver, it will become a 2-on-1 match between the OLB and deep safety.

A ton of examples of Cover 7 (with and with out meg/double meg)

Vs 3x1
Cover 7 can adjust to all formations, but what happens when faced with trips, as is common with most ‘spread’ or 1-back formations? The answer is, “ZEKE”, which is just a banjo matchup for the linebackers. We’ve seen this before with the Rip/Liz post on 3x1. It is essentially saying the outside linebacker takes the first out route, the inside linebacker will take the second out route.
The inside linebacker will take the first inside route, the outside linebacker will take the second inside route.
Away from trips, “MEG” will be played against any single receiver The Will matches man-to-man on any back release as the 4th receiver releases.

  • If the #4 receiver aligns as a slot (now a 2-man receiver threat is present), the “MEG” is off and adjusted to “MOD” technique by the corner.

  • If the #4 receiver flow strong (to the trips), then they will be playing ‘3 Buzz Mable’, which is just man-match banjo with the safety dropping into the hook area (and Will expanding as force player). This rule also applies to 2-back flow (both backs release to the strong side) action.

  • This post has been in the works for a while, but possibly more apropos after the Arkansas game where there was considerable controversy of ‘blown assignments’ regarding the Razorback’s first score. On paper, it actually wasn’t an impossible matchup; 2x2 matched with an even Cover 7 coverage, the field corner is man-to-man in MEG. It really became a 3 receiver flood, so the Will would've matched first outside (F), Mike would cut the crosser (Y) and with #2 shallow and away, the Sam would've dropped into the dig.

    With having given a basic overview of Saban’s quarters coverage, it will provide context in which to gain understanding in how he handles slot formations (where the real tweaks in the scheme come from). I hope to be able to provide an addendum to this by going over Saban’s Cover 2 package, as well as other slot adjustments from 2-high.

    Possibly, in the future we will explore his other coverages, but in the meantime, here are how he defines other zone coverages….

    Cover 4 - is a 5 under / 2 deep (corner & free safety) against slot formations.
    Cover 2 – is 2 deep (free and strong safety) 5 underneath
    Cover 6 – is 3 deep 4 underneath with a weakside rotation
    Cover 8 – is quarter halves matched (strong side plays quarters / weak side plays cover 2)
    *cover 5 (man under 2 deep)
    *leach – 4 under 2 deep where the star (nickel) is man-to-man on the slot receiver

    Slot coverage variations:
    Fist(c3)/Cover 4/slot (c1)/cora(c2)/switch(c2 corner over)/R (robber to 2 open)/thumbs(C3)/iowa (3on2bracket)

    Source Material
    1996 Michigan State / 2001 LSU Playbook located here


    endersgame said...

    Excellent. I only skimmed it but can't wait to digest it all later.

    Brian Lacey said...


    What is "Tuff" in cover 7? And what are the slot variations? Do you have any more information regarding these?

    Lch150044 said...

    What is "Switch"in the Saban scheme? Seahawk?