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Interesting article in the Athletic:

 

 

Understanding the basics of Cover 7, Part 1: Past three Super Bowl winners have used it

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By Ted Nguyen 7h agocomment-icon.png 34 save-icon.png

Now, more than ever, scheme has trickled up from college to the NFL. The spread and run/pass options (RPOs) have changed offensive football in the pros. To counter, defenses are using more man-match coverages. Man-match isn’t straight man coverage, nor is it zone. When playing man-match, defenders are assigned a man but can fall off or switch to another man if their assignment runs a certain route.

If you have the talent to do it, there is simply no better coverage than playing pure man. However, not every team has a stable of lockdown defensive backs who can do that down after down. NFL receivers are too talented. By playing man-match, defenses can get tight coverage with leverage advantages.

The last three Super Bowls have been won by defenses that are heavy man-match teams (Patriots, Chiefs, Buccaneers). We’ll likely see the trend continue, so it’ll be beneficial to understand the basics of how these coverages work. Alabama coach Nick Saban is one of the godfathers of man-match coverages and has implemented it for a long time. His Cover 7 is a family of split field, man-match coverages complete with checks and calls to adapt to different formations, tactics and situations. For a basic understanding of man-match coverages, we’ll look at Cover 7 through his system and terminology.

Terminology and important information

Split field: The coverages in this family can work independently of each other, so there can be two different coverages called on each side.

Leverage: Where defensive backs are lined up in relation to the receiver they are covering.

Numbering system: Defenses identify receivers with numbers, the receiver farthest from the ball is No. 1, second farthest is No. 2, and third is No. 3.

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Positions (Saban’s system)

CB = Cornerback
M = Mac (middle linebacker)
$ = Money linebacker (weakside linebacker)
* = Star (nickel)
FS = Free Safety
SS = Strong Safety

Bracket

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Bracket is a great coverage for doubling slot receivers or tight ends.

In bracket, the cornerback has MEG (man everywhere he goes) on No. 1. This simply means that the corner is playing straight man and doesn’t fall off or switch assignments, regardless of what route he runs.

The star covers No. 2 with outside leverage and he is not part of the run fit. Anywhere No. 2 goes, he goes, unless he gets a “fast three”, which will be explained in the example below.

The safety lines up inside of No. 2 and helps on the deeper route between No. 1 and No. 2 and does not jump anything underneath.

The inside linebacker or “mac” in Saban terminology relates to No. 3 or takes the “final three” receiver after the pattern distribution.

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To the bottom of the image, Alabama played bracket coverage. The star was lined up outside of the tight end in the slot, while the safety was deep and inside of him. This coverage could be difficult on outside cornerbacks, who may or may not have deep help. The running back was offset to the bracket side, so the star has to be aware of him as well.

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When the offense runs No. 3 to the flat right away, the defense can make a “push” call. This is also known as “fast 3”. The basic idea is that if No. 3 goes to the flat right away, he essentially becomes the new No. 2. In the image above, the running back immediately goes to the flat, so the star picks him up and the mac covers the tight end, who became the “final 3” after the pattern distribution.

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You can see how every defender was able to easily cover each route because of the leverage advantages created by executing the coverage correctly. The star was outside of the running back. The mac had the tight end run right to him on the crosser and he had help over the top from the safety.

MOD (man outside and deep)

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MOD means the cornerback has man on the No. 1 on outside and deep routes. If the No. 1 receiver runs a route underneath five yards, the corner could make an “under” or “smash” call, which would alert the star to cover No. 1, while he zones off, plays a deep quarter of the field, and looks for No. 2 running a corner route. The safety has No. 2 on vertical routes with inside leverage.

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Here, the Alabama defense appeared to play MOD to the field. The star’s job depends on what the No. 2 receiver does. If he runs a seam, the star has to push No. 2 out of the seam (three yards outside the hash), and then he zones off at about 10-12 yards. If No. 2 or No. 3 goes to the flat, the star has to take him.

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Here, No. 2 runs down the seam, so the star pushes him outside while keeping his eyes on No. 1. The corner pressed No. 1, but once No. 1 runs underneath he backed off of him.

The quarterback handed the ball off to the running back and the receivers were running routes as part of the RPO, but because they were playing man-match, the defender’s eyes were on the receivers.

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The corner began floating back until he saw the ball was handed off. If it was a pass, the star would have run to No. 1 and covered him. The safety looked to have his eyes in the wrong place. He kept his eyes on the ball and felt out where No. 2 was. This is dangerous because if the No. 2 receiver ran a double move on him, he would have been in a bad position to cover it.

Mix

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Bracket and MOD are pass-down calls because the star is out of the run fit, which means the defense could be outnumbered in the box. Alabama accounts for the numbers disadvantage by two-gapping their defensive linemen but it’s not ideal. If the defense wants the star to be part of the run fit, they’ll call Mix. Mix is essentially the same as MOD, but the nickel is much more aggressive against the run, and the safety has to come off the roof and aggressively play No. 2, even if he runs a bubble.

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Here, the star was tucked in closer to the line of scrimmage than he would be in MOD. Everyone else had the same assignments.

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The down and distance as well as how aggressive the nickel is on runs or run fakes are good indicators to tell MOD and mix apart. In the image, the star bit hard on the run fake because he was part of the run fit. The No. 2 receiver ran a crossing route, so the safety chased him across the field.

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Again, if the No. 2 receiver ran a bubble screen as part of an RPO, the safety has to come down from the roof and aggressively play it.

So far, we’ve gone over Cover 7 against two-by-two sets, against trips (three receivers to one side), there is an entire menu of checks that the defense can get into to defend it. We’ll go clip in this article, but we’ll go into detail on how to defend trips with Cover 7 in Part 2.

Clip

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Clip is essentially Cover 2 with man-match principles rather than zone. The corner to the clip side lines up inside of No. 1 and looks for any routes going outside from the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. He’ll play No. 1 if nothing goes to the flats. The star covers No. 2 up and inside unless he breaks outside. In which case, he’ll rob the No. 1 receiver from underneath. If No. 1 releases outside, he’ll play an underneath zone. If No. 1 goes inside, he’ll rob him. The inside linebacker has the same rules as the star but with the No. 3 receiver. The safety has the deep half to the clip side.

2019 week 11,  New Orleans at Tampa Bay, 1:42 remaining in the second quarter, second-and-10

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Here, the Saints played clip but showed a pressure look with seven defenders lined up on the line of scrimmage. An outside linebacker played what would be the star in Alabama’s system.

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After the ball was snapped, the outside linebacker and inside linebacker sprinted back with their eyes on their keys. The corner to the top of the screen lined up inside of No. 1 with his eyes inside looking for a flat route to trap.

 

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The No. 2 receiver ran to the flat, so the corner covered him. No. 1 ran inside so the outside linebacker located him and robbed him from underneath. The inside linebacker covered No. 3. Again, every route was smothered because of the leverage advantages created by the rules of the defense.

These basic Cover 7 coverages all have their own weaknesses and strengths. They don’t account for everything, but by having a menu at a defense’s disposal, they can adjust and adapt to how offenses are attacking them. In Part 2, we’ll go over the menu of trips checks in the Cover 7 family and weakside calls.

Resources:

Dante Bartee talks Cover 7 with Chris Vasseur Part 1

Dante Bartee talks Cover 7 with Chris Vasseur Part 2

For Alabama DB coach Karl Scott Cover 7 clinic

Nick Saban Cover 7 cutups from his time with the Dolphins

Match Quarters by Cody Alexander 

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