Last time on How to spot what a defense is doing we discussed the versatile Cover 3 and Cover 2 defenses. This time we’ll concentrate on the final basic coverage defense, Cover 1, and touch briefly on the concepts of zone and man pressure. We’ll also touch briefly on one of my favourite defenses, Buddy Ryan’s 46.
The Cover 1 shell uses (almost) exclusively man to man concepts with the free safety being the lone free defender. For a team to routinely play Cover 1 concepts it needs a star free safety with a rare combination of speed and ball skills. Some of the greatest NFL defenses have featured a player of this calibre. Think Earl Thomas at the Seahawks; Ed Reed at the Ravens, Ronnie Lott of the 49ers and the Cowboy’s Cliff Harris. A talented safety allows underneath defenders to play aggressively and this challenges an offense by making passes on short routes difficult to complete.
In general terms the Cover 1 can be spotted by looking for a single high safety positioned far from the line of scrimmage. You can see this clearly in the image below as the Jets adopt a Cover 1 look against the Dolphins at Wembley (circled red). If you’re eagle-eyed you may be able to spot Revis and Cromartie taking an outside shade on their receivers. They use this technique to limit outside breaking routes (those heading to the sideline) and it helps them re-route receivers to the centre of the field (where the help is!)
As the cornerbacks can play off-man or jam at the line of scrimmage it’s usually their shade that gives away the technique they’re employing rather than how close they are to the line of scrimmage (although don’t be surprised to see inside shade technique used if a receiver deliberately position themselves close to the sideline . In fact playing man to man gives the cornerbacks a lot of freedom to pressurise routes by using different techniques. They can do this by playing off, jamming at the line of scrimmage or playing 3 step routes aggressively by crowding short breaking routes early (this requires VERY GOOD corners!). Of course Cover 1 was THE shell of choice for the Glasgow Lions D.
This reliance on man to man coverage allows a defense with good cornerbacks to create mismatches close to the line of scrimmage including using 8 men fronts with the cushion of deeper safety help. In fact early in a play there should be 2 levels of help from the free safety and a spare LB.
Alternatives to the Cover 1 usually involve disguising man to man coverage with zone looks. The Robber (or Rat in the Hole) look uses cover 1 assignments with the strong safety or an athletic linebacker dropping into a hole just beyond the line of scrimmage (circled blue). It can also be disguised as a Cover 2 look and is designed to eliminate inside crossing techniques and catch-out unaware QBs!
Creating Pressure- Zone and Man
We’ve worked through the basic coverage shells and they are the foundations in which a defense combats offensive gameplans. Occasionally defenses need to force the issue and be a little more aggressive and that’s where pressure schemes come into play. We could easily fill the rest of this year looking at pressure schemes, but lets concentrate on the two basic concepts- zone and man pressure. Although the shells protecting the defense are different the concept behind generating pressure is the same- get to the quarterback!
Zone pressure uses zone shells behind the pass rushers and although conceptually it just involves the defenders having to defend slightly larger areas it’s actually slightly more nuanced than that. Initial set-up put as many defenders as possible into the throwing lanes to disrupt and delay short passes. Obviously the longer it takes the extra rusher to get to the quarterback the more pressure it puts on the remaining defenders. Zone pressure schemes also allow for pseudo-blitzes to come from unexpected directions with athletic linemen replacing linebackers in short zones.
Man pressure generally sees the defense sending more than 1 extra rusher with the rest of the team taking up man to man matchups (generally without help). Defenders will attempt to prevent inside breaking routes as this forces the QB to make more difficult outside or deep throws. It also allows the defenders to use the sideline as an alternative to safety help.
The key to both pressure concepts is disguising the defenses intentions and thus creating maximum surprise and confusion to hopefully lead to big plays and turnovers.
“Some say the 46 is just an 8 man front. That’s like saying Marilyn Monroe is just a girl!”
….And that brings us to the Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense. Made famous by the Chicago Bears Super Bowl win in 1985 and later perfected by the 1991 Eagles defense the 46 was born out of Ryan’s desire to play aggressive football and to endanger the most important position on the field, the QB.
Starting as an assistant with the Jets during their Super Bowl season before moving on to coach one the greatest ever defensive lines at the Vikings. Ryan finally got his chance to coach his own defense when he got to the Bears in the late 70s. It was several years of development before the fully fledged monster appeared, but when it arrived it changed defensive pressure schemes and offensive gameplan forever.
Named after safety Doug Plank (#46) the 46 is an 8 man run stop front (that is 8 men occupy the line of scrimmage) with a Cover 1 shell. But, as Ryan eloquently described the 46 is more than a simple pressure front. It positively dares an offensive to throw because of its almost complete shut-down of the running game.
The defining feature of the 46 is the reduced front. The weakside defensive end lines up outside of the offensive tackle in a wider pass rush position, while the other defensive end and the defensive tackles set up directly over the guards and the center. This forces the interior offensive linemen into awkward and difficult one-on-one matchups.
The innovation didn’t simply end with the linemen. One of the key concepts of the 46 is although it appears to employ Cover 1 concepts it creates pressure based on offensive protections e.g. if the RB stays to protect, the defense rushes 6 men. If the offense uses 2 players to help out the offensive linemen, the defense rushes 7 and so on thereby effectively using the offense’s own protection scheme against itself.
By having so many defenders close to the line of scrimmage the 46 allows the defense to disguise it’s blitzers and extra rushers. This makes it difficult for the QB to find the weak spots as the 46 rushes defenders as a response to reads given to it by the offense and this means it is essentially NOT BLITZING allowing safer zone coverage to be employed.
So what happened to the 46?
Defenses had been reactionary for most of football’s history. “Bend but don’t break” concepts were common through much of NFL history to combat run first offenses. The 46 was designed primarily as a run stopping defense and it had spectacular success in that era.
However, as offensive innovators like Bill Walsh and Don Coryell led the NFL to a pass first league it became too risky to employ the 46 as an every down defense and it slowly faded into the background. But don’t be fooled into thinking the 46 was a 1-hit wonder defense. It’s legacy of pressure concepts and aggressive defense lives on in Arizona, Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Kansas City, New York and almost every other modern NFL defense. Perhaps it’s time we heralded Buddy Ryan as the father of the passing league.