Georgia’s hiring of head coach Kirby Smart will see the Bulldogs move to a defense featuring more single-high safety looks.
When coordinators and head coaches move from program to program we look at their resumes and — based on where and for whom they’ve worked in the past — make assumptions about how quickly they can assimilate to their new landing spot.
Judging by that standard it would be easy to suggest that Smart — the former defensive coordinator at Alabama and longtime Nick Saban assistant — should step into Athens, Ga., and pick up where Jeremy Pruitt, another former Saban assistant, left off.
Although both have coached effective defenses — Smart’s Alabama unit ranked first in S&P+ in 2015, and Pruitt’s Georgia defense 11th — Pruitt diverged from parts of the Alabama model, moving from single-high safety looks as his down-to-down defenses and building in more split-safety (two deep safeties) coverages, namely “quarters.”
With the rise of spread offenses, defensive coaches have been looking for a way to defend against deep-passing concepts while keeping a strong eight-man front against the run. Quarters coverage has long been a favorite of coaches as a way to build an eight- or nine-man wall up front but maintain flexibility on the back end.
Quarters is a four-deep, three-under zone that — like many hybrid pattern-matching coverages — ends up functioning like a man-to-man.
Boundary cornerbacks line up as though they’re in a traditional cover-2 zone defense, their heads facing in toward the quarterback, 5-6 yards off a receiver.
If the No. 1 receiver (the one nearest to the sideline) runs a vertical route, the cornerback locks into man-to-man coverage and covers him downfield. If the receiver runs an in-breaking route, the cornerback hands off the receiver to a linebacker, who then converts to man-to-man coverage. The cornerback then reads to the No. 2 receiver (the second one in from the sideline) and double teams, bracketing that receiver with a safety.
Reads for the safeties are similar. If the No. 2 receiver releases vertically, they convert into man-to-man coverage and cover the receiver down the field. If they break outside, the safety eyes the No. 2 receiver and provides inside leverage to the boundary corner.
A heavy emphasis is placed on the athleticism of the linebackers who have to deal with the underneath zones. By design, the defense is looking to take away deep plays by building in double-teams on any vertical-releasing receiver. That puts a ton of stress on the linebackers, who are playing in traditional zone-coverage and must be aware of crossing routes and having receivers handed off to them by the outside cornerbacks.
The flexibility on the back end, in theory, allows the defensive backfield to cover any route concept or combination in an opponent’s air attack. The secondary is reading and reacting to what it sees, not simply dropping to a pre-set spot on the field, thus giving it the ability to cover any vertical threats regardless of the creativity of the concept.
But perhaps the most important part of quarters coverage is what it gives the defense vs. the ground game.
Given their usual responsibilities — covering the deep ball and reading vertical releases — the two safeties play closer to the line of scrimmage than safeties do in single-high sets. That puts both safeties in a position to drop and attack against any run call without needing to cover a large amount of grass.
Having both safeties available to play against the run can give the defense a nine-man front against rushing plays, more than any single-high safety defense can build in. The drawback here is play-action passes and third-level run/pass option plays. Offenses will draw in the safeties with fake running plays and generate one-on-one matchups against the outside corners where they can take a shot at a big play down the field.
Smart’s arrival in Athens will see a move away from the two-deep quarters coverage of last year and will usher in a return to mostly single-high defensive coverages, most notably cover-3 match and man-free.
Man-free is a simple man-to-man coverage with one safety playing the deep centerfield spot and the other safety either dropping into man-to-man coverage if there is an additional receiver or playing the “robber” role: sitting in a zone and reading and reacting to the quarterback.
Saban calls this “cat coverage.” Each defensive player takes on an offensive player one-on-one, whoever has the best “cats” — the better players — wins.
If a team doesn’t have the better “cats,” it can run zone defenses or pattern-matching systems. Instead of the four-deep version employed by Pruitt, Smart runs a three-deep pattern-match variant. Both are looking to build flexible defenses that play hybrid man/zone pattern-matching concepts in the secondary, while having enough defenders to flood the box and successfully defend the run.
The numbering and reading system is the same for both; cornerbacks read the No. 1 receiver’s release; if it’s vertical they convert to man-to-man coverage, and if it’s an in-breaking route they pass it off to the linebackers.
Where the two systems differ is at the safety spots. While quarters coverage can build in two double-teams with two deep safeties and two outside corners, the cover-3 variant only has one deep-centerfield safety who must cover the entire middle of the field.
The second safety is rotated into the box to cover a curl/flat zone and also enables the defense to build the much-desired eight-man front against the run.
As he rotates, he reads the release of the No. 2 receiver (the No. 3 receiver in nickel package). If the receiver breaks vertically the safety is charged with re-routing and disrupting the receiver’s pass-pattern; if he breaks to the outside the safety hooks into a curl/flat zone.
The two variations of the cover-3 defense are called “Rip” and “Liz”. They stand for the side in which the strong safety rotates into the box: Rip for right, and Liz for left.
Rotating the safety down into the box clears up a lot of the issues that defenses traditionally face when they play a regular three-deep zone.
Against air-raid and deep-passing attacks, three-deep zones have been shredded for decades. Their primary weakness is the seams between the boundary cornerbacks and the middle-of-the-field safety. With four-wide-receiver sets, or an athletic tight end, offenses have been able to take advantage of the basic zone defense with simple play calls like “four verticals.”
With a rotating safety, the defense is able to disrupt any vertical route run by an inside receiver or tight end.
Plus, the defense gets the additional benefit of an extra underneath defender. The four-deep system provides just three underneath defenders (though by design) and allows offenses to overflow underneath zones with multiple crossing routes. Rip/Liz cover-3 calls add another underneath zone and force the offense to take much lower-percentage throws down the field in order to generate big plays.
The transition to Smart should not be overly complex. The systems by nature are complicated, but they share more similarities than differences, with the key elements of building in a pattern-match system; IQ and athleticism already in place.
Most of the burden will fall on the team’s safeties, who will have to master new assignments and responsibilities before the season begins. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Pruitt also built in many single-high elements to their 2015 defense. That defense returns four starters in the secondary, including both starting safeties, Dominick Sanders and Quincy Mauger. The unit finished 23rd in pass defense S&P+ in 2015 and has the potential to vault into the top 15 in the nation with Smart at the helm heading into 2016.