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By James "Mac" McCleary Defensive Coordinator, Notre Dame High School (LA)

Researcher’s Note: This report was prepared by Coach James McCleary of Notre Dame High School (LA). McCleary shares his innovative way of instructing his defensive secondary to play coverage based on offensive spacing and personnel. It’s important to note that McCleary’s system is a "check system" made by his corners and safeties pre-snap and is entirely predicated on how and where an offense lines up its personnel. Although this may seem to be consuming to teach your players (he draws up 200 cards a week complete with detailed hash marks so his kids can make the proper calls), once it’s mastered your players develop a complete understand of how offenses plan on attacking spacing and leverage in a defense.

The ultimate goal of any defense is to take away what opposing offenses do best. Our philosophy at Notre Dame High School has been to use our fronts and coverages to do that. It is our desire to outflank offenses with these fronts and coverages. Anytime we defend an offense, we look at five key components of what offenses are doing:

  • What type of formation is on the field?
  • What part of the field are they placing formation?
  • Which type of personnel is in the formation?
  • Where is their best personnel lined up within the formation?
  • What is the spacing between the receivers?
Spacing and Personnel We try to teach our kids the game by understanding receiver spacing and where QB’s want to throw the ball based on that spacing and personnel placement. For example: When looking at a formation with wide spacing of the receivers, we tell our players that the space in between is where they are looking to throw the ball (diagram 1).

When formations have a receiver spacing that is tight, we tell them that they want to throw it to the space outside (diagram 2).

When defending offenses, the primary idea is to take away were they want to go by body position first. When an offense places its best personnel into the boundary, we tell the players that they will most likely throw the ball short into the boundary. When they are to the field, they will most likely throw wide to the field. An example of this is when we might be playing a team that throws a high percentage of screen passes. Usually, there is that one player that they like to move around the formation in order to get him the ball. We may get into a press position with the corners to get in his pocket on the inside screens to make it difficult for the blocker to pick him off on schemes such as rocket or bubble screens. Another example might be when we play a team with a significant vertical threat. We will make sure the coverage is designed so that there is always someone over the top of him.

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Once you teach body position, now it’s necessary to design scheme to counter what offenses are doing. By teaching spacing and where the formation is on the field (middle or hash), the players become great predictors of what can happen, thus putting themselves in a position to take away what an offense wants to do just by lining up where offenses want to place the ball, and it’s our jobs as coaches to get us there. How we do this at Notre Dame High School is to have our corners and safeties change their alignment to take away the void areas (the space where they want to throw the ball) in the defense.

Take typical cover two for example, our corners will have three possible alignments that they can get into in cover two in order to take away what the offense wants to do. The first is the typical pressed outside leverage position. We use with average spacing of receivers to deny outside release and funnel to the safety (diagram 3).

The second spacing we will teach the corners are deep inside leverage or what we call choke technique (diagram 4). We use the choke technique when the receiver is on, or outside, the numbers. When a receiver is on, or outside the numbers there are only two things he can do. Go vertical or get inside. We take that away with our choke technique. Notice in diagram 4, we have taken his body position away just by lining up deep and inside. The corner still plays cover two, he just does it from a deep and inside leverage. He is now in a better position to take away any slant or vertical by his alignment.

The third cover two body position by our corners is a deep outside leverage position (diagram 5). We use the deep outside position when the spacing is tight. Tight spacing tells us that there will be a high possibility of the receivers crossing, thus having an outside route. By placing the corner in a deep outside position, he can see this develop and place his body where the route is going to end up.

All three body positions are determined by the corner during the course of a game. Not by the coach. These are techniques we teach so they can be more successful in the same coverage.

If we were to place our corners in the typical press outside leverage position all the time, like in diagram 6, then we become a non-factor because we have aligned ourselves out of the play. This is the spacing we normally see when a team wants to throw the 4 verticals. If they were to throw the four vertical game, it would be easier to complete because of our alignment at the corner position. Doing this put safeties in a bind because of all that space. In a four vertical concept, you will see the seam bend into the middle of the field, which will keep the safeties in the middle. This gives the #1 receiver a great advantage over the corner, because the corner is rolled up and on the outside of the receiver. The force players are also the corners in cover two schemes, and they are on the sidelines. He can support much better on the run and he is helping take up space inside and deep helping the safety in the inside leverage position.

Boundary Coverages Now that there is a basic understanding of what we are trying to accomplish with spacing and best personnel, let’s look at some of the field and boundary coverages that we use to handle the spacing and personnel issues. We base our hash coverages out of a quarter, quarter, halves package. All of our coverages are called strong to weak. We will first discuss our boundary calls, which means these coverages are called when an offense’s best personnel is in the boundary.

The first coverage is cover 32 (diagram 7). The first number (3) tells the corner what technique to play. The 3 tells the strong corner to play deep technique. The second number (2) tells the weak corner cover 2 technique. Cover 32 is a quarters coverage into the boundary when the tight end is to the short side of the field.

We use this coverage when the offense puts their best receivers into the short side of the field, which could be the tight end in this case. We now have a four on two match-up with their best personnel and a 3 on 2 situation with their lesser personnel. The outside linebacker (Hank) has the underneath angle of #1 (flat). The corner has the deep angle of #1. The Mike has the underneath angle of #2 (curl) and the Strong safety has the deep angle of #2, or on top of #2. The weak side defenders play Cover 2(C-2) to their side. When we angle, we angle to the hip of the receiver. We want to deny the ability for anything to come across. If there is anything under five yards, we pass it off. Anything beyond five yards we angle the hip because if anything drags, chances are #1 will run a slant. When we talk about deep angles we maintain inside leverage on receivers. Everything is based on the #2 receiver to the quarters side (in this case, the tight end in red).

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Another example is what we call "Cover 23" which is a short side quarters coverage scheme (diagram 8). The "2" tells the strong corner to play cover 2 technique and the "3" number tells the weak corner to play deep technique.

We use this coverage when an offense’s best personnel are set weak or into the boundary. The Will has the underneath angle of #1 (flat). The corner has the deep angle of #1. The Mike has the underneath angle of #2 (curl) and the Free safety has the deep angle of #2. The strong side defenders (field side) play C-2 to their side. Now it’s a 4 on 2 weak and 3 on 2 strong. Everything is based on the #2 receiver to the quarters side (in this case, the slot receiver in red).

The reason why we run these coverages into the boundary is because it is easy for the flat defender to cover the flat. If we were to run these coverages to the wide side, it would be next to impossible to cover the flats effectively. It’s just too long for the linebacker to go. So he becomes an ineffective pass defender or an ineffective run defender.

We have two basic wide side quarters coverages. These two coverages are called when their best personnel are to the wide side. Let’s start when they set the strong side of the formation wide. The first is Cover 3 Rock (diagram 9). The number 3 tells the strong corner to play deep technique. The tag word ‘Rock’ tells the safeties to roll strong.

We use this coverage when the spacing between the #1 and #2 receivers are wide in nature, creating a void in between them. The Strong safety will roll down to the underneath angle of #1 receiver (flat). The corner has the deep angle of #1. The Hank has the underneath angle of #2 (curl). The Free has the deep angle of #2. On the back-side, Will has the underneath angle of #1 while the Mike has the underneath angle of #2. The Corner has deep halves to the short side. Notice how we still have force leverage in the run fit with the Strong Safety.

Now when the spacing of the receivers is tight and there is no void between them we change our coverage from Cover 3 Rock to Cover 2 Rock (diagram 10).

Notice how everyone is still doing the same thing as Cover 3 Rock except for the strong safety and strong side corner. This keeps it easier for them because they don’t have to memorize a new coverage. They hear the tag word ‘Rock’ and play the same coverage regardless if its 2 or 3. The number "2" tells the corner to play cover two technique and the tag word ‘Rock’ tells the safeties to roll the coverage strong. The body position of the #1 receiver has changed our leverage in regards to the corner and the Strong Safety. They have switched responsibilities, the corner will play inside and is now in a better force leverage position than the Strong Safety is. Everything is still based on the #2 receiver to the quarters side (in this case, the tight end in red).

Now let’s examine when the offense sets the weak side of the formation wide and their best personnel are wide. Cover 3 Roll (diagram 11) is used when the spacing of the #1 and #2 receivers are wide and creates a void in between them. The number "3" tells the weak corner to play deep technique and the tag word "Roll" tells the safeties to roll the coverage weak. In this case, the Free Safety will roll.

The Free Safety will roll down to the underneath angle of #1 receiver (flat). The weak Corner has the deep angle of #1. The Will has the underneath angle of #2 (curl). The Strong Safety has the deep angle of #2. On the back-side, Hank has the underneath angle of #1. Mike has the underneath angle of #2. The strong Corner has deep halves to the short side.

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When the spacing of the receivers is tight and there is no void between them with their best personnel still wide, then we change our coverage from Cover 3 Roll to Cover 2 Roll (diagram 12).

Again, notice how everyone is still doing the same thing as C-3 Roll except the free safety and weak side corner. They have switched responsibilities and everyone else’s responsibility has stayed the same.

When facing a 3 x 1 (trips) set, our call will depend on where the trips are on the field and which personnel is involved in the trips. If the trips are to the field, then we have our basic trips open coverage (diagram 13).

The strong corner plays cover 2 technique. The Strong Safety has the outside quarter. The Free Safety has the inside quarter. The Hank has the underneath angle of #2 (hole). The Mike has the underneath angle of #3 (curl) and works with the Free Safety if #3 is over the top. The Weak Corner has #1 man to man. The Will has the back man to man. If the back is not a threat or the #1 receiver is a significant threat, then the corner will make an ‘Oklahoma’ call. Oklahoma means Over Under on his receiver (OU). We man up the single receiver with the Corner because he is in the short side and the room to work is small. If you get three verticals, the corner will midpoint #1 and #2. He has to make sure that he stays inside of number one if number two goes vertical. If #1 hitches up, be ready for that smash concept. It’s basic cover two principles. The hardest thing is teaching kids to break on routes, not jump routes.

If the offense sets the trips formation into the boundary leaving the single receiver side to the wide side, then we change our coverage to protect the wide side. When the offense sees us in a one on one match up with the single receiver, they usually will set the formation this way and put their best receiver to the single side to try to get that one on one match up in space. They will also work crossing routes from the short side to the wide side of the field. The Will looks for drags, while the Strong Safety looks for posts.

Diagram 14 shows Cover 32 vs. trips open. Notice if they have their best receiver wide, we have a 3 on 1 match up wide and a 4 on 3 match-up short.

Conclusion These are our basic calls dealing with 2 x 2 and 3 x 1 sets. There are going to be some situational change ups that we have to deal with depending on where they are going to put personnel. These are just our main calls dealing with formation, personnel, and spacing. The calls are all checks, because we will not know what to call until the formation is set and we see where their best personnel are.

Teaching the players about offensive body position in formation will help them be better students of the game. Even if you are a man cover team or straight cover 2 team, it will help your players play fast, and because of that, they will be great predictors of what’s to come.

Questions Comments? If you have a questions or comment for Coach McCleary, please post in the "Comments" section below. Coach McCleary has agreed to make himself available for your questions and comments.

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