Many spread offenses are now putting their best weapons at what I call B1 (outside receiver to the boundary), B2 (slot receiver to the boundary), and F3 (2nd slot receiver to the field). In these alignments, teams are able to isolate receivers to either get 1 on 1 match-ups to expose deep (B1) or match-ups against linebackers or deeply positioned safeties (B2 and F3).
F3 is in position to cause problems over the middle. Either the defense is going to shade the free safety (F) over to account for him, move the mike linebacker out wider to cover him, or drop down the strong safety ($). Solutions that involve shading over the free safety are going to leave B1 in great position against the corner across from him.
Many teams will use the same receiver at F3 in the B2 spot when they play with two receivers to either side:
Now the free safety or will linebacker (W) are going to have to account for this cat and aren't necessarily well aligned to do so.
The worst part is that this swing player who may occupy B2 or F3 could be a mobile, flexed out tight end or it could be a lightning-quick receiver who will abuse a slower defender.
So how can teams deploy their defensive backs and linebackers in a way that will allow them to check off their task list to stop the spread-option run game and passing game without putting their players in vulnerable positions? We're going to focus today specifically on how they line up their players when the swing player is at F3.
First of all, you have to have at least one cornerback who can play the sideline without safety help over the top or there simply won't be many answers available that don't have glaring weaknesses. You also have to have players that can tackle at safety and nickel but aren't always a snap away from being exploited deep by a burner at B2, F2, or F3.
Teams have often put a strong run-stuffer at the boundary, free safety position because that player is operating in less space than the strong safety and may be playing in the box more. However, teams are starting to find ways to have versatility in what they can call coverage-wise against an offense while having answers that don't require all-world athletes at every position.
One emerging solution is to play a type of Quarters coverage called "Special" that allows a team like Kansas State to play safeties who are good tacklers but who need a cushion to handle playing over great receivers:
Here's the key, the field-side cornerback and the nickel need to be able to handle playing their receivers without deep help from the strong safety. That safety then pairs with the mike linebacker (M) to handle F3. The mike stays inside of him playing a "wall technique" that keeps him from getting inside of the strong safety. That safety then handles him on deep routes.
This provides the SS time to read the play for pass or run without getting set up to be burned over the top or down the seam by F3. Your SS can now be a player who's a good tackler but not necessarily a super-rangy coverage player.
On the weakside, you can have your corner and free safety trade-off who's responsible for playing the run on the edge and who's responsible for making sure the defense isn't beat deep. Again, your free safety doesn't have to be a player with cornerback-level speed or coverage abilities.
The trouble spot is at nickel, that player needs to be able to play like a cornerback against the #2 receiver. KSU has Randall Evans in that position, who's a solid cornerback with willingness to mix things up in the run game. Because of his versatility, KSU can deploy savvy tacklers like Dante Barnett at the safety spots.
If a team has a particularly good strong safety who can play even a little closer to the line of scrimmage they can mix things up with Cover-3:
The benefit of having a great player at strong safety here is that the mike's responsibilities against the passing game decrease to either covering the running back out of the backfield or helping on inside routes by the receivers.
The free safety again doesn't have to be a great coverage player, he simply needs to be a good tackler and smart enough to diagnose routes and plays and keep himself in position. The cornerbacks do need to be strong.
A team can disguise whether they are playing "special" or dropping the strong safety down to play cover-3 very easily before the snap
Another advantage to having this in the arsenal is the ability to mix in +1 blitzes where one of the linebackers attacks and every pass-rusher gets a 1-on-1 match-up. In that event, the non-blitzing linebacker covers the running back, the strong safety and nickel get F2 and F3, and the corners get the outside receivers while the free safety still plays over the top.
So, this is becoming a favorite way to design a defense today. In terms of roster construction, to be able to mix in these two coverages and have answers for the stress points:
-A team needs a nickelback who can play some man coverage but isn't soft against the run. He could be the 3rd best cornerback or a safety who's strong in coverage.
-The team needs a free safety who's a good tackler, understands where to be, and has enough speed to get downhill. He doesn't have to be able to flip his hips to turn and run with receivers, he just needs to be fast in a straight line because deep alignments and good reads will generally protect him from having to turn and run.
-The strong safety can be similar to the free safety but he's perhaps a better athlete and better closer to the line of scrimmage. He needn't be as good in coverage as a cornerback, or even the nickel, because he'll either have help from a linebacker or he'll have the free safety behind him to help.
Finding players who can handle those assignments is pretty doable for a lot of teams. As it stands currently amongst the Big 12's top Ds:
Kansas St is great at playing "Special" but they don't have a strong safety yet who would be very effective playing Cover-3 or matching up with F3 on blitzes. They're relying on Dylan Schellenberg there currently, who can play deep but can't turn and run with speedsters.
Oklahoma has the players to use all of this. They have Quentin Hayes, who can drop down and play strong safety or nickel and they have Julian Wilson who could do the same but may play corner. They also have Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd, two players that are great tacklers and just need more experience to be reliable as free safeties. They might even have enough athleticism to play the SS position as well. Freshman Steven Parker also has the hips to play at SS whenever he's ready to contribute.
Baylor generally relies on a different solution (shading over the free safety) that requires a super-stud at the free safety position and a strong safety who's assignments are similar to that of the nickel in "special." Whether Orion Stewart can handle that solution as their free safety will have a big impact on the Bears' attempt to repeat as B12 champions.
Oklahoma St is a big question mark as all of their major safeties from 2013 have left the program.
TCU uses "special" and a few other solutions by virtue of being loaded with versatile athletes in their secondary.
Iowa St lost some very solid safeties in Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield who allowed them to mix in both coverages. They stand to take a step back in their secondary and may have to simplify.
Kansas has found the nickel and safeties to mix in both of these types of coverage and also have some athleticism at linebacker as well. They could be one of the B12's most versatile defenses in 2014 but need impact players on the DL to maximize.
West Virginia and Texas Tech will mix in soft versions of either of these solutions. Tech hasn't had the athletes to be very aggressive with how tight they play in coverage but they mix in a lot of different looks. WV is starting to accumulate some talents that could take them up a notch.
Expect these tactics to play a big role in helping some of these teams find answers for offensive problems that are becoming harder and harder to solve.