Tommy Rees threw for over 300 yards en route to Notre Dame’s 29-16 win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. Although Rees was not particularly sharp, he took advantage of soft coverage by the maligned Rutgers’ secondary. The game was far from memorable, but it provided several examples of how to beat Cover 4 defenses.
What is Cover 4?
Cover 4 refers to a defensive scheme where the safeties and cornerbacks are each responsible for defending a deep quarter of the field while the linebackers cover the underneath zones. Because the defense is in a 4-deep shell, the corners generally align soft, i.e., line up four or more yards off the line of scrimmage. Below is a diagram of a typical 4-deep/3-under coverage.
- Cornerbacks are responsible the outside quarters of the field. A corner should initially drop while reading the inside receiver/tight end. If an inside receiver runs a vertical route, the corner has to stay on top of the outside receiver; if the inside receiver does not run vertical, the corner can be aggressive and jump shorter routes to the outside because he should have safety help.
- Safeties are responsible for the middle quarters of the field. A safety will also read the inside receiver/tight end. If an inside receiver stays in to block or runs a shallow or flat route, the safety should double the outside receiver; if the inside receiver pushes vertically, the safety essentially plays man defense.
- The Sam and the Will linebackers play the underneath zones from inside out. They will try to reroute any inside receiver pushing vertically before undercutting any curl or dig route by an outside receiver.
- The Mike linebacker covers the middle of the field. His responsibility is to wall off anything underneath, particularly crossing routes.
Although Cover 4 is often referred to as a prevent defense, it actually allows both safeties to be active in the run game while still giving the offense a two-deep look. With the proper personnel, a defense can be aggressive against the run and minimize the risk of big plays in the passing game (see Pat Narduzzi’s Michigan State defense).
Attacking Cover 4
At the 2013 Notre Dame Coaches Clinic, former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin discussed how the Irish offense attacks Cover 4 defenses. Because Brian Kelly’s passing game has long been predicated on a concept known as “vertical stems,” the outside receivers frequently run 6-yard hitches, 12-yard stops, 18-yard comebacks or go routes vs Cover 4 corners. The receivers are responsible for reading the defense and choosing which route to run based on the defenders’ movements.
Below are a few examples of Notre Dame attacking Rutgers’ Cover 4 in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The Irish line up in a one back spread formation with T.J. Jones, C.J. Prosise and Troy Niklas to the field and Davaris Daniels to the boundary. Rutgers lines up in a 4-3 with the linebackers shifted to the trips side of Notre Dame’s formation. Notice how both corners are playing soft. The field corner is giving Jones a 10-yard cushion.
All of the receivers push vertically at the snap. Prosise’s seam route holds the safety and forces the corner covering Jones to stay over-the-top. Jones presumably has the option to break off his route based on the corner’s depth. He ultimately pushes to a depth of about 10-12 yards and turns for the ball. Rees throws the ball to Jones’ outside shoulder to minimize the threat of the linebacker undercutting the throw. The result is an easy first down.
This play illustrates how the Irish use vertical stems against Cover 4 to open up the short outside zones. The inside vertical route prevents safety help on the outside and forces the corner to play more conservatively. Rees completed similar passes to Jones, Daniels and Chris Brown for easy 6-12 yard gains all game long.
In this next play, Notre Dame takes a shot downfield using a variation of the double post concept.
The Irish line up in a 2×2 spread formation. Corey Robinson and Troy Niklas line up to the boundary and Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise line up to the field. Rutgers once again is in a 4-3 with soft corners. Like a traditional double post, the goal of this play is to get the field safety to run with the inside receiver and clear an opening for the outside receiver on the deep post in the area vacated by the field safety.
The safety (circled) follows Prosise across the field leaving the middle of the field wide open. Fuller does a nice job of running the cornerback wide before cutting into the void left by the safety. The Irish have the right playcall, Rees makes the right read, but Fuller ultimately does not haul in the pass. Had Rees led Fuller more to the inside, it would have been an easy score because the boundary safety appeared preoccupied with staying on top of Niklas.
The Pinstripe Bowl was certainly not the most entertaining football game this bowl season. Notre Dame left some points on the board, but the offense showed that it could move the ball consistently against a Cover 4 defense. If you see soft corners next time you watch a Notre Dame game, there’s a good chance you’ll see a quick throw to the outside.
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